Small is Beautiful

"[A 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' that 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. . . . The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity." -Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher (1973)
"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." -E.F. Schumacher

At the height of the Oil Crisis, a powerful voice for the decentralization of economics emerged from England. E.F. Schumacher was a protege of Keynes and the Chief Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board. However, Schumacher broke from his training and experience to strongly advocate for powerfully decentralist economics.

His book, Small is Beautiful, eloquently discussed the absuridity of overly centralized economics. He asked the powerful question: for what reason does our economic system exist? Isn't the purpose of any social system to serve the people in the society? Why don't we try to build a system that attempts to bring human happiness with the least amount of waste or consumption? Instead, our system tries to convince us that we have to achieve hapiness through the consumption, it is consumption itself that brings hapiness.

Of course, when we sit back and think about it, we know that hapiness, true, profound hapiness, cannot come from a product, but instead through our interactions with other human beings. Yet the system works to alienate us from others; by making us lonely, we consume more. It is an insane cycle that leads to incredible waste, sweatshops, soul-less communities and McMansions and lonely children.

Schumacher instead calls on us to turn to our local communities, to build a more sensible economic system. Ethics, the desire to ease suffering, should be the foundation of any economic system, not efficiency or profit. Today, the Schumacher Society attempts to make real the ideals of his writing, especially focusing on microcredit, community land trusts and local currencies.

For us in York State, we can learn much from Schumacher and his disciples. As we attempt to build stronger communities, we must inevitably turn away from traditional, centralizing, top-down economics. Schumacher and theorists like him can begin to point the way to new patterns of thought that break the mold.

Posted by Jesse


Phil said...

I just wanted to thank you for your website--I never fail to take something away from your posts.

And now you spotlight the book that was my bible in college--"Small Is Beautiful"! My paperback copy is tattered and faded, but the ideas still shine brightly. I dropped my major in economics because not one of my professors was even remotely close to teaching me how to think about economics, they only wanted to create more good capitalist technocrats. E.F. Schumacher spoiled me for the real world.

I agree that York Staters can take a lot from a close study of these ideals. We will never prosper in the "mainstream" economy of corporate America, however we can learn to carve out a satisfying and balanced life that provides for our needs and protects our environment and culture.

joseph DumbleBumble said...

Dick Nixon sponsored Schumacher and the idea of breaking up the centralized economy into self-sufficient regions because everyone knows it'd be cheaper and easier and break up monopolies and ensure work for everyone. But then he got ripped apart and had to be president.