Economics as if people mattered

schumacher small is beautiful

What took me so long to read “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”, by E. F. Schumacher? This 1973 classic was never introduced to me during my education in economics, but I finally got to it. While undeniably but delightfully utopian, very few books go so deep in the attempt to completely reformulate the way economics is studied and practiced.

Some of the most current issues in the economic debate, especially since the 2008 crisis, such as the status of the economic “science” and its quantitative methods, the treatment of the environment, and the questioning of the “homo-econonomicus”, were eloquently raised by Schumacher over 40 years ago. Other issues, in fact, are even more fundamental in nature, and may only be discussed today in places like the New School or the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

My original intent was to dismember the book and develop linkages to current economic theory and practice. However, I’ll step back and let the man speak for himself and the reader be the judge. Below, I list my favorite Schumacher quotes:

The ownership and the consumption of goods is a means to an end […] Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—labor and capital—as the means. [Instead of] maximize human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption, [it] tries to maximize consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort.

The modern economist […] is used to measuring the “standard of living” by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is “better off” than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.

Economic development is something much wider and deeper than economics, let alone econometrics. Its roots lie outside the economic sphere, in education, organization, discipline and, beyond that, in political independence and a national consciousness of self-reliance.

An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.

It is doubly chimerical to build peace on economic foundations which, in turn, rest on the systematic cultivation of greed and envy, the very forces which drive men into conflict.

The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.

From the point of view of the employer, [work] is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. From a Buddhist point of view, this is standing the truth on its head by considering goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity. It means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work, that is, from the human to the sub-human, surrender to the forces of evil. […] The function of work [should] be at least threefold: “to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

That soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitable produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of “bread and circuses” can compensate for the damage done—these are facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence—because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society.

Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.

Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence. For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse. Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction.

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.

An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.

Don’t you feel like changing the world right now?

Andre A. is an economist and entrepreneur. Photograph:


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