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Buddhist Economics

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 2:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Hilton Atlanta, Crystal D
Hosted By: Association for Social Economics
  • Chair: John F. Tomer, Manhattan College

Why Buddhist Economics Is Needed: Overcoming Large Scale Biophysical and Socio-Economic Dysfunctions

John F. Tomer
Manhattan College


Buddhist economics embodies a world view very different from the world views of Western economies. The functioning of all economies needs to be built on an explicit set of values related to the society’s economic goals. The world views of Western economies are largely based on the tenets of mainstream economics and are oriented to output growth and favorable toward businesses that are excessively self-interested, opportunistic, and exploitive in their relationships with consumers and others. The world view of Buddhist economics, on the other hand, emphasizes contributing to well-being through developing ideal human relationships. Societies adopting Buddhist economics can be expected to use the earth’s resources sustainably and thus experience much less socio-economic and biophysical dysfunction (for example, less climate change and obesity) than can be expected for typical capitalist economies.

Buddhist Economics: The Foundation for an Equitable, Sustainable, Caring Economy

Clair Brown
University of California-Berkeley


A basic assumption of Buddhist economics is interdependence of people with each other and with the earth. Interdependence means that nothing exists as an independent and separate entity, so each person’s well-being is dependent on all others’ well-being and the well-being of earth. Along with the assumption that people are aware of enlightened self-interest based on interdependence, Buddhist economics implies altruistic behavior, i.e., people care for the well-being of others and the planet without expectation of personal gain. These assumptions replace the basic assumptions of the mainstream competitive model that people are selfish and maximize their own well-being, and that humans use natural capital (resources) to increase national output, especially consumption. The goals of the Buddhist economy rely on structured markets to maximize the well-being of all people and protect earth’s ecosystems, in direct contrast to the free market model that maximizes average national output (income) and ignores income distribution and environmental degradation.

A Buddhist-Institutional Framework for Socially Engaged Buddhist Economics

Joel C. Magnuson
Independent Economic Researcher


Buddhism and institutional economics overlap in a few interesting and provocative ways. This paper explores some aspects of this overlap. Both traditions share a holistic vision of economic life in which the individual selves are held to be inseparable from the broader whole of society in which they collectively pursue their livelihoods. They share a pragmatic philosophy for change, particularly transforming destructive habits that have become reified in contemporary culture. Each presents a vision of karmic cause-and-effect relationships. And each has a vision for the potential human suffering caused by pathological greed. This exploration could provide a basis for further discourse on the economic aspects of the socially engaged Buddhist movement, particularly around institutional reform.

A Skeptical (and Buddhist) Take on “New Economy” Approaches

Julie A. Nelson
University of Massachusetts-Boston


Buddhist critics of the contemporary economic systems rightly point out persistent problems of poverty and growing environmental crises. Attributing these problems to various principles thought to underlie present systems (such as greed and competition), some of these critics advocate for a “new economy” that would be, it is said, governed by diametrically opposite principles (such as altruism and cooperation). This paper takes a skeptical view. First, it argues that such a stance takes mainstream economics teachings about how firms and markets work far too seriously. Economic life is already highly social and cooperative, even if these dimensions have long been hidden by teachings about the system’s “mechanisms,” and even if cooperation may have both positive and negative effects. Second, the paper argues that the “new economy” approach runs counter to basic Buddhist teachings about the sources of delusion and suffering. Turning our focus away from thoughts of essential principles and ideal societies, this paper argues, would actually strengthen our efforts towards a better world.
JEL Classifications
  • Z1 - Cultural Economics; Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology