Dao Du Jour II, Day 75: Daoist Economics

Chapter 75: Greed

“People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.

People rebel.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why people rebel.

People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
That’s why people hold it cheap.

But those who don’t live for the sake of living
are worth more than the wealth-seekers.

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

When Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is neither romanticizing poverty nor attacking the rich. This is not a primarily economic statement, though economic proposals can be derived from it, and sure, it’s fair to say that Jesus was neither a neoliberal nor a commie. Jesus was not an economist—or rather, he called us to rethink what exactly an economy is.

First of all, what does “poor in spirit” mean? The obvious answer is that while the poor lack material wealth, they abound in spiritual wealth. But then we have to ask what “spiritual wealth” means. Material wealth is straightforward—it means lots of money. Spiritual wealth less so—what does it mean to have lots of spirit? What is “spirit”?

Read in context—the Torah—spirit means “wind” or “breath.” It is—hold your breath—a physical concept. When God creates in the opening lines of Genesis, a wind moves over the watery chaosmand he breathes life into the dust. Spirit is not the opposite of matter, hovering in some non-physical eternal heaven (what could hovering mean without space and mass and weight?), but a word for organic matter. Applied to spiritual wealth, this would seem to mean the poor abound in breath. That still sounds wrong: poor and rich people breath the same air in the same amounts, or if anything, the rich breath more easily since they have to worry less about air pollution.

What the text is really saying is not that the poor have lots of spirit and the rich have none, but the opposite; more precisely, to be empty of spirit is to be blessed. What, then, does it mean to be empty of spirit?

To know that you are alive. To paraphrase Jesus, you have to lose your breath to gain it. Exercising, having sex, playing a game, praying, meditating, laughing, walking in nature. When do we feel most alive? When life takes our breath away, when we remember our participation in the great economy of nature.

The radical implication of this is that there is no necessary connection between material and spiritual wealth—only probabilistic. Social scientific research suggests that those lower on the socioeconomic ladder are more empathetic, since on a daily basis they are more in touch with the fragility, insecurity, and interdependence of the human condition. The rich—which, to be clear, refers not to the 1% but to you and me—are good at finding ways to insulate themselves from the horror of existence. When they turn away from the poor, they are really turning away from themselves.

In The Spirit Level, the economist Richard Wilkinson and his colleagues divine two relevant facts in their analyses of economic inequality: first, that the inequality that matters most is that within societies, not between them—what matters most is not absolute but relative poverty; and second, that the societies with the highest Gini coefficient not only suffer more social maladies such as crime, teen pregnancy, and so on, but the rich are psychologically worse off. Put another way, above a certain threshold of economic security, you’d prefer to be poorer in a more equal society than a person who was somewhat richer in a less equal society. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes the same point in moral terms in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Segregation, he argues, is not just harmful to the oppressed, but to the oppressors, because it alienates them from their humanity—from themselves.

In both cases, a socioeconomic system encourages people to identify with a part of their identity—their race or class—rather than their basic equal status as living, breathing, human beings. It’s important to remember that Jesus was not poor, but he was attracted to the poor—not because they were poor, but because their material poverty put then in closer proximity to the truth.

I mentioned above that Jesus was not an economist, but challenged us to reimagine what an economy is.

People hold life cheap because conventional economics doesn’t properly value it. The primary form of capital is not the kind conjured by extraction, but the kind given through incarnation. Our environmental crises are nudging us to awaken to the reality of our economic situation: that what we call “the economy” is something that is happening inside of and parasitic on our ecology. Human labor creates value, yes, but not out of nothing; only in the sense that flicking a light switch while the sun is shining “creates light.” Though John Locke laid the philosophical foundations of our understanding of private property—just appropriation is secured by “mixing our labor” with nature—he also held that all property is originally in common because it is God’s property. This minority report in Locke’s story is vital: it means that all property is, technically, on loan; we are not owners but stewards of nature—of nature’s economy, which is a gift economy whose currency is spirit. If you try to hold on to your breath, you die, because it is not yours to begin with; only if you let it go will you be able to receive it.

The poor in spirit are blessed in beholding nature’s abundance of spirit.

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