A lesson for Hawaii’s modern society

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Many a social science teacher has admonished students to study the past lest we repeat it in future. Bruce Rich would agree. Over 30 years as an environmental attorney, Rich has promoted environmental and social standards for international finance lending by The World Bank. Often that took him to India where he became fascinated by Indian history, and in particular, by the third century BC Buddhist emperor, Ashoka. That historical figure is now the subject of Rich’s latest book, To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India.

Long before we in Hawaii (or the rest of the United States) wrestled with basic social, environmental, and sustainability issues, Rich says Ashoka united an area bigger than today’s India by promoting a collective ethic and government policy based on non-violence for all sentient beings. That included medical services for humans and animals, creating protected ecological sanctuaries, and regulating the harvesting of animals and crops.

“Other thinkers and figures throughout history have confronted these basic problems,” Rich says. “The great Catholic theologian Hans Kung has written in several works that the fundamental challenge of our age is that a global economy requires a global ethic. Someone very different has come to that same conclusion—George Soros, the multibillionaire hedge fund manager—and he has been writing for over a decade that a global society based on trade and economic exchange and relations can’t hold together unless we have some fundamental agreed upon values.”

“A global society based on trade and economic exchange and relations can’t hold together unless we have some fundamental agreed upon values.”

And that’s where we get into trouble. When recently have we been able to get agreement as to exactly what core services, core education, and the core role of government entail?

“In politics and in general, people will talk in those general principles,” Rich explains, “but if you look at what in other states’ politicians do, they pay lip service to those principles. You do have a tendency that’s gone on for many years of corporate welfare: government subsidies, both indirect and direct at the state level and at the federal level, for large corporate and financial interests continue and the most basic things are starved. I think that’s probably true for Hawaii, too.”

Rich says he has read and was impressed by Gov. Abercrombie’s “A New Day in Hawaii.” “It sets out a lot of these principles—an environmentally sustainable economy, building community, why it’s now time to act and not just talk about these things. It’s a good platform, but people will watch to see whether it’s put into practice—or whether the opposite happens.”

To a great extent, that will depend on amending the ethic of the process unless we’re content to continue conversations built around lip service commonality. The trick will be whether we can listen to each other without the filter of an agenda screening out what may be critical for the collective good.

Rich pointedly advocates a fresh eye at taxation and says we should not be afraid of such a debate.

“Look at other rich industrialized democracies and you see a variance of different relations between government and the private sector,” Rich says. “The public debate has been distorted a great deal with misrepresentations. It’s absolutely true we have had a regressive trend in this country to cut tax rates for very wealthiest people.”

However we argue (and he uses that word in the classic sense), Rich is also clear that “we need to tone down the shrillness of our public discourse. If you look at the discourse about economics and politics in the U.S., and sometimes the way they’re taught in business schools, it’s a very one-sided and distorted view of the history of economic and political thought.”

Most people who advocate free trade and primacy of the market don’t connect why it’s vital that commerce must be imbedded in a system of values so society ensures its means don’t over shadow the ends, he says.

To believe that unregulated markets are the basis for a flourishing economy usually finds root in an erroneous justification of only some of the work of 18th century philosopher Adam Smith. Although Smith is widely regarded as the first economist, he was a professor of moral philosophy. He wrote only two books, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Rich says the latter is somewhat ignored and that it’s the Adam Smith who emerges in that book who has the lesson for modern society.

That lesson is drawn from Smith’s three key principles: Justice meaning protecting the weak from the strong, including the economically weak from the economically overpowering; Prudence, the ability of the individual and the collective to foresee the long term consequences of actions and the collective political will to forgo short term gain for because of long term consequences; and Beneficence which included compassion, charity, and welfare.

“For Smith, justice was most important,” Rich says, “because if a society isn’t protecting the weak against the strong ... there’s an [Adam Smith] quote I cite in my book: ‘The whole immense fabric of human society disintegrates into atoms.’ You destroy society, you don’t have markets.”

The selective editing of Smith’s voice is not unlike other simplifications of sources to serve the prevailing political ethos, according to Rich.

“When community disintegrates, you go to the mall to buy stuff so you don’t feel as depressed.”

“Part of the ideology driving us has been the dominant ideology of unlimited consumerism, which becomes a substitute almost for community or better quality social relationships,” Rich says. “When community disintegrates, you go to the mall to buy stuff so you don’t feel as depressed. These are all pathologies of a society that has gotten these values.”

But Hawaii could and should be different, he says, if it can look into its long ago past and simultaneously, into its long term future. Unlike other states, Hawaii possesses deeply layered cultural capital.

“The whole concept of pono—and I know everyone talks about it but may not put it into practice—is like the South Asian concept of dharma: A view in the context of the whole society and its relation to nature, what is the right thing to do, the correct thing to do in a certain situation to uphold the harmony and cohesion of society. Look to Hawaii’s motto: ‘The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.’”

I know, you’re shaking your head ... did we really need a visitor to tell us this? Guess so.

The entire interview with Bruce Rich plus the opinions of callers is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected] Town Square airs live every Thursday evening at 5:00 p.m. on KIPO 89.3 and your calls are welcome.