Dao Du Jour II, Day 54: The Wisdom Economy

Chapter 53: Insight

“People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,

carrying weapons,

drinking a lot and eating a lot,

having a lot of things, lots of money:

Shameless thieves.

Surely their way

isn’t the way.

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

LeGuin’s commentary on today’s chapter is blunt: “So much for capitalism.”

Not so fast.

John Locke was one of the first to marvel at the economic miracles a system of property rights and private enterprise produces: “There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.

It is true that Locke’s case for the right to private property—that one must labor on the land, not waste its fruits, and leave enough for others—was exploited to expropriate land from the native Americans. It’s true that the “enclosure movement” in early modern England, for which Locke’s philosophy provided the charter, was the real tragedy for the environment, not what Garret Hardin called the “tragedy of the common.” It’s true, as Sebastian Junger points out in his book Tribe, that Ben Franklin and other colonists were perplexed that many British subjects who had been captured by native tribes and later freed chose to return to the natives because of their more humane way of life. And of course there is Marx’s critique of capitalism’s immiseration of the working class.

In the 1970s, as the environmental movement grew, calls for a new approach to economics grew—for limiting growth, ditching consumerism, and pursuing “steady-state” economies. British economist E.F. Schumacher published what became a bible of this movement, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, which contained the famous chapter “Buddhist Economics.” Today, the sentiment shows up in calls for “de-growth” and “dismantling capitalism.” And it might seem obvious that a Daoist economics would point in this direction.

But we needn’t go to such extremes. Neither capitalism nor socialism are monoliths. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a purely capitalist or purely communist society. A middle way is articulated in Catholic social justice teaching. In the late 19th century, the Church struck a middle way between communism and cutthroat capitalism in the encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Let us say that a man whose family is starving steals food from a grocer. Did he act immorally? St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer is not only no, but that the man did not really steal because he had a right to the food. The injustice lies not in his action, but in the social system that made it necessary. Assuming that the theft did not prevent anyone else from meeting their basic needs—that the social product exceeded collective need—then the food was being misallocated. According to the Catholic social justice tradition, this is the principle of the “universal destination of goods.” That is to say that the purpose of material goods is to satisfy basic human needs, and the political economy of a society must meet this standard if it is to be deemed just. Put another way, the right to private property is a right, but a limited right superseded by higher values.

At some point, capitalism does license theft—from the poor at home and abroad, from future generations, from the natural world. At some point, socialism does entail theft—from not just the rich, but from the poor at home and abroad, from future generations, and even from the natural world. The right balance cannot be struck by recourse to an ideology or a master plan; only by prudential judgments at every scale of action—individual, local, regional, national, and global.

The libertarian is wrong to deem taxation beyond the bare minimum required for cops, courts, and collective safety simply theft. But the socialist is wrong to regard the institution of private property as merely the legitimation of theft. A certain degree of economic inequality is as natural and desirable as a house having a floor and roof; the root of the word economy, after all, is “household.” As is the root for the word ecology. What is needed is an economics built according to human needs and in line with natural limits—whatever we call it. 

Ecological economists point out, quite rightly, the economy is a subset of ecology, not the reverse. But the further needed step is to recognize that both the physiosphere and the biosphere are a subset of what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. An end to economic growth would entail an end to the growth of the noosphere, particularly in developing countries. These countries are not just developing economically, but mentally, morally, and spiritually. Globalization, properly understand, is not merely or mainly about the free flow of capital, labor, and goods across national borders; the world is not exactly “flat,” in Tom Friedman’s turn of phrase. And the world is not just an “interconnected” biological system, a tight web in which actions in one place reverberate ever more quickly in another. Globalization is also about the emergence of planetary consciousness, a process in which we are in very early days. The world is flattening in one respect, tightening in another, but deepening in another still. A Daoist economics—a wisdom economy, if you will—would take into account all three.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”