The great classical liberal, Ludwig von Mises, who single-handedly battled the erroneous doctrines of socialism through much of the 20th century, remarked in passing that the Buddhist ideal of renunciation of desires is “vegetative”. The science of economics, he wrote, looks instead at its polar opposite—how we undertake “actions” to satisfy our desires. Economics has nothing to say on the vegetative ideal. This is the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy, he added.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Just as modern capitalism is of Western origin, its true understanding also comes from the West. What was begun by Adam Smith in Scotland culminated in the towering achievements of the School of Vienna, led by Carl Menger, whose teachings have guided his followers, and upon which they have built a truly imposing structure. Menger’s Principles of Economics is dated 1871— he was the product of a Vienna under the Hapsburgs, with its brilliant intellectual culture. Both Mises and Friedrich Hayek began their intellectual lives in Vienna. The science of modern subjectivist economics is, we must admit, decidedly of Western origin.
It is also true that in Indian philosophy, all our concerns have been with the “vegetative ideal”: the renunciation of desires. It is this, many believe, that is the pathway to moksha (release from the cycle of rebirth)—the fourth and final “end of man”, after dharma (duty), artha (management of resources) and kama (sensuality). These three are about the real world; moksha must be about the other world.
What concerns the economist is not moksha, but artha. A popular history of economic thought is aptly titled The Worldly Philosophers. Economic science is about comprehending the real world of markets, of phenomena associated with them, including prices and production, and the meaning of the concepts we use while engaging in purposive behaviour in markets, such as capital—the word that lies at the root of “capitalism”. It is this Western science that must inform India today—because artha comes first (after dharma, of course, for the idea is to pursue moral gains). Our civilization accords the pursuit of artha its much deserved pre-eminence (it is ranked above kama) but our civilization has never produced philosophers who investigated markets and market phenomena.
And the key difference is exactly as Mises found it: We thought about the renunciation of desires, while they thought of “human action” to satisfy desires. We thought of moksha; they thought of artha. We are other-worldly; they are worldly philosophers. If our civilization wants to succeed in the real world, we have much to learn from the outstanding scholars Hapsburg Vienna produced.
Let us now turn to a “development economist” who always opposed Indian planning and forever championed free markets: Lord Peter Bauer. Margaret Thatcher once directed a group of developing world leaders at a Commonwealth conference to “go read Peter Bauer”. And they should.
Lord Bauer wrote that in most parts of the developing world, he found the phenomenon of “needlessness”: Because nature had given these people all they needed, they were not required to labour. This is, of course, true wherever nature has been bountiful—as in Goa, where the motto of the people is “susegaad”, which means “relax”. It is also true in Assam, where they say “lahay lahay” or “slowly slowly”.
Yet, according to economic science, such vegetative philosophies must be seen as ruinous. As the Viennese emphasized, all human action occurs in the category of time. We must save time just as we must save labour. It makes no sense if all our highways and railways operate on the susegaad or lahay lahay principle. A thorough comprehension of the teachings of the Viennese indicates that the highest priority in India must be accorded to transportation. A revolution in transportation will improve the productivity of all Indians. This is especially true for farmers, fishermen and milk producers, whose output must reach the market within a specific time if they are to sell at all. Many cash crops such as flowers, fruit and vegetables would flourish if India’s roads were fixed.
Lord Bauer had something important to say about “needlessness”. He said the best thing to do was to unilaterally declare free trade and allow all our energetic trading communities to tempt these needless people with their offerings. Seeing a television set, the Goan villager would abandon his feni and siesta for a few days, harvest his coconuts and sell them to buy the TV set.
The lesson: Work is disutility— we do not maximize work; rather, we maximize the rewards that can be gained by work. From M.K. Gandhi to Manmohan Singh, this vital understanding has precluded us. We are still producing work out of tax revenue. Our trade minister is invariably a staunch protectionist. Public opinion sustains these schizoid policies because the public is miseducated— by the same state. We proceed from one error to another—because we do not understand “human action”.
Yet, moksha remains a destination for man. There is an age for artha, an age for kama—and an age for other things. As we learn from them, the West can learn a lot from our “vegetative” ideal, which does not imply the end of personal growth. Quite the contrary.
Sauvik Chakraverti is an author and columnist. He blogs at www.sauvik-antidote. blogspot.com. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org