Thursday, 22 March 2007

Can 'Sufficiency' Be Too Much of a Good Thing?


Of low tech and high, fetching our drinking water on a rot tai.



Mungorn and family on his rot tai


The current government of Thailand which was brought to power in a bloodless coup has promised to run the country in accordance with principles of ‘sufficiency’. Enough is as good as a feast and both in personal and national affairs, a headlong rush for expansion and wealth at all costs is not the right approach in a Buddhist nation. This seems to be the philosophy, a gloss on the usual approach to economic affairs which will be worked out and applied over time as the daily business of government continues.

Three wise magazines with influence on the world stage, including The Economist, immediately responded with articles critical of the ‘sufficiency economy’ which has had the Thais distinctly worried. I hope they stick to their guns though, as I think guiding principles of this sort have something to contribute in running a developing economy such as Thailand. To walk the middle path in economic affairs, to make haste slowly, is better than promoting unbridled public and private greed, whether in a Buddhist country or otherwise.

The economic gurus of the media will of course continue to scratch their heads at this mildly heretical view but as militants and extremists of the free market they’re sure to refuse to understand. Nobody denies that the free market delivers results, but one day prevailing fashions will change and the downsides of free-wheeling globalization will become apparent. What fits the big powers such as privatization and open markets may not suit relative minnows such as Ghana, Bolivia or Thailand.

Also of interest is the recent recognition in Thailand of how Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist nation has preserved its own culture from corrosive outside influences. Its King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has promoted the idea of focusing on the nation’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ in preference to the crude pursuit of Gross National Product.

No doubt The Economist, a magazine I greatly respect, would sneer at this ludicrous idea in incomprehension, though one point it could validly make. While GNP is a simple measure of output, the pursuit of collective happiness concerns making the best possible use of the resources or costs that are currently available. Apart from the fact that ‘gross happiness’ is a rather unfortunate term, surely what the King is trying to measure is not GNH but Net National Happiness.

However, I agree that increasing the overall national wealth does not necessarily deliver happiness to the greatest number of people. Just as the weak fail to take advantage of the new opportunities, so also globalisation and the free market necessitate a Darwinian struggle in which small countries must rub shoulder with the leviathans. As it’s clear who'll get trodden under foot in the headlong rush, the leaders of the smaller nations of the world are right to glance over their shoulders and to express concern.

When traveling in Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world and a generation or two ‘behind’ Thailand in terms of development, it’s hard not to feel that the sleepiness and stability of the place confers a certain quality of life. In contrast, the insatiable appetite to acquire consumer goods that the Thai people sometimes have, only brings misery, as any Buddhist teacher would tell them.

Thailand has been awash with easy credit, which raises expectations and ruins lives and families. The poorest of the poor, if they can beg or borrow a deposit of ten thousand baht and can persuade a more prosperous relative to sign a guarantee for the finance, can go to the showroom and drive away in a brand new pickup. No doubt they’ll choose a top of the range model with all electronic windows and alloy wheels, but they’ll soon fail to find the monthly instalments.

First they’ll sell off the family rice land, then when they eventually default, the lenders will look to the guarantor, provoking a family rupture of terrible proportions. Finally the finance company will sell off the pickup for a song leaving them with a debt they can only pay off by selling the family home. This scenario is not unique to Thailand, though the irresponsible abandon with which people accept unnecessary credit seems to be fairly extreme.

Easy credit of this sort is a major breach of sufficiency principles and there are strong arguments that the government should introduce firmer regulations putting controls on credit agreements. Such legislation can be unduly complex but simple measures such as requiring a minimum deposit as a proportion of the cash price is a crude but effective in dampening demand.

Okay, so the motor industry and the economy generally would contract a bit but so what. Why does a poor farmer need a spanking new pickup anyway? The one axled rot tai or tuk-tuk that farmers use throughout the country is the best iron buffalo ever devised. It can pull a plough in the rice fields and tow a trailer on the roads to take produce to market. It has a power take-off which means it can operate a pump to move water from one paddy to another or to power a circular saw. It’s a great little machine and for most farmers it’s sufficient for its purpose.

My own contribution to the sufficiency economy is limited, though I’ve decided to store rain water from the roof in big concrete vats and when that runs out to get drinking water from the village well, rather than buying bottles and proliferating plastic. My big satellite dish for accessing the web hardly fits these principles, but at least paying for a slow speed of connection is sufficient for my needs.

The sufficiency economy is not a revolution but if the government’s promotion of sufficiency principles manages to dampen expectations a little and to reverse some of the expansionist hype of the previous government, then something at least will have been achieved by it. It’s not a Ghandhian ideal demanding major changes to the economy or to peoples’ lives and I happily conclude that as with moderation, when it comes to ‘sufficiency’, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

4 comments:

Thailand Gal said...

Gee, I think I love you! :)

Seriously, great article, great perspective. I agree with every word you've said.


Peace,

~Chani

Carol and Chris said...

Brilliant Blog!! (have just spent a ridiculous amount of time reading through your past posts)

The pics of the British signs made me laugh out loud....you got to admire Penrith's optimism!!

Carol

Thai Girl said...

Dear C, C and C, I not only think... I know I love you! I was about to kill myself because nobody was leaving any Comments but now I'm not going to after reading yours. I shall keep on blogging and assume that someone out there is reading some of this stuff. Maybe posting Comments is just a bit computer awkward. That's my excuse for failure anyway.
Andrew

Anothai said...

If you would like to know what educated Thai people thinks, get your blog here at GotoKnow.org. However, most of the contents use Thai. But you can start writing in English and you'll find friends and brains there. I think your thoughts and criticisms about our country may be useful there.

Anothai http://gotoknow.org/blog/chemlab