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A Healthy Economy, Income, and Right Livelihood

Downtown Chicago. From
Downtown Chicago. From

Globalization has transformed the international economy, and since the 1980s we have seen shifting trends in the work market. As a result, our livelihoods and how we earn an income are also changing. These trends involve the production, distribution, and exchange of capital, services, and resources, the basic enterprises that have shaped economies over thousands of years.

By the 20th century, the world had more or less accepted two configurations of or at least emphases on economic development: capitalism and socialism. For example, a system of capitalist finance where production, consumption, distribution, exchange, and so on are maximized to increase profits is known as a “market economy.” “Socialist economies” theoretically favour state planning and government intervantion as a means of regulating the market. “Hybrid” or “mixed” economies attempt to marry the best of private enterprise—fair competition and entrepreneurial verve—with the benevolent hand of the state in ensuring everyone in society benefits from the system.

Most economists are likely to agree that the economy must always be seen in the context of a social contract that ameliorates the potential excesses of both the private and public sectors. For example, economic or social inequality must be due to vigorous competition and free markets rather than crony capitalism or cartelism. Where taxes are high, the government must ensure that such taxes go to free healthcare and other initiatives that benefit the people. In all systems, both government and business must have clarity about the roles they play in society.

No global, formalized financial system existed during the Buddha’s time. However, the Pali Tipitaka discusses various issues related to personal income and the policies that are more likely to cultivate virtuous players and investors in a society’s economy. Buddhism has always accepted that history teaches new lessons, and many changes contribute to the moral evolution of human beings. The Buddha advised us early on not to participate in five types of immoral trade: arms, animals, meat, alcohol, and poison or drugs. However, these five businesses are practiced in the hope of achieving maximum profits in the present commercial world, leading to happiness or peace being interrupted directly or indirectly in human life.

The fundamental basis of the Buddha’s economic thought of is that the morality and wellbeing of individuals reflect the nature of the society they live in, that individual development must take into account the need for Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is only part of a conclusion reached at the end of the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha discovered: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The path that leads to suffering is eightfold and therefore known as the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right View: a true knowledge of the nature of mind, speech and body that understands the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence (anicca), no-self (anatta), and suffering (dukkha).   

Right Intention: The cultivation of the four brahmavihara (sublime states of mind) that are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha), which neutralize unskilful states of mind like anger, jealousy and vengeful thoughts, cruelty, and callousness.

Right Speech: Preventing the spread of falsehoods, and unskilful speech, and ensuring the truth is delivered in a meaningful context and with kindness.

Right Action: The abstention from unskilful acts like violence and theft, and performing wholesome actions.

Right Livelihood: Living a good and fair life by avoiding a harmful livelihood or earnings made from the suffering of others.

Right Effort: Self-restraint, good conduct, and putting in serious effort to spiritual growth and meditation.

Right Mindfulness: The constant vigilance and conscious observation of one’s mind and its ebbing and flowing.

Right Concentration: active thought and active practice.

This Eightfold Path is not only universal in its potential relevance to diverse societies, but is at the same time intensely personal as it addresses the moral development of the individual. It is accommodating of the inevitable cultural differences between Buddhism and the majority of countries around the world, while at the same time challenging the global marketplace to reconsider its axioms and presuppositions about flourishing.

The Noble Eightfold Path is firmly against corruption and socio-economic discrimination, and is concerned about a simultaneous cultivation of spiritual as well as financial wellbeing. Other components of the Eightfold Path are tools to create balances and “middle ways” where wealth is easier to create but poverty is mitigated as much as possible, regardless of whether a country’s economy places more emphasis on free markets or government intervention.

Among these eight stokes, Right Livelihood is the pillar of the Buddha’s economic thought. Economic life can only be productive and beneficial economic life if one avoids harmful industries and careers. Income and salary considerations are important but should be secondary compared to a commitment to an ethical life on the right path. This is also important in the current socio-economic context of a globalized world, in which prosperity is increasing but inequality is growing. If we live a dishonest and unskilful way, then society’s welfare is reduced, the environment is pulverized, and society becomes more callous and uncaring. Discontent will rise and destructive forms of populism, or even fascistic tendencies, will fester.  

The idea of precepts is very important for sustaining Right Livelihood. The Buddha introduced for laypeople the Five Precepts of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and consuming intoxicants, with the number of precepts being even higher for monastics. The Five Precepts are universal, intended for all humanity. It reflects the kind of universality of thought that economics needs: to benefit all. The whole teaching of the Buddhas can be summed up briefly so:

Discard all evil, cultivate the good and the true;
Purify your mind, this is the doctrine of the Buddhas

sabba papassa akaranam, kusalassa upasampada;
sacitta pariyo dapanan,etan buddhanasasanam.

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