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What can Washington, D.C., learn from a Buddhist monk?
In early 2013, I traveled with two colleagues to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has lived there since being driven from his Tibetan homeland by the Chinese government in 1959. From his outpost in the Himalayan foothills, he anchored the Tibetan government until 2011 and continues to serve as a spiritual shepherd for hundreds of millions of people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Very early one morning during the visit, I was invited to meditate with the monks. About an hour had passed when hunger pangs began, but I worked hard to ignore them. It seemed to me that such earthly concerns had no place in the superconscious atmosphere of the monastery.
Incorrect. Not a minute later, a basket of freshly baked bread made its way down the silent line, followed by a jar of peanut butter with a single knife. We ate breakfast in silence, and resumed our meditation. This, I soon learned, is the Dalai Lama in a nutshell: transcendence and pragmatism together. Higher consciousness and utter practicality rolled into one.
That same duality was on display in February when the Dalai Lama joined a two-day summit at my institution, the American Enterprise Institute. At first, his visit caused confusion. Some people couldn’t imagine why he would visit us; as Vanity Fair asked in a headline, “Why Was the Dalai Lama Hanging Out with the Right-Wing American Enterprise Institute?”
There was no dissonance, though, because the Dalai Lama’s teaching defies freighted ideological labels. During our discussions, he returned over and over to two practical yet transcendent points. First, his secret to human flourishing is the development of every individual. In his own words: “Where does a happy world start? From government? No. From United Nations? No. From individual.”
But his second message made it abundantly clear that he did not advocate an every-man-for-himself economy. He insisted that while free enterprise could be a blessing, it was not guaranteed to be so. Markets are instrumental, not intrinsic, for human flourishing. As with any tool, wielding capitalism for good requires deep moral awareness. Only activities motivated by a concern for others’ well-being, he declared, could be truly “constructive.”
Tibetan Buddhists actually count wealth among the four factors in a happy life, along with worldly satisfaction, spirituality and enlightenment. Money per se is not evil. For the Dalai Lama, the key question is whether “we utilize our favorable circumstances, such as our good health or wealth, in positive ways, in helping others.” There is much for Americans to absorb here. Advocates of free enterprise must remember that the system’s moral core is neither profits nor efficiency. It is creating opportunity for individuals who need it the most.
Historically, free enterprise has done this to astonishing effect. In a remarkable paper, Maxim Pinkovskiy of M.I.T. and Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University calculate that the fraction of the world’s population living on a dollar a day — after adjusting for inflation — plummeted by 80 percent between 1970 and 2006. This is history’s greatest antipoverty achievement.
But while free enterprise keeps expanding globally, its success may be faltering in the United States. According to research from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, men in their 30s in 2004 were earning 12 percent less in real terms than their fathers’ generation at the same point in their lives. That was before the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and years of federal policies that have done a great deal for the wealthy and well-connected but little to lift up the bottom half.
The solution does not lie in the dubious “fair share” class-baiting of politicians. We need to combine an effective, reliable safety net for the poor with a hard look at modern barriers to upward mobility. That means attacking cronyism that protects the well-connected. It means lifting poor children out of ineffective schools that leave them unable to compete. It entails pruning back outmoded licensing laws that restrain low-income entrepreneurs. And it means creating real solutions — not just proposing market distortions — for people who cannot find jobs that pay enough to support their families.
In other words, Washington needs to be more like the Dalai Lama. Without abandoning principles, we need practical policies based on moral empathy. Tackling these issues may offend entrenched interests, but this is immaterial. It must be done. And temporary political discomfort pales in comparison with the suffering that vulnerable people bear every day.
At one point in our summit, I deviated from the suffering of the poor and queried the Dalai Lama about discomfort in his own life. “Your Holiness,” I asked, “what gives you suffering?” I expected something quotably profound, perhaps about the loss of his homeland. Instead, he thought for a moment, loosened his maroon robe slightly, and once again married the practical with the rhapsodic.
“Right now,” he said, “I am a little hot.”
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