Questioner (Q): The very first thing that we learn in studying economics is that more is better, and we build the entire economic theory around it. More is better, so you should get more and more contentment as you get more and more in the material dimension. What would Vedanta have to say on this? For example, when it comes to the economics discipline, where the first thing that we have to teach is that more is better, how can we make students more conscious of the heavy implications of this statement?
Acharya Prashant (AP): More is better for whom? Who is the one wanting more and more to get better? Not everything is better when more, right? For example, food, even a basic thing like food. And almost everything in the world has its particular use in a particular quantity. It all depends on the one who is consuming it, experiencing it, intaking it.
So, when you talk of economics and you say economics is the science of welfare, you have to stop right there and ask yourself, whose welfare? And what does that welfare comprise of? Do we take consumption as a necessary and sureshot indicator of welfare? Can we have some research into that, please? As human beings, what is it that constitutes our welfare?
The more you will go into this question, the more the very face of economics will change. Probably it’s all coming from a point and a time when things were in scarcity; therefore, it appeared commonsensical to say that the more stuff you have, the happier you would be. Is that the condition today? Actually, it was never the condition, but sometimes, in some ages, in some situations, it may feel that way. Today the time is ripe to see the fallacy of that feeling.
Basic arithmetic lets us know that the welfare of the human being lies no more in consumption because the human being, on an average, is wealthier today than at any other time in history. We do talk of malnourishment and deep poverty and such things, and we quote large numbers; but remember that compared to the population of the planet, that number is smaller today than it ever was. As a proportion of the world’s population, fewer people are dying of hunger today than ever were.
In fact, the number of people dying of overconsumption—things like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and all other lifestyle-related disorders—is far bigger than the number of people who are dying of hunger and malnutrition, bigger by a factor of, I suppose, five, ten, twenty. You’d probably know better; you deal with numbers.
So, where does human welfare lie today, in reducing hunger or reducing obesity? Please tell me. And it’s a very pedestrian question. The thing that we are discussing is far deeper. But still, this is a fair enough pointer. There was a time when we were dying of insecurity because we were not very well protected against stuff; today, we are dying because of excessive security, are we not? Think of the kind of buildings that we have raised to secure ourselves; think of the kind of infrastructure we have raised to secure ourselves; and think of the kind of armies, militaries we have raised to defend ourselves. And is that not what is killing us and the planet?
So, is it not time to revise the definition of welfare? Can we survive the kind of definitions we have today and the consumption we have today? All the time we are parroting, “Per capita income! Per capita income! GDP! GNP!”—is that taking us anywhere except towards destruction? “Growth rate! Growth rate!” This has seeped so deeply into the cultural vocabulary that even politicians are using this language to attack each other because they know that even the man on the street understands this. So, they say, “Oh, the GDP is now only five percent, and in the UPA times it used to be eight percent!”
Now, nobody knows five percent of what and eight percent of what, but even the man on the street is impressed by this argument: “Oh, so GDP is only five percent and then it was eight percent,” as if three or three thousand rupees have been taken away from his own pocket. “Oh, eight minus five—some three something has been lost!” What do you know? Do we understand anything?
But it has become some kind of an essential—if you do not have it, then you have lost it. Politicians say, “Oh, we are fighting this election, and development is the topmost on our manifesto.” Now, what do you mean by development? Please explain. What do you mean by development? One of the reasons why the heatwave is so severe is because of development. Will we ever count the casualties of development?
Let me tell you a simple thing: no shade is left in our big cities because all the trees have been massacred in the name of development. ‘Development’ is such a vague word, is it not? Development, *vikaas*—what exactly are you talking of? Come on, let’s specify. What do you mean by development? What do you mean by growth? And how do you account for all the people who are dying because they can’t find even a single tree to rest under? And can you imagine what has happened to the birds and the insects when there are no trees? Do we spare even a thought to them? But we don’t want to talk about it; we say, “Development, development!” and “GDP, GDP!” And everybody feels happy—“GDP!”
Q: You also talk about children and childbearing decisions. Nations also have a stand on population sizes and fertility rates in their countries. The stand that the nations take about what the ideal fertility rate should be in their country is usually based on the prevailing economic conditions. So, if they think there is excessive pressure on the resources, for instance, like in China in the 1980s, they advocate a one-child policy, and maybe even come up with a law, like China did.
Now many countries face the problem of aging, and they need more people who are in the working age group, so now they are advocating larger family sizes. They are basically providing subsidies for people to have more children. So, I just wanted to know if there was a spiritual approach towards childbearing decisions. What would it be like on a national level or on a public policy level?
AP: Can we go to the fundamentals, please? What is a country? And why does it need people? Why do you need people, and what did China do by restricting the number of people who would be born? What did China do? Today one of the biggest threats to global security is Chinese ambition and Chinese development, is it not? Let’s face it. So, what are nations trying to do when they talk of the number of people, the number of citizens that they have? They are weaponizing their populations, are they not? They are looking at their populations as their resources.
Now, whose resources? When you say a country needs to have more people—now, people I understand, people are the units of consciousness, a person has consciousness. But what is this thing called the country? When you say China needs to have more people, who is China? Who exactly is China? Or who exactly is Japan or Germany? What will they do with people?
I’ll tell you what they will do with people: they will weaponize those people so that they can assert their hegemony over others. And who is this person who will assert his hegemony? It is the collective devil within us that gets manifested in the shape of a party president, if it’s an autocratic system, or in the shape of a prime minister or president, if it’s a democratic system. Otherwise, what do you mean by having more people or less people? That’s how you count your grenades, that’s how you count your guns, don’t you?
So, we do not exist to be weaponized by somebody. My existence is not for a number that somebody can quote to hegemonize somebody else. Some president says, “Oh, we are getting fewer in number, and we are getting very aged, so let’s have more kids.” Do you want kids to be born this way—because a party president ordered them to be born, because the party president was afraid that if you do not have enough kids, then other countries will invade and control?
You are fundamentally your consciousness. You are fundamentally not your country. A country is something you create. A consciousness is what you are.
I am not sure if I am able to communicate what I want to say, but this entire approach is born out of a deep ignorance towards the self. We do not know who we are; therefore, we think of ourselves as units produced in a certain factory. You have that factory that’s producing so many units, and there is so much in its inventory, and it has captured so much market share. Countries are competing as if they are corporations. And who is going to win? Nobody. It’s just that life is going to be defeated, and we do not realize that. The ego is so insecure that it seeks to validate itself and assert itself in every form possible. The kind of empty patriotism that we see is just one instance of the assertion of the hollowness of the ego.
Now, think of this situation, you will be able to relate to this better. A girl gets married, and she goes into an affluent household—it’s an affluent household, really. And then there is the patriarch, the grandfather, and the grandfather says, “Oh, I had only one son, and you are his wife. And I have so many assets: I have great properties in so many countries, at so many places, and there are so many factories and so many other things. And we do not have enough people to take care of them, and I want the control to be exercised by my own blood”—because that’s what the ego says. “So, woman, give me five sons.” Now, how does the girl feel about it?
That exactly is what is happening when countries decide that they should have more or less population. Now, Germany is saying, “I am getting old, and who will take care of all my assets? Therefore, we need to have a greater fertility rate. So, all the young men and women, you go and have sex and beget us kids.” What kind of discourse is this? Don’t you see the humiliation contained in this? It’s humiliating and also hilarious. It could be a joke. Instead, it is national policy!
Q: And they make it sound serious.
AP: That’s the entire problem. Very, very foolish things are spoken in a way that makes them appear serious, because they are being uttered from the parliaments, from the presidential palaces, from very high platforms, and very grave-looking men and women are saying those things, and everybody in the audience seems to be respectable and everybody is silently nodding, as if something important, something worthy is being said. What is being said is not even worth being a joke.
Think of that old patriarch again; the girl has just entered the family, and he calls her in and says, “You know, I want five sons to take care of my lands and my gold and my legacy.” Well, if you do not have enough people, so be it. That’s all. One of the richest persons on this planet is again and again touting something called ‘population collapse’. Now, this has to be a function of an utterly low IQ. What do you mean by population collapse? Collapse with respect to what? With respect to the current baseline, which is eight billion? So, you mean to say that if it reduces from eight billion to seven or six billion, it is a collapse? Who told you in the first place that eight billion deserves to be called a standard baseline? But nobody will ask these basic questions.
You know, we think of ourselves as intelligent; we think we are somebodies. And therefore, it is astonishing, rather shocking when we encounter the fact of our utter foolishness. The fact is, be it the man on the street or the man in the parliament, we all are foolish to the core, and the reason is our bodies. The bodies can have certain intellect, but the bodies are not designed to have wisdom. And you can be very much an intelligent fool if you do not have wisdom.