Most attempts to evaluate the role of Theravada Buddhism in economic action in South-east Asia have assumed a broadly capitalist context, and some have argued tendentiously for the fundamental compatibility of Buddhist teachings and the values of capitalism (Martellaro and Choroenthaitawee 1987). Paul Cohen, on the other hand, argues that 'Buddhist social ethics…are…inconsistent with capitalist values', and that its ethic is 'socialistic' (1984:197). The economic and social issues involved, however, are ambiguous, and this chapter will try to evaluate the role of Theravada Buddhism in the context of socialist development in Laos.
Melford E. Spiro was one of the earliest anthropologists directly to address the issues. The peasants Spiro studied were not 'other-worldly' and did not reject material pleasures. Suffering for them was 'believed to be caused by illness, poverty, dacoits, evil spirits, sorcerers, rapacious government officials, drought, and so on' (1966:1165). Spiro broadly conceded that Buddhism in the context of Burma does not promote capital accumulation, but he also argued that religion does influence economic action by encouraging a particular form of spending rather than saving. Because the religious concerns of Buddhist peasants are primarily associated with rebirth rather than nirvana, the peasant is interested in accumulating merit through charitable deeds. This entails a particular pattern of religious spending, most spectacularly on temple-building. Such spending means that persons can enjoy the fruits of their labour and gain merit into the bargain. To save in the Burmese environment is not rational from the peasants' point of view, argues Spiro, because of government rapaciousness both in the past and the present. As he wrote elsewhere:
Economic investments…are neither very profitable nor very sound. For although the investment potential of the total economy could, in the aggregate, have a crucial influence on Burmese economic growth which in the long run would raise the standard of living of the individual Burman, the savings of the average peasant are too small for his investment returns to increase appreciably his present standard of living. In