Small is Beautiful

There are a handful of books that I’ve read in my life that I can point to and say: “This book changed my life.” Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher has entered into that small group. And, interestingly, it’s the first nonfiction book to get in that group. My friend Mandy has a canon on her site, and I have one as well, it’s a special set of shelves in our house and this book will be joining the others.

It’s hard for me to put into words how much this book hit me, how much it’s changing the way I think, and how much I’ve continued to think about it after finishing it. But Schumacher, writing this book in the early 70s, says so many things that are still so applicable today. I would argue they are more applicable today as we need, now more than ever, to think about people as being significant.

I’m still completely unsure what changes in my life I will make because I read this book, but they are coming. They may be slow in coming, this may take me some time, but I’m thinking seriously about how to live my life as if people mattered rather than just earning a paycheck at a job. And this isn’t easy to figure out, how can I, one person, make a difference in a society where earning money rules above all else? I’m not sure, but I’m starting to ask the questions.

And, ironically, while reading this book I experienced very much what can happen when people no longer matter, when the size of a company gets so large that decisions are made so far removed from the people who must implement them that there is no thought or concern for the impact they may have. As a developer, I often work on client work that is for large, international companies and it’s these situations that often point out the absurdity of the way our economy and our global relationships work.

Schumacher touches on size, he touches on technology, and he talks in depth about ownership and privatization vs public ownership. The last section of the book talks about ownership in depth and it is a remarkable case study in how owning a business doesn’t have to mean screwing people over. Often Schumacher goes back to Christianity or Buddhism as lenses to see the world through to act in a more compassionate way, but I don’t know if that is actually necessary. As I’ve seen over and over again recently, those who profess religious beliefs the most often act in ways that are the direct opposite of what those religions espouse.

So it is with a mind full of questions that I finish this book and write this review. I highly recommend the book. It is the first economics book I’ve read and it’s an amazing read. I read the released paper version that was published in 2010, but the book’s original publish date is 1973. My highlights are below.

Although even small communities are sometimes guilty of causing serious erosion, generally as a result of ignorance, this is trifling in comparison with the devastations caused by gigantic groups motivated by greed, envy, and the lust for power. It is, moreover, obvious that men organised in small units will take better care of their bit of land or other natural resources than anonymous companies or megalomanic governments which pretend to themselves that the whole universe is their legitimate quarry. (p. 37)

The logical absurdity, however, is not the greatest fault of the undertaking; what is worse, and destructive of civilisation, is the pretense that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values. (p 48)

Modern economics does not distinguish between renewable and non-renewable materials, as its very method is to equalise and quantify everything by means of a money price. Thus, taking various alternative fuels, like coal, oil, wood, or water-power: the only difference between them recognised by modern economics is relative cost per equivalent unit. (p. 64)

For it is not a question of choosing between “modern growth” and “traditional stagnation.” It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding “Right Livelihood.” (p. 66)

In our time, the main danger to the solid and therewith not only to agriculture but to civilisatio as a whole, stems from the townsman’s determination to apply to agriculture the principles of industry. (p. 116)

All this is being done because man-as-producer cannot afford “the luxury of not acting economically,” and therefore cannot produce the very necessary “luxuries”—like health, beauty, and permanence—which mans-as-consumer desires more than anything else. It would cost too much; and the richer we become, the less we can “afford.” (p. 122)

If that which has been shaped by technology, and continues to be so shaped, looks sick, it might be wise to have a look at technology itself. If technology is felt to becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better—a technology with a human face. (p. 155)

What is quite clear is that a way of life that bases itself on materialism, i.e on permanent, limitless expansionism in a finite environment, cannot last long, and that its life expectation is the shorter the more successfully it pursues its expansionist objectives. (p. 156)

Virtually all real production has been turned into an inhuman chore which does not enriches a man but empties him. “From the factory,” it has been said, “dead matter goes out improved, whereas men there are corrupted and degraded.” (p. 160)

We may say, therefore, that modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all. It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect or “round-about” way, and much of which would not be necessary at all if technology were rather less modern. (p. 160)

The system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology, presupposes that you are already rich, for a great deal of capital investment is needed to establish one single workplace. (p. 163)

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and therefore, small is beautiful. (p. 169)

Therefore any organisation has to strive continuously for the orderliness of order and the disorderliness of creative freedom. And the specific danger inherent in the large-scale ogranisation is that its natural bias and tendency favour order, at the expense of creative freedom. (p. 259-260)

Excellent! This is real life, full of antinomies, and bigger than logic. Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline—without these, nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates. And yet—without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where bureaucratic angels fear to tread—without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace. (p. 267)

What is at stake is not economics but culture: not the standards of living but the quality of life. Economics and the standard of living can just as well be looked after by a capitalist system, moderated by a bit of planning and redistributive taxation. But culture and, generally, the quality of life, can now only be debased by such a system. (p. 278)

The answer is self-evident: greed and envy demand continuous and limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation, and this type of growth cannot possibly it into a finite environment. (p. 280)

No great private fortunes can be gained from small-scale enterprises, yet its social utility is enormous. (p. 281)

“More taxation for more public expenditure” would not be a vote-catching slogan in an election campaign, no matter how glaring may be the discrepancy between private affluence and public squalor. (p. 291)

The truth is that a large part of the costs of private enterprise has been borne by the public authorities—because they pay for the infrastructure—and that they profits of private enterprise therefore greatly overstate its achievement. (p. 292)

In other words, everybody claims to achieve freedome by his own “system” and accuses every other “system” as inevitably entailing tyranny, totalitarianism, or anarchy leading to both. (p. 302)

Everywhere people ask: “What can I actaully do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guideance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind. (p. 318)