So a French hornist, an economist, a billionaire, a psychologist and the Dalai Lama walk into a conservative think tank…
Actually, this really happened Thursday in Washington, D.C., when the Dalai Lama joined a group of thinkers at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for a forum about “happiness, free enterprise and human flourishing.” Together with AEI President Arthur Brooks, hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb, economist Glenn Hubbard and NYU psychology professor Jon Haidt, the exiled Tibetan leader examined happiness and the role markets and government can play in fostering it.
In the audience sat Washington lobbyists, libertarians, conservatives, peace activists and yoga instructors--a truly unusual coalition for a morning policy discussion in the nation's capital city.
Sharing a room with the Dalai Lama and Grover Norquist at the headquarters of the organization that helped start the Iraq War may sound like a surrealist drug trip on the backpacker trail to Dharamshala. But believe it or not, common ground does exist between the red-robed Tibetan holy man and the right-wing wonks who asked him to speak.
Under Brooks’ leadership since he became AEI’s president in 2009, the think tank has invested in researching moral arguments for capitalism and worked rebrand the policy institute’s image by diving into projects that emphasize how conservative and free-market ideas can better people’s lives. Brooks, a former musician turned social scientist, has studied the science behind happiness for years. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, has also spent much of his adult life exploring happiness and ways to achieve it.
The common interest is there. The problem is how to agree on a solution. On questions of economics, for instance, the policy scholars at AEI and the Dalai Lama are worlds apart.
“I am a Marxist," the Dalai Lama said in 2010 during a trip to the United States. "[Marxism has] moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits.”
So on Thursday morning, the unlikely panel of experts went in search of balance. Specifically: How can society enjoy the benefits of a free market while still protecting the vulnerable? At a time when the Republican Party is engaging in a period of self-reflection about how to be more inclusive and promote policies that help the poor, the discussion was tremendously relevant.
And it actually got off to a pretty good start.
“A happy world, from where does it start? From government? No,” the Lama said in his opening remarks, a comment that had many in the audience nodding their heads in agreement.
“From the United Nations? No. From in here,” he said, pointing to his chest. “Change of construction work must start from the individual.”
“Buddha,” he added, “says be your own master. …Change of construction work must start from the individual.”
Ayn Rand probably couldn’t have said it better herself.
Over three hours, they explored topics such as the value of work in reaching personal fulfillment, the reasons why some countries are rich and others are poor and the value of a strong judicial system.
With each subject, the panelists consistently returned to a common theme: That they believed capitalism could be a force for good, but that it required a morality—whether spiritual or secular—to truly flourish and benefit the largest number of people.
“There’s no other system that can create this sort of prosperity that we have, this kind innovation,” Loeb, who used part of his time to describe how his personal yoga practice had taught him about investing, said. “But there are folks left behind.”
By the end, it appeared that the Dalai Lama had taken something away from the discussion—and so had the conservatives.
“Today, I developed more respect for capitalism,” the Dalai Lama said. “It was my impression that in capitalism, you only take the money, then exploitation.”
Perhaps he was just being polite—something he’s known for as a world-renowned spiritual leader—but the panelists and the conservatives in the audience could hardly believe it.
“This is such a wonderful day when a religious leader particularly loved on the left comes to a free market think tank,” said Haidt. “It makes me think we can break out of the rut we’ve been in for so many years in our arguments about business and government.”