Whatever one may think, economic systems are always seen through a moral lens: Socialism is shown as being just, while greedy capitalism invariably gets the short end of the stick. Jawaharlal Nehru famously said profit was a dirty word. But now, in his book The Leader’s Way launched last week, the Dalai Lama has called profit a “fine aim”.
Religion has had a shaky relationship with capitalism. On the one hand, Islam forbids lenders from charging interest, a position most of Catholic Christendom adopted during much of its history. On the other hand, German sociologist Max Weber noted Protestantism’s contribution to capitalism in his 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Hinduism sanctions the pursuit of artha (wealth) as it does of dharma (duty) or kama(sensuality), and even seems to favour shubh labh (auspicious gain); yet, the lack of an overarching text or authority leaves room for multiple interpretations.
Still, to most, the amoral free market—whose individual sphere action makes it prone to externalities—never sees eye to eye with lofty religions that take collective interests into account.
So, here we see the Dalai Lama transcending the spiritual to offer practical business advice. Co-authored with management consultant Laurens van den Muyzenberg, The Leader’s Way proposes a “responsible free market economy”. And though he seeks to temper wanton profiteering, the Dalai Lama says he is a supporter of globalization and free markets. In fact, he even warns “against expecting too much from governments when it comes to the redistribution or regulation of the financial markets”.
It’s not just Buddhism. Pope Benedict XVI is far from condoning Wall Street, but a paper he published this month shows sympathy towards modern capitalism. “The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a worldwide scale,” he pointed out.
The Leader’s Way may seem like new-age nonsense at first glance. But when secular pundits and prophets have spent the past year declaring capitalism to be in crisis, it is interesting to see religious leaders rise in its defence.
We’re glad to see that the Pope and the Dalai Lama have broken with moral dogma to acknowledge some fruits of free markets. Though we won’t be holding our breath for followers of that other great modern religion—Marxism—to do the same.
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