3. Economy as a Support

1 September 2558

3. Economy as a Support

In this era economic development and success has chiefly been measured by economic growth, i.e. the focus has been on material abundance and prosperity or on objects of consumption.

Finally, in around 1987, there was a clear and widespread acknowledgement of various problems, to the extent that the United Nations made a formal declaration stating that the prevalent status quo economic development was unsustainable.

People began to recognize that a principal cause for this unsustainable development was a failure and imbalance in the economic system itself, which refused to take into account the detrimental effects on the natural environment and was not integrated with the development of human beings.

Despite this recognition of the defects in the system, genuine reform and redress of these faults has yet to occur. Imbalanced and isolated economic development emphasizing abundance and affluence has continued unabated. The concepts ‘sustainable development,’ ‘balanced development,’ or ‘integrated development’ are simply tossed about in polite conversation without actually being implemented.

The reason this problem hasn’t yet been rectified is because the principles or criteria for solving it are not adequately clear and because people lack confidence and conviction in proposed solutions. These reasons, however, fail to get to the heart of the matter.

The real reason why the problem persists is because the solutions run counter to people’s ingrained disposition or they conflict with people’s desires.

The preceding form of economic development has habituated people to consider material wealth or so-called ‘economic progress’ as the goal of life and the mission of society. Many people therefore pin their hopes for happiness on acquiring the maximum amount of gratifying consumable objects.

In sum, a primary belief or paradigm of thinking of people in today’s age is that material abundance is the end-all of economic activity.

It must be acknowledged that economic production and consumable objects are important for the survival of human life. But this is not their sole purpose; they have a significance over and above mere survival.

If the economy is in trouble and people are deprived of the four requisites, this will interfere or prevent people’s intellectual and wisdom development, which is essential to culture and civilization and constitutes the greatest blessing of a human life.

Economic productivity or abundance of material objects is not the goal of human life. Instead, economic activity and material objects act as a support for people, enabling them to live and survive, and assisting them to create and to realize the highest goodness and excellence obtainable through the human potential.

This principle is epitomized in the story of the Buddha providing food to the hungry cowherd so that he would have the strength and ease of mind to listen to the Dhamma and to grow in spiritual virtue.

If people see economic activity as the goal of life they entrust their hope and happiness to material things and get caught up in the search for such things. Their lives and society are stuck in sensual indulgence, and mutual harassment and oppression in the world increases. Money overflows yet iniquity flourishes.

It is a shame when people get bogged down on this level and fail to develop their human potential, forsaking the opportunity to advance in spiritual excellence. Instead, they waste their potential in vain and engage in an inferior form of development.

This is similar to the words of King Mandhātu, who said that for a greedy person, despite living into an extended old age, no amount of material things will satiate his desires; there will never be enough.

(On a related subject, Thomas Robert Malthus claimed that with an increase in the population of a populace, the number of consumable objects do not increase sufficiently to satisfy people’s needs and desires.)

If the discipline of economics is to be relevant in promoting human civilization, it must recognize the supportive role economic activity and material prosperity can play for enabling the development of human intellectual and spiritual potential. This will lead to true growth and prosperity, befitting the blessing of a human life, and it will bring about a thriving and noble culture and civilization.

Economists may try and muffle such assertions according to the doctrine of the age of specialization, claiming that these responsibilities exceed the remit or fall outside the scope of economics. The sole responsibility of economics is to concern itself with providing adequate material goods to satisfy human needs and desires through industrial or commercial means.

But this objection and dissociation is untenable, because every aspect of economic activity is related to people’s world views and outlooks on life. Moreover, such dissociation and specialization is already outdated, as can be seen by the recent inclusion of environmental matters into the field of economics.

Having acknowledged the importance of the ecosystem and external environmental factors, it is inevitable that economics will take a greater interest in human life and become more integrated with the social sciences and the humanities.

Just as consumption as the perceived end-goal of economic activities has become the origin of problems in relation to the natural environment, consumption as the end point of fulfilling people’s true needs and generating contentment is the origin of genuine human creativity and prosperity.

About sixty years ago a Thai economist wrote in one of his books that, from the perspective of economics, a Buddha image and a barrel of manure have the same value or are of the same worth.

I am not quoting this passage in order to criticize this economist. It is merely an example of the viewpoint and perspective from the time when academic specialization was in the ascendency. From this viewpoint, economics is a value-free science.

Here, we do not need to delve into the question whether such a viewpoint in fact contains inherent personal values. In the modern time period, such academic specialization and the outlook on the environment as comprised merely of the material world is obsolete or outdated. Modern academia now takes into account the interrelationship and integration of academic disciplines.

For the discipline of economics to be effective in line with its own objectives and in harmony with the modern era, it is no longer helpful or necessary for it to declare itself as value-free. Its primary responsibility is to help analyze how those principles that are value-free may be integrated with those principles pertaining to value.

This is not to imply that economists must study every other discipline until the boundaries get blurred. Economics should remain a distinct branch of knowledge with its own form of specialized studies.

What it means is that economics must correctly discern its connection and relationship to other fields of knowledge, with the aim of collectively promoting goodness and wellbeing for people, enabling them to live in a peaceful society and a pleasant and habitable world.

If, due to a thriving economy, people have abundant material possessions, but they are infatuated by these things, allow their human potential to go to waste, and become more depraved, their prosperity is lacking in merit. People then obtain material things in order to squander their humanity. If such a situation occurs economics will not escape from being called once again a ‘dismal science,’ in an even more profound sense than was originally intended.

If, however, economics encourages a management of the economy in a way supportive to true human development:

  1. It will not get bogged down trying to bring about economic prosperity in order to fulfil the gratification of only a few individuals or groups of individuals.
  2. It will aim to establish an economics of sufficiency, enabling people to create a virtuous and peaceful personal life, society, and world.

Such a supportive economics is not a form of liberalism immersed in consumerism and sensual indulgence, nor is it a form of socialism whereby people are forced to conform to a state of rigid egalitarianism. Instead, it is a state of sufficiency that meets the needs of a majority of people, who develop themselves within a prosperous and flourishing civilization.

If the discipline of economics is able to view the economy in this way of interrelationship and support, it will play a key role in nurturing human civilization. It will fulfil its true and proper function and it will deserve the title of the Thai term settha-sat (เศรษฐศาสตร์; from the Sanskrit words ṡreshṭha and ṡāstra), literally: ‘excellent science.’

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