Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Danger of Unenlightened Institutions

I recall reading an essay by David Loy a few years ago that furthered my distrust of the large corporations that many share a distrust of. Titled A Buddhist Critique of Transnational Corporations, Loy presents a vision of such corporations that may be quite unique to those who aren't used to viewing things from an Eastern or spiritual perspective. I reread this essay not too long ago, resulting in a realization that his critique could actually transcend the transnational corporations (I'll call them TNCs from this point forward) he focuses on and apply to all centralized institutions, especially the State.

When it comes to acknowledging the inherent problems associated with corporations, leftists are on the ball and provide some valid and important criticism, although for some reason they're unable to acknowledge similar problems associated with the State. As Rad Geek pointed out in a post he wrote awhile back, pro-State leftists simply don't see the reality of how government works, partly due to a democratic mysticism that holds agents of the State as being more enlightened than others. Government bureaucrats are just as fallible and corruptible as people in the business world.

Returning to Loy's essay, it is clear that his view of the State isn't entirely clouded by such mysticism since he ackowledges how modern corporations and the State grew up together, like "Siamese twins". He further emphasizes their relationahip with the following:
This incest needs to be emphasized because we tend to forget it. We distinguish between government and the economy, but at their upper levels there is usually little effective distinction between them. Today governments still get their royal share of the booty -- now it's called taxes. On the one side, states today need to promote corporate business because they have become pimps dependent upon that source of revenue; on the other side, transnational corporations thrive on the special laws and arrangements with which states promote their activities.
While Loy goes on to make a very valuable critique of TNCs, I am disappointed that he either failed or chose not to put two and two together and apply his critique to the State as well.

He begins the critique by distinguishing corporations (the word coming from the Latin word corpus or corporis, meaning "body") from living things with material bodies. Despite being different from human beings in this regard, Loy points out the similarities between people and corporations, such as that both happen to be dissipative systems. He then brings Buddhist thought into his analysis by showing how the Buddhist concept of anatman, or "non-self", makes the parallel between corporations and people deeper than it may appear on the surface. With such parallels being acknowledged, it must also be acknowledged that both corporations and people are subject to the same sorts of problems. When it comes to dealing with such problems, Loy reveals the fundamental difference between corporations and people:
The difference is that corporations are legal fictions. Their "body" is a judicial concept -- and that is why they are so dangerous, because without a body they are essentially ungrounded to the earth and it's creatures, to the pleasures and responsibilities that derive from being manifestations of the earth. You may prefer to say that corporations are unable to be spiritual, for they lack a soul; but I think it amounts to the same thing. As the example of Bhopal shows, a corporations is unable to feel sorry for what it has done (it may occasionally apologize, but that is public relations, not sorrow). A corporation cannot laugh or cry; it can't enjoy the world or suffer with it. Most of all, a corporation cannot love. Love is realizing our interconnectedness with others and living our concern for their well-being. Such love is not an emotion but an engagement with others that includes responsibility for them, a responsibility that if genuine transcends our own selfish interests. If that sense of responsibility is not there, the love is not genuine. Corporations cannot experience such love or live according to it, not only because they are immaterial but because of their primary responsibility to the shareholders who own them. A CEO who tries to subordinate his company's profitability to his love of the world will lose his position, for he is not fulfilling that financial responsibility to it's shareholders
My purpose in bringing all of this up is to show that the State is subject to the same analysis. The body of the State is just as fictitious as those of TNCs. The State is unable to laugh, or cry, or love. Heck, the State is even less inclined to apologize for it's actions than TNCs are. The State feels no responsibility to it's subjects (what, did you think that we're not "subjects"?), only to it's own preservation and the preservation of the various special interests that grease it's wheels. As Rad Geek stated, the belief that government is different than corporations due to the whole representative democracy thing is a myth, especially when you consider that bureaucrats are appointed, not elected.

Loy then discredits the notion that there can be such a thing as an "enlightened" corporation, for it it just not possible for a non flesh and blood entity to achieve such a state. Once again, the same conclusion must also apply to the State. No amount of electing "the right people" will change the inherently flawed nature of the State and give it the sense of responsibility that only living beings can have. Loy sums up the dangerous implications of relying on such entities quite well when he states that:
...the destiny of the earth is in the hands of impersonal institutions which, because of the way they are structured, are motivated not by concern for the well-being of the earth's inhabitants but by desire for their own growth and profit.
It doesn't matter whether we're talking about ExxonMobil or Leviathan, it's all the same.

Loy then concludes that:
We cannot solve the problems they create by addressing the conduct of this or that particular corporation; it's the institution that's the problem. I do not see how, given their present structure, we can repair them to make them more compassionate.
I'm afraid that the same prognosis also applies to the State. No amount of reforms, whether it's switching from communism to state capitalism or from state capitalism to social democracy or whatever, will eliminate the fundamental dangers inherent in such concentrations of power that all states wield. Even a supposedly benevolent design for such a centralized beast will ultimately be perverted by the imperfect nature of human beings.

This is an instance where an enlightened spiritual perspective has helped to shed light on the danger of such institutions. The critique of TNCs is undoubtedly easy for leftists to identity with, while applying the same critique to the State makes it relevant to libertarians. Of course, now the two sides need to focus upon the fact that there is more than one type of institution that poses a threat to our freedom and our well-being.

For a thoroughly worthwhile read that focuses more on the State's relevance to such a spiritual critique, I recommend checking out an essay published on Lew today by Jeff Knaebel. It's called Remembering Gandhi, and he makes reference to the same critique made by David Loy:
We have abdicated our moral sovereignty and outsourced our personal responsibility to corporations and to the State. These are both non-human entities without heart, soul or conscience. They are machines, abstract legal constructs. They cannot feel pain, cannot love, experience empathy, touch the moist grass of this earth with their bare feet, hear a birdsong, or scratch a puppy’s ear. Yet, by operation of sovereign immunity and the corporate veil, their anonymous members can make secret decisions that destroy thousands, millions of lives, and they remain personally unaccountable.

The State has no ears for Nature, it hears not the cries of earth and her creatures; it cannot respond to Nature. It would be wise for us not to forget, in our pride, that man IS nature. The State responds only to the self-interest of its power, and to money. We expect individuals to lead a life of reasonable morality. The State has no morality.

Nonviolence and Freedom

Some important insights from Chris Matthew Sciabarra on nonviolence.
Suffice it to say, there is an internal relationship between hatred, fear, anger, and suffering, and, often, the transcendence of one brings forth the transcendence of all.
I think what the Kings focused on was not "loving one's enemy" per se, but the practice of a positive alternative in one's opposition to evil. Nonviolent resistance is not equivalent to pacifism. It is not the renunciation of the retaliatory use of force; it entails, instead, the practice of a wide variety of strategies—from boycotts to strikes, which remove all sanctions of one's own victimization. One refuses to be a part of a cycle that replaces one "boss" with another. One repudiates real-world monsters, while not becoming one in the process. For as Nietzsche once said: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Nonviolence is not a social panacea, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary to use violence in one's response to aggression. But much can be learned about how to topple tyranny from the lessons provided by the theoreticians and practitioners of nonviolent resistance.

To me, anarchism is based on a moral commitment to nonviolence (which is not the same as absolute pacifism). As Whitehead remarks in Adventures of Ideas:
The creation of the world -- said Plato -- is the victory of persuasion over force... Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals...

Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of these two forms: force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Cost of War

(Hat tip to Catallarchy)

A new study by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz pegs an estimate of the total cost of the Iraq war at $2 Trillion. How much is $2 trillion?

"I heard the Bellagio here in Las Vegas was in the 2-3 billion dollar range to build. $2 trillion is enough money to build 600-1000 Bellagios. On a gambling related note, if you bet $1 million on blackjack hands, and it only took 1 minute per hand, and you did it 40 hours per week, and lost EVERY one of the hands, it would take about 16 years to burn through the $2 trillion."

"Imagine if the new Washington MLB team had to play in a unique, brand new stadium for every home game for the next 35 seasons. For 2T, we could cover that."

"You could pay Dr. Evil's ransom 2,000 times."

"Bank of America claims to have 16,000 ATMs. If you visited each BOA ATM and took out $20 each time, you'd have to visit each BOA ATM 6,250,000 times."

"You'll be set with a 40 ouncer of malt liquor and a meal at Taco Bell every day of your life for next 913 million, 726 thousand, 27 years."

"If you made the average US wage in 2004 it would take you a little more than 56,103,263 years to make 2T.
Had you been collecting that amount since the split of the common ancestor between apes and humans, you would be about a tenth of the way there."

"Roughly a year's spending for the federal government. All of it. For one year."

Courtesy Reason Hit and Run.

But the winner comes from Catallarchy: "If I had 2 trillion dollars, I’d do 4 million chicks at the same time. And I think if I had 2 trillion dollars I could hook that up, cause chicks dig a dude with money."

Monday, January 02, 2006

Fool Me a Hundred Times, Shame on Who?

Christian Sandström writes of the important link between poverty and socialism in Africa.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Karma is infinitely complex but the basic doctrine is simple: you get what you give. Blessings find the compassionate while the selfish are haunted by misery.

The elemental fairness of karma is illustrated by its appeals to people well outside the realm of Buddhism. There is something about it that just feels right. It is not surprising that karma echoes in the legal system of every nation and the moral code of every religion.

Capitalism is the perfect incarnation of karma in economic form. It has just one simple rule: you must give in order to receive. But the kind of giving matters too. Give services in higher demand or scarcer supply and you will receive greater riches. In this way society provides an incentive for people to produce things that are greatly desired or in short supply.

If you want a new iPod you must give up something, usually a few hours of labor, in exchange for it. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Capitalism is ridiculed because it is not a kind master. Socialist professors and their disciples decry the unfairness of a system that makes them work for their livelihoods. Their dream of something-for-nothing has no place in a capitalist society.

They desire a release from the demands of karma. They want the result without the sacrifice, the blessings without the work.

The Socialist dream will always remain mist and illusion. Reality does not comply with their demand of something-for-nothing. Everything must be paid for by someone. When they demand something-for-nothing, socialists are really demanding the ability to force someone else to pay for what they consume.

Their mentality is akin to the pickpocket and the slave master. They should beware: whenever people have taken what they desire by force from their fellowmen the gods of karma have not been kind.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Freedom: Political and Psychological

James Leroy Wilson over at Independent Country has an interesting post on the connection between psychological and political freedom. A sample:

But if a soul can be crushed by the State, it could just as easily be crushed by something else; if the State doesn't impose the obstacle, something else will. Getting rid of the State will not get rid of peer pressure, religious guilt, manipulative spouses, dishonest bosses, or other problems in life. Some people overcome these obstacles to live a full, contented life. Others do not. And those who do not, will never really be "free" no matter how much taxes are cut or how many laws are repealed.Freedom is about overcoming. Not overcoming the external forces, but overcoming the negative thoughts in our own minds.

The goal of Buddhist practice, as I see it, is to achieve a kind of freedom, fulfilment, and peace that is not dependent on external or internal forces. Thus enlightenment is the freedom that comes from the cultivation and expression of wisdom and compassion. Removing the State or any external obstacle will not be sufficient. Even a just society will still be in samsara so long as we are in bondage to greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Two newlyweds get arrested for having meth. While awaiting trial they receive treatment and counseling, enabling them to kick the habit. They are very greatful. They are still sentenced to life in prison.

Cases like this are a powerful argument for the "treatment instead of prison" crowd. In this case it would have saved two people their lives and taxpayers about a million dollars in incarceration costs.

The War on Drugs makes me sick.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ahimsa and Non-Aggression (Part 2)

In my last post I gave a little background on the Buddhist (and Hindu and Jain) virtue of ahimsa, or non-injury. The vast majority of “socially engaged” Buddhists are committed to the politics of non-violence and I suspect the majority are pacifists of one sort or another. (Though it should be noted that Buddhism on the whole is not a strict pacifist tradition.) And yet, many engaged Buddhists, especially in the West, assume that the statist Left (statist greens, social democrats, welfare-state liberals, state socialists) is both compatible with the commitment to ahimsa and expresses the greatest political compassion (karuna). (If you think “political compassion” is an oxymoron, you’re certainly on your way to becoming a libertarian!)

There is nothing about Buddhism in particular that makes people more likely to be statists—indeed, I suspect the reverse is closer to the truth. Rather engaged Buddhism reflects the overall statism of our society, and given that most Western converts to Buddhism come from the educated middle-class counterculture (from the Beats to the present) it isn’t surprising that socially engaged Buddhist politics and ethics looks a lot like post-60’s leftism in general. So it’s not that most lefty Buddhists are Stalinists or New Class Democratic Party apparatchiks. Rather, I suspect that they lack a coherent theory and critique of the state. (Indeed, as I’ve written about at length elsewhere, engaged Buddhism is badly in need of sophisticated social theory in general.) Engaged Buddhists are often astute at seeing other forms of oppression and environmental destruction, but often, it seems to me, miss the pervasive oppression of statism. As Mises reminds us in Human Action:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

If one is to be committed to ahimsa, one must learn to see the pervasive (if democratically directed) violence, coercion, and fraud that is the exercise of state power. The problem, then, is not that Buddhists are committed to aggression, but rather that much engaged Buddhist thinking fails to see one of the most important and pervasive forms of aggression: state power.

The subtitle of this blog is “where two philosophies of peace meet.” Yet I suspect that most engaged Buddhists would not think of libertarianism (of whatever flavor) as being a philosophy of peace. Hence I think it’s important to highlight the non-aggression principle in this context. According to the non-aggression principle it is morally wrong to initiate force or fraud against another person or persons. Thus libertarians are committed to abstaining from causing invasive harm to others. This makes them natural allies of Buddhists in many respects. But it would be wrong for libertarians to assume that the non-aggression principle by itself automatically yields standard libertarianism. The non-aggression principle goes a long way toward protecting people from the non-consensual imposition of bodily harm, but without a conception of rights both over oneself and over at least some kinds of worldly items (artifacts and natural resources) the principle will be very indeterminate. Buddhism can’t—and, I think, shouldn’t—try to settle these matters. But I think what can be said is that libertarianism in the broad sense (including libertarian socialists, mutualists, geoists, mainstreamers, and anarcho-capitalists) is consistent with both the letter (such as it is) and the spirit of Buddhism. Thus, perhaps the best we Buddhist libertarians can do is point out again and again that statist solutions are for the most part solutions based on aggression and injury, not ahimsa and karuna. (By the way mary Ruwart’s Healing Our World is good on this score and probably would be well received by many engaged Buddhists.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ahimsa and Non-Agression (Part 1)

Thanks to Jacob for setting up a group blog based on two movements that have profoundly shaped my life and thinking. I’m much newer to libertarian thought than to Buddhism and I really haven’t had the opportunity to think through the connections and points of tension. So, I’m looking forward to thinking through these things in a group setting.

(NB: I’m using the “Buddhism” in a broad sense to refer to what I take to be widely shared Buddhist values, insights, and concerns. Buddhism is, of course, internally extremely diverse, so take generalizations with a few grains of salt.)

When thinking about the connections between Buddhism and libertarianism, the first thing that comes up for me is the shared commitment to refraining from harm to others. In the Buddhist tradition, this commitment is expressed through the practice and cultivation of the virtue of ahimsa—literally “non-injury” or “non-harm.” Ahimsa really has its roots in Jainism, but was taken up in different ways by both the Buddhist and the Hindu traditions. In Jainism the full practice of ahimsa is taken to entail absolute pacifism and a strong commitment not to harm any living thing (including insects, etc.). However, the strength and scope of ahimsa are not as great in Buddhism or Hinduism (and that is not a criticism—I think the Jain position is philosophically untenable).

In Buddhism, the practice of ahimsa entails an attempt to avoid or minimize harming others (often including non-human sentient beings) or oneself through body, speech, or mind. Thus ahimsa is definitely both a self-regarding and an other-regarding virtue. In the Yoga tradition, ahimsa is considered to first virtue, that without which no spiritual progress can be made. Of course, in all the Indian traditions (and Buddhism outside India) virtue is taken to be a matter of degree, rather than an all-or-nothing quality.

So, in Buddhism one of the absolutely central ethical teachings is to refrain, insofar as possible, from harming others. And clearly this includes using coercion or the threat of coercion against non-harmful others. And further, since in Buddhism ends and means must be consistent, it is not morally acceptable (generally speaking) to harm others in the promotion of otherwise good ends. Indeed, in some ways we can see Buddhism as being centrally about the cultivation of wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna). Yet, the point is not simply to promote those values—that is, to make sure, by any means necessary, that the world contains to greatest amount of both wisdom and compassion—but rather to exemplify and cultivate wisdom and compassion in one’s own life. Thus even if using harm against peaceful others would have good consequences, it would still be immoral from a Buddhist perspective because the harmful action would exemplify himsa (injury) rather than a-himsa (non-injury).

Furthermore, when it comes to Tantric traditions (such as Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Shingon) there is a strong emphasis on a plurality of paths to enlightenment. One is to work with one's own particular dispositions, history, temperament, etc. (basically, one's karma) in order develop a particular practice. And since ultimately one's liberation is one's own responsibility--another person can't enlighten you any more than he or she can be creative for you--ahimsa is taken to entail a broader tolerance toward a diversity of spiritual paths.

What I think most “socially engaged” Buddhists fail to see is that government action always entails the use or threat of force against one’s fellow human beings and is therefore himsa, not ahimsa. The state, then, is that institution that claims a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of himsa within a given territory. As practitioners of ahimsa, then, Buddhists should be extremely skeptical of the state.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Thou Shalt Not

The Christian faith is full of wisdom for one who has the patience to listen to its teachings. Said the Christ:
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

The clear, peaceful teachings of the Christ make the warmongering cries of those that raise his banner even harder to stomach. Mr. Pat Robertson, how can you say you are the spokesman of Christ? How does your speech follow his teachings? How can you stand in front of admiring crowds and read to them the words of Jesus above, when you advocate the execution of Hugo Chavez, saying:
"If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it...It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop."