Small Is Beautiful: The Modern World

Not only is small beautiful, but old is beautiful too (see Old is the New New). Schumacher wrote his classic Small is Beautiful in 1975, but it still rings true and continues to speak prophetically to our modern context. His book is divided into four sections: 1) The Modern World 2) Resources 3) Development and 4) Organization and Ownership. I love a series of posts. So, I will take each section in turn. The first section attempts to describe the state of our modern world in economic terms, but also in terms of meaning and values. This first quote, I think, sums up Schumacher general view of our modern economic system and the world it creates.

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence… Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be “growth” towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth…The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace…Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war. (33)

As you can see, Schumacher take a wide lens to the effects of our economics, and, I think, accurately describes the cause of conflicts as economic. I don’t think Schumacher or I intend to reduce conflicts to solely economic causes, but it is clear that ethnic, religious or cultural differences are exacerbated where there are conflicts over resources, perceived needs, distribution of wealth or other economic inequalities. The idea that growth and needs can expand infinitely continually creates conflict as it runs up against the walls of limitations due to natural resources, population pressures and unequal distribution of wealth and resources. As I have said before, we must understand the purpose, or end, toward which we desire our economic system to lead us and compare it to the actual trajectory of the course we’re on. Schumacher points out this quote from Lord Keynes, of Keynesian economics, on how the ends justify the means.

“But beware!” he continued. “The time for all this is not yet. For at least a hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” (24)

It seems silly to me, and perhaps you, that this way of thinking gains any traction and is followed by intelligent men and women, much less the leaders of governments, corporations, etc. Yet, this thinking seems to dominate our economics and our imaginations. “The rising tide of globalization will lift all boats.” This future paradise that our economists continue to promise, if we will just follow their advice, buying more stuff, and going further into debt, is an ever-fading horizon that moves further away as we approach. The means must be congruent with the ends if we have any hope of reaching our goal. If we want peace, we must use the tools of peace, not of violence. If we want economic equality, then we cannot live based on fundamental inequalities. If we want sustainability, then we must begin to act, consume and live in a way that “can be projected without running into absurdities”.

Part of the picture Schumacher paints of our world is one in which we have misunderstood in very basic ways what this life is, indeed, about.

Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul.'” (37)

As a Christian, you often hear overtones of Schumacher’s faith in his writing (though one famous chapter in this book is titled “Buddhist Economics”). In our economy work is the means to the end of weekends, vacations and retirement, where we seem to believe real, authentic life is lived. An alternative perspective (and a biblical one) is to see creative, productive work as part of what makes us human. When work is degrading, detached from the product and mechanical, whether it’s in a factory or a cubicle, it detracts from our humanity. In our hyper-capitalist world the entrepreneur is one of the most celebrated individuals. Yet the conditions for people to be entrepreneurs are kept at a minimum. They are the exceptions that keep alive the dream that our lives and work can be productive and meaningful in this system. The truth is that they are the exceptions and the cubicle, the assembly line, the fields and the mines are the rule for the great majority of humanity. Schumacher quotes Dorothy Sayers along these lines,

“War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.” (37)

The idea that wars and conflicts are the result of forces extraneous to the system, that they are anomalies, allows us to continue perpetuating the system that is the cause of these conflicts. Our modern world is built on systems in direct conflict with nature, human and non-human. We are getting the results, violence, conflict, inequality, etc. that the system is designed to get. I know I often sound all doom and gloom, but I do recognize that where values like democracy (or even better consensus), human dignity, individual rights and the kind of wisdom Schumacher mentioned above are upheld, honored and practiced we have seen great strides toward the kind of world envisioned by the Bible, most world religions and many great thinkers of justice, equality, happiness and meaningful existence. I just believe that these have been bright spots in spite of the system of exploitation, extraction and oppression to which we have become so accustomed.

If a buyer refused a good bargain because he suspected that the cheapness of the goods in question stemmed from exploitation or other despicable practices (except theft), he would be open to the criticism of behaving “uneconomically,” which is viewed as nothing less than a fall from grace…The religion of economics has its own code of ethics, and the First Commandment is to behave ‘economically’…To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price.” (45)

While there are certainly other factors at play in shaping our modern world, it seems clear to me that economics has succeeded in establishing itself as the trump card, as Schumacher claims in this quote. While many of us long for more than just a job at an individual level, on a government level (community,local, regional, state, federal and international) are made with economics as the primary criteria and motivator. We would look down on any governing body that used other priorities or criteria. In other words, we believe that the other values and priorities we have (family, faith, meaning, time, education, etc.) are best served by putting the value of economics and development first. Surveys and statistics paint a very different picture. The more our economy has grown and the wealthier we have become in the United States the less time we have for these other activities that we claim to value.

There are ways in which economics tries to incorporate aspects of value and meaning outside of the usual parameters of profit and loss statements. Schumacher has this to say about such cost/benefit analysis, “In fact, however, it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” (46) In other words, what is beyond and higher than economics is absorbed into the values and parameters of economics and thereby reduced to the level of economics where it does not pose a threat or dictate to economics the way that things should be ordered. If economics is not an end, but rather a means, then this is exactly the reverse of the way it should be. Economics must be made to serve our values and vision of the way the world should be.

Finally, I think Schumacher admirably deconstructs dualisms that continue to perpetuate dichotomous rather than more holistic ways of thinking about human needs and values.

We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. (65)

This way of thinking provides a foundation for future vision based on human needs and ecological limitations. It also breaks through some of the arguments about scale (which is particularly interesting from a book titled Small is Beautiful). Schumacher’s point seems to be that there is a proper place for large-scale thinking and names it, the problems of peace and ecology that humanity faces as a whole. In terms of organizing our lives together (which is the realm of economics) we need the freedom of smallness to adapt and connect in the ways in which we are wired. (I wonder how social networking affects the evolutionary reality of the limited connections our brains are able to make and maintain which Malcolm Gladwell puts at about 150 in The Tipping Point.) I believe the idea that there is a proper space for both large-scale and small-scale thinking is helpful in reaching a way forward. Our problems stem in large part from confusing the proper space for each way of thinking and organizing.

This naturally transitions to an understanding of our human and non-human resources, their nature and limitations, which is the subject of the second part of Schumacher’s book.

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