Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Giving Thanks for the Free Market

When I gave a talk the other day at an interfaith service about thanksgiving, all of the other speakers, with one exception, confined themselves to reading passages about giving thanks to a monotheistic creator god and to its---or, as they put it, ``his''---creation. The exception was the Rabbi.

The Rabbi read a passage from the Talmud that describes how---my memory is a bit vague here, but if I have the details wrong I am sure that I still recall the general thrust of the story.... The Rabbi read a passage from the Talmud that describes how the author owed thanks to many different people for the meal that he ate: he owed thanks to the farmer who raised the crops, the merchant who sold the farmer the seeds, the carter who brought the crop to market, the merchant who sold the food, and on, and on.

Suddenly my ears were hearing that we should give thanks to all those upon whom we depend in a recognition of our interdependency; my ears were hearing the functional equivalent of a buddhist Dharma talk.

And then the Rabbi went on and said that today we owe thanks to many more people on whom our meals depend---the fertilizer company, the shipper who sends the food from Asia or South America, the grocery wholesalers, the advertising agencies that advertise the availability of the groceries, and so on. (I am not sure that the Rabbi gave any of those particular examples, but they give a fair idea of what he was saying.)

And then the Rabbi said that today we owe our thanks for our meals and for all who make them possible to the ``free enterprise system.''

And suddenly my ears were hearing what might well be called an ``anti-Dharma'' talk.

In the first place, the so-called free enterprise system depends on a very limited kind of interdependency---a dependency only on human beings wealthy enough to take part in the ``free market''---that does not include the birds and the bees and the fish and all the animals and plants and swamps and fields and mountains and rocks and rivers and oceans upon which we also depend, and who depend on us.

In the second place, the free enterprise system brings us many things for which we have no reason to be grateful: global warming, vanishing habitats, Walmarts, and telemarketers.

From the viewpoint of a follower of the Buddhadharma---a follower of the Buddha's teachings---the great failing of the free market system is that it depends on the greed of the individuals and corporations who are the players in the market. Just imagine the economic catastrophe that would result if everyone decided that they have enough already and simply do not want anything for Christmas that they do not already have.

The whole justification for the free market system is that it somehow makes each of us better off by giving us the opportunity to satisfy more and more of our wants.

The Buddha's teachings on the other hand are that we are made better off---and all who depend on us are made better off---if we simply do not want so much.


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