If You Meet the Buddha on the Road

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A koan is a Zen puzzle or riddle designed to shatter mechanical or habitual thought. For one unfamiliar with the form, a koan can appear to be nonsense, or a foolish paradox. It can provoke the same frustration with which a hard-bitten literalist might meet a poetic metaphor or a Christian parable. But at its best, a koan can trigger a sudden flash of clarity or insight: "Aha!"

One familiar Zen koan goes like this: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

It’s easy to imagine the confusion and discomfort such sharp and unexpected advice would cause the devoted Zen student for whom the Buddha is an object of veneration and a symbol of enlightenment. But perhaps the koan can be understood to warn against accepting something outside of yourself, a substitute that may appear to represent your enlightenment; a doctrine or dogma that cuts your journey short before your own awakening is attained.

As unlikely as it may seem, I find myself thinking about the "Buddha on the road" koan often these days as I talk about my new book Red and Blue and Broke All Over: Restoring America's Free Economy. It’s really a book about freedom and the way freedom produces prosperity.

One would be obtuse indeed not to see that American freedom and prosperity are at an inflection point. It can be seen when the head of the FBI is asked in a congressional hearing if the president has the authority to order American citizens assassinated, even within our own country. To which the FBI director answered that he’d have to check.

He’d have to check?

We are headed in a whole new direction.

The inflection point can be noted in this moment of our monetary affairs. The trillions of dollars of reserves the Fed "printed" to buy worthless paper from the banking cartel and conjured up in QEII debt monetization, suddenly is no longer just quietly humming unnoticed on the Fed’s books. It is beginning to wobble, a dangerously unstable monetary mass, the breaching of its containment seen now in the rising prices of gasoline and groceries.

Seriously, the Fed thought it could create $2 trillion without consequences?

It is a point of no return.

What Can We Do?

Once I have made the case in interviews and talk shows that our freedom and prosperity are at an inflection point, a host or listener will almost invariably ask, "What is to be done?"

It’s a perfectly logical question. Since these are political problems, the habitual response is that they must demand political solutions. The questioners want to know what political steps are demanded. What petition can they sign to make things right? What kind of commission do we need? Which party or candidate can fix things? Surely, there is a proposal, program, or reform that we can implement, is there not?

I am afraid my answer frustrates the demands of such logic. Because my answer is no: There is no such mechanical solution. Instead of representing a solution, politics is the very definition of the problem. It is the Buddha on the road.

If the monetary system is failing, shall we petition the State, the corrupter of money, to restore it? If needless wars are leaving us destitute, shall we beg the State, thriving as it does on warfare, to stand down? If we are losing our liberty, shall we empower the State by asking it to grant us liberties?

I do understand how empty this leaves those conditioned (by the State) to believe there is a State solution to every problem. But I recommend that instead of turning to the State and its mechanisms, we turn instead to freedom itself. That we each conduct ourselves in ways consistent with a respect for freedom. That we improve ourselves as exemplars of freedom. That we learn more about freedom to better appreciate its virtues – and to better communicate them when called upon.

This was the approach of the late Leonard Read, who eschewed mass programs for mass movements because he knew that the many follow the few. With his approach of self- improvement, Read became a light of great importance. In 1946, he created the Foundation for Economic Education, the first modern think tank devoted to human freedom. He was able to provide some support to Mises when the academic world failed to provide him a suitable position. He had a tremendous effect on many of today’s greatest champions of liberty. And, indeed, a simple essay Read wrote more than 50 years ago called I, Pencil, has had an impact on the consciousness of many of its readers so deep and lasting that I am pleased that I am able to extend its reach by having it reprinted in Red and Blue and Broke All Over.

Read’s view of the foundational importance of consciousness to our progress in life can also be seen in John Adams’ description of the American Revolution. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, Adams asked, "What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."

The Case for Freedom

Today the case for freedom must likewise be made in the minds of the people. To engage our challenge under the capitol domes only feeds the beast where it lives and thrives. The case for State power is endlessly reinforced in the marbled halls of the State to begin with. It is reiterated by the education system on a daily basis. It is regurgitated by the lapdog press. The State and its prerogatives are the default position of the American public debate. The mantra of political discourse is "mandates." Indeed, one can go through an entire American life – through public or even private schools and universities, attending to the news and the political contests of our age – without ever hearing the case for freedom explicitly made.

Thus unprepared, those who have a vestigial attraction to freedom pitch all their energy and resources into fighting the State’s serial power grabs. In case after case, they raise funds, write letters, run candidates, oppose legislation, and seek a seat at the table.

Perhaps the focus of their effort is on stopping a policy like nationalized health care. If they lose, their energy is drained, their resources are exhausted, and their ad hoc organizations fade away. If they win, it is only to be rewarded with betrayal by their allies who, too, have never encountered an explicit case for freedom and therefore accept the presupposition of the State’s preeminence. (Remember that in the fight against ObamaCare, the Republican National Committee’s advertising did not oppose the State’s hand in health care; its advertising called only for a "responsible" plan and a "bipartisan" plan.)

No matter how well-intentioned those who undertake these efforts may be, in the end they are only waylaid by the State on the road to freedom.

But when we make ourselves more effective champions of freedom, we shine a light that Read would have said cannot be extinguished by all the collective darkness of the universe.

In a dark age, with liberties being snuffed and the descending nightmare of a monetary calamity, we each must increase our own light. It is not enough to oppose the trends that rob us of our freedom and prosperity. Freedom needs new champions who know not just that the State doesn’t work, but why it doesn’t work. Why central economic planning must fail. Why government price interference makes us poorer. Why freedom creates prosperity.

It was to make the case for freedom explicit in terms of today’s events that I wrote Red and Blue and Broke All Over: Restoring America’s Free Economy. If it is successful, it will have helped in a small way to increase the candle power of new champions of freedom.

In the meantime, if you meet the State on the road, you know what to do.

Charles Goyette [send him mail] is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Dollar Meltdown. His new book is Red and Blue and Broke All Over: Restoring America's Free Economy. He is also editor of Freedom & Prosperity Letter, a monthly political and financial newsletter dedicated to revealing the truth about the U.S.’s political scene and economic climate. To learn more, go here.

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