18th January, 2021

Buddhism and the Free Market
By Jonathan Bluestein


By Western moral standards, it could be argued that Siddhārtha Gautama, the ‘original Buddha’, was a selfish person, despite his powerful insights and many positive teachings.

He was admittedly selfish when, living as a member of a royal house, as a young man, he did not care at all for the troubles of people in the world outside his palace. Later he was selfish in leaving his family and responsibilities, and focusing mostly on himself while on his path to enlightenment. He by principle begged for alms instead of pursuing honest labour, though he was young and could work; which is a selfish thing to do – complete reliance on other people’s money when you could earn your own, and in fact come from a rich family. Once having attained enlightenment and becoming a spiritual teacher, Siddhārtha was yet again selfish in preaching that people should focus on their own journey rather than other things, and presenting a self-focused method for bettering humanity, which hardly took into account past or future, and did away with most social aspects of the human race.

The way of the Buddha then, is oddly reminiscent of Adam Smith’s financial take on Capitalism – the idea that maximizing personal gain could, if accompanied by some moral virtues, lead to improvement of society as a whole. Adam Smith wrote of material wealth and the Buddha spoke of spiritual wealth, but both were stressing the need for the individual to cater for himself and his motivations more so than the problems of others. The Buddhist argument for ‘ending suffering by means of many people each attaining personal enlightenment’, is not very different in rationale to the notion of ‘creating an optimal economy and society via each man looking after his own best financial interests’.