At American Enterprise Institute, NeoCons Say ‘Hello, Dalai’

In the right-wing temple, the high priests of capitalism debated morality with the Dalai Lama, who acknowledged he could see more than ‘exploitation’ in free enterprise.

02.21.14 10:45 AM ET

Welcoming the Dalai Lama to the pinnacle of free enterprise in Washington for a discussion on happiness and human flourishing gave everyone in attendance a warm feeling.

“This is an historic day for the AEI,” declared Arthur Brooks, president of the right-leaning think tank, as he outlined the task Thursday morning of examining free enterprise from a moral standpoint—faith, family, community, “not money,” he emphasized, adding with a winning smile that as an economist, it “hurts me to say money is not on the list.”

Give Brooks credit for reaching out beyond the boundaries of conventional conservative circles to tap into the moral authority of the Dalai Lama, along with a panel of experts associated with the Mind & Life Institute, which the Buddhist teacher and leader founded almost 30 years ago. Now 78 years old, he announced in 2011 that he was retiring from political life. The invitation from the American Enterprise Institute and from Brooks personally must have proved irresistible, a rare chance for a spiritual icon associated with the left to hobnob with the high priests of capitalism.  (The Dalai Lama will meet with President Obama Friday at the White House.)

The morning was divided into two panels, the first extolling the benefits of free enterprise while gently acknowledging its shortcomings. The second, titled Unlocking the Mind, ventured into “epigenetics,” the science of regulating genes, and stressed the importance of universal early-childhood education, when the brain is at its most elastic and the values that make humans flourish throughout life can be nurtured.

The friendly clash between the two worldviews represented in the packed auditorium became evident early when Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, said he asks his students two questions: Why isn’t the whole world rich? And what can we do to expand wealth? When Hubbard finished his presentation, it was the Dalai Lama’s turn. “Why haven’t we been able to make everyone rich?” he asked rhetorically. “What criteria are you using?”

Hubbard offered the standard economist’s response while His Holiness underscored his point that rich can be defined in other ways, adding with a chuckle, “You used the word rich, everybody a billionaire impossible, perhaps a millionaire…”

One of the more compelling presentations came from Daniel Loeb, founder of Third Point LLC, a phenomenally successful hedge fund. Loeb began by saying how proud his late father would be to see him alongside a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama and, referring to AEI’s Brooks, “the spiritual leader of the capitalist people.” Loeb said he practices Ashtanga yoga, and that his yoga teacher, who was in the audience, persuaded him to go to India for a month and study with a great teacher. He recalled a friend telling him, “Don’t go. Everybody will think you’re a flake.” He went, and the experience “launched me into a lifelong passion for spirituality, meditation, and contemplation,” he said. “Contemplation and meditation are not just for monks and hermits.”

Loeb went into some detail about how he applies yoga principles to his business and his decision-making, concluding with “why markets actually make the world a better place… There’s no other system that can create this kind of innovation,” he declared, citing everything from iPhones to a business like FedEx. “But it’s not perfect,” he conceded, praising an idea Glenn Hubbard introduced of a “Marshall Plan” to advance opportunities for the least well-off, and touting the focus of his philanthropy, a charter school in the Bronx that is No. 3 in the state of New York in math. “It’s a myth that poor people can’t achieve at the same level as rich, white kids,” he said.

“Your Holiness, Mr. Loeb covered a lot of territory,” Brooks said, turning to the Dalai Lama for his response. After a moment’s pause, His Holiness offered this: “Today, I am more respectful of capitalism.” That brought a vigorous round of applause. Elaborating, he said that in the past his view of capitalism was it would “only take money” and then there was “exploitation.”

The next speaker, Jon Haidt with the Stern School of Business, reminded His Holiness that when they met three years earlier, he had asked him what kind of government he would like. The Dalai Lama had said between socialism and capitalism, “I’m a socialist. I’m a Marxist, but not a Leninist…. Capitalism is about how to make a profit, only that, and to get profits, there is no hesitation to exploit.”

Those were tough words for the AEI audience to hear, but then that was the whole point of the exercise, to learn from this revered figure that there is another point of view that is legitimate. Where the two worldviews converge is that power comes from the individual. Where they contrast most starkly is around the environment, and the Dalai Lama’s plea to treat climate change with the urgency that the science demands. “We have to look seriously at the future of humanity,” he urged.

It was a mention, nothing more. In a morning filled with brotherly love and jocularity over how everyone was getting along so well, no one wanted to offend. The Dalai Lama regaled the crowd with stories, not all pertinent to the subject at hand. But then this was about him, the transformative power of his presence and the eagerness of everyone there to associate with him, even when they weren’t sure because of the difficulties of language what he was saying. They knew what he meant, and everyone felt they profited, at least for the day.