— (e) Contentment and Consumerism

1 May 2535

(e) Contentment and Consumerism

At this point I would like to introduce a few comments on the subject of contentment. Although it doesn’t fit in exactly with the argument being put forward here, it is related to it, and as contentment is a virtue that has often been misunderstood, it seems to merit some discussion.

The question of contentment involves the quality of life and the two kinds of human want that have been discussed above. It is quite apparent that people who are content have fewer wants than those who are discontent. However a correct definition of the term must make the qualification that contentment implies only the absence of artificial want, i.e. the desire for pleasure. The desire for true well-being remains.

Our misunderstanding of the meaning of contentment is due to the failure to distinguish between the two different kinds of desire. We lump the two kinds of desire together, and in proposing contentment, dismiss them both. A contented person comes to be seen as one who wants nothing at all. Here lies our mistake.

Thais believe themselves to possess the virtue of contentment, but research has shown them to be avid consumers. These two things are incompatible. Can you see the contradiction? Either Thais are not content or else they are not the big consumers they are said to be.

A criticism that has been made in the past, it might be called an accusation, is that the contentment of the Thai people makes them lazy and apathetic and so prevents the country from progressing. But one commentator holds that it is rather the Thais’ penchant for consumption and dislike for production that hinders development. So one view is that it is contentment that retards development and another that it is the liking for consumption. Whichever is true, what is certain is that arousing people’s desires for consumer goods does not invariably lead to an increase in production. The belief, once widely held, that economic development depends on encouraging spending and consumption, has not been borne out by the results. In Thailand it appears that problems have been aggravated—Thais now like to consume a lot but don’t like to produce. We think only of consuming or possessing things, but not of making them ourselves. We want to have all the things that they have in developed countries, and feel proud that we live like people in those countries do, but we’re not proud to produce those things as they do. It is this attitude that really obstructs development. It demonstrates that merely arousing desires in people without a correct understanding of human nature cannot provide satisfactory results. The desire to consume, once aroused, rather than leading to an increase in production, leads instead to profligacy, debt, and crime: a development gone seriously awry.

Is it possible that Thais are both content and avid consumers after all? That we have been moving away from a traditional contentment and exchanging it for the values of consumerism? If that is the case then it means that in introducing the Western economic system into our society, we have applied it wrongly, and are now suffering the harmful results. Actually, if we Thais were really content in the correct way defined above, then it would enable us to support a steady and continual growth in production. The path from contentment to production would be similar to that taken by Western countries, where the Industrial Revolution was based on the Protestant work ethic.

The Protestant work ethic teaches virtues of contentment, economy and frugality, and encourages the investment of savings in order to increase production. It teaches people to love work and to work for work’s sake. Westerners at the time of the Industrial Revolution lived with contentment but desired to produce. Instead of using their energies for consumption, they used them for production so as to promote industrial advance. We Thais also have a good foundation: we are content, we dislike extravagance, we’re not obsessed with consumption, we know how to be economical and use things sparingly. What we need to do is to create and stimulate a love of work and a desire for accomplishment. Such a desire will lead to production and will bear fruit in industrial development. So, in summary, contentment understood correctly means cutting off the first kind of desire, the artificial desire for sense-pleasure but actively encouraging and supporting the desire for quality of life.

In Buddhism, contentment is always paired with effort. The purpose of contentment is seen to be to save the time and energy lost in ministering to selfish desires, and using it to create and nurture true well-being.

There are many things that need to be said concerning production: it is a big subject. Consideration of the subject of production doesn’t merely call for an understanding of human existence but demands a wide-ranging examination of the whole of nature. In economics, the work ‘production’ is deceptive. We tend to think that through production we create new things, when in fact we merely effect changes of state. We transform one substance or form of energy into another. These transformations entail the creation of a new state by the destruction of an old one. Thus production is almost always accompanied by destruction.

If economics was a true science it would not treat production in isolation. Production involves destruction and in some cases the destruction is acceptable, in others it is not. Consequently the point to consider regarding economic production is as to whether, in cases where the value of the thing produced is offset by the values of that which is destroyed, production is justified. In some cases we may have to refrain from production in order to sustain the quality of life.

So in modern economics, consideration in terms of production or non-production alone is incorrect. Non-production can be a useful economic activity. We must examine the subject of production by dividing it into two kinds:

(a) production offset by destruction, e.g. production entailing destruction of natural resources and environmental degradation,

(b) production for destruction, e.g. arms manufacture.

In (a) non-production is sometimes called for, and in (b) is always the better choice.

There is production with positive results and production with negative results; production that enriches the quality of life and that which destroys it.

In the economics of the industrial era, the term production has been given a very narrow meaning. It is taken to relate only to those things that can be bought and sold—it is an economics of the market place. Thus if I make a table and chair at my monastery and then use it myself, economically speaking, I have not produced anything. A professional comedian goes on the stage and tells jokes. He relaxes the audience and gives them a good time. This is taken to be economically productive because money changes hands. However, someone working in an office, who is of a very cheerful disposition, always saying and doing things to cheer and refresh those around them, so that their work-mates are free of tension (and feel no need to go and see a professional comedian), is not considered to have produced anything. We never consider the economic price of action and speech that continually creates tension in the work place, so that those affected have to find some way to alleviate it with amusements such as going to see a comedian. To give another example: a bull fight, where people pay money to see bulls killed, is called an economic production. A child helping an elderly person across the road is not.

Please give some thought to the cases mentioned above. They are examples that show the narrowness of economic thought and its definition of production. Buddhist economics expands its thinking more widely. In regards to this matter, if one looks for the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, one must complain that it doesn’t function everywhere. The questions of wealth and economic growth must be reconsidered. What is the true purpose of economic growth anyway? Surely it must be to secure an increase in the quality of life.

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