Capitalism and the Dalai Lama
by Arthur C. Brooks
WHAT can Washington, D.C., learn from a Buddhist monk?
In early 2013, I traveled with two colleagues to Dharamsala, India, to
meet with the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has lived there since being
driven from his Tibetan homeland by the Chinese government in 1959. From
his outpost in the Himalayan foothills, he anchored the Tibetan
government until 2011 and continues to serve as a spiritual shepherd for
hundreds of millions of people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Very early one morning during the visit, I was invited to meditate with
the monks. About an hour had passed when hunger pangs began, but I
worked hard to ignore them. It seemed to me that such earthly concerns
had no place in the superconscious atmosphere of the monastery.
Incorrect. Not a minute later, a basket of freshly baked bread made its
way down the silent line, followed by a jar of peanut butter with a
single knife. We ate breakfast in silence, and resumed our meditation.
This, I soon learned, is the Dalai Lama in a nutshell: transcendence and
pragmatism together. Higher consciousness and utter practicality rolled
That same duality was on display in February when the Dalai Lama joined
a two-day summit at my institution, the American Enterprise Institute.
At first, his visit caused confusion. Some people couldn’t imagine why
he would visit us; as Vanity Fair asked in a headline, “Why Was the
Dalai Lama Hanging Out with the Right-Wing American Enterprise Institute?”
There was no dissonance, though, because the Dalai Lama’s teaching
defies freighted ideological labels. During our discussions, he returned
over and over to two practical yet transcendent points. First, his
secret to human flourishing is the development of every individual. In
his own words: “Where does a happy world start? From government? No.
From United Nations? No. From individual.”
But his second message made it abundantly clear that he did not advocate
an every-man-for-himself economy. He insisted that while free enterprise
could be a blessing, it was not guaranteed to be so. Markets are
instrumental, not intrinsic, for human flourishing. As with any tool,
wielding capitalism for good requires deep moral awareness. Only
activities motivated by a concern for others’ well-being, he declared,
could be truly “constructive.”
Tibetan Buddhists actually count wealth among the four factors in a
happy life, along with worldly satisfaction, spirituality and
enlightenment. Money per se is not evil. For the Dalai Lama, the key
question is whether “we utilize our favorable circumstances, such as our
good health or wealth, in positive ways, in helping others.” There is
much for Americans to absorb here. Advocates of free enterprise must
remember that the system’s moral core is neither profits nor efficiency.
It is creating opportunity for individuals who need it the most.
Historically, free enterprise has done this to astonishing effect. In a
remarkable paper, Maxim Pinkovskiy of M.I.T. and Xavier Sala-i-Martin of
Columbia University calculate that the fraction of the world’s
population living on a dollar a day — after adjusting for inflation —
plummeted by 80 percent between 1970 and 2006. This is history’s
greatest antipoverty achievement.
But while free enterprise keeps expanding globally, its success may be
faltering in the United States. According to research from Pew’s
Economic Mobility Project, men in their 30s in 2004 were earning 12
percent less in real terms than their fathers’ generation at the same
point in their lives. That was before the financial crisis, the Great
Recession, and years of federal policies that have done a great deal for
the wealthy and well-connected but little to lift up the bottom half.
The solution does not lie in the dubious “fair share” class-baiting of
politicians. We need to combine an effective, reliable safety net for
the poor with a hard look at modern barriers to upward mobility. That
means attacking cronyism that protects the well-connected. It means
lifting poor children out of ineffective schools that leave them unable
to compete. It entails pruning back outmoded licensing laws that
restrain low-income entrepreneurs. And it means creating real solutions
— not just proposing market distortions — for people who cannot find
jobs that pay enough to support their families.
In other words, Washington needs to be more like the Dalai Lama. Without
abandoning principles, we need practical policies based on moral
empathy. Tackling these issues may offend entrenched interests, but this
is immaterial. It must be done. And temporary political discomfort pales
in comparison with the suffering that vulnerable people bear every day.
At one point in our summit, I deviated from the suffering of the poor
and queried the Dalai Lama about discomfort in his own life. “Your
Holiness,” I asked, “what gives you suffering?” I expected something
quotably profound, perhaps about the loss of his homeland. Instead, he
thought for a moment, loosened his maroon robe slightly, and once again
married the practical with the rhapsodic.
“Right now,” he said, “I am a little hot.”
Arthur C. Brooks, a contributing opinion writer, is the president of the
American Enterprise Institute.