Small Is Beautiful

Economics as if People Mattered

Schumacher brilliantly interrogates modern economics, revealing its philosophical underpinnings to be relentless supporters of goods over people. He proposes an alternative—a Buddhist economics—that takes as its imperative the quality of human life, not the quantity of profit. An excellent companion to Rushkoff’s Life Inc. in the argument that economics is not a natural science.

Reading notes

The value of work

The Buddhist view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.…To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of passion, and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of his worldly existence.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 58


Regarding work and leisure, people who call themselves humanist philosophers concern themselves, like trade union leaders, with a more equitable balance, that is, more leisure and less work for the worker through a greater share of the “abundance” created by the machine. But none of these humanist philosophers are tending a machine. Certain forms of escapist entertainment aside, leisure in itself is worthless without direction or content, and creative work can be more rewarding and fulfilling than many kinds of leisure. What is needed, it would seem to follow, is to rethink and readjust work to this end. Which is what all workers attempt to do daily on the job.

Theriault, How to Tell When You’re Tired, page 122

The work of food

Bill McKibben on what happened when Yale invited Alice Waters to convert one of their dining halls to a seasonal and local menu:

The year the program launched, lines started forming around the building as students from other Yale colleges tried to get in. They wanted the squash gratin and the beet slaw, and they didn’t seem to mind that lettuce and tomato disappeared from the salad bar in October, which is when they disappear from the fields in Connecticut. Soon students were counterfeiting Berkeley ID cards in an attempt to get some butter-braised root vegetables of their own—and when Yale hosted a conference about the project, two hundred campus food service personnel from around the country showed up to learn. What impressed me most was the pride that the cooks took in their work. Most were from New Haven, which has one of the country’s poorest inner cities, but they were now firmly connected to the seasons of life in the countryside around them. Their work was harder, but it clearly meant more.

McKibben, Deep Economy, page 85

Along with a new vision for eating, McKibben notices an alternative definition of work—one in which the value of work is held in higher accord than the labor it demands. Schumacher similarly envisions a shift to “real work”:

As I have shown, directly productive time in our society has already been reduced to about 3½ per cent of total social time, and the whole drift of modern technological development is to reduce it further, asymptotically, to zero. Imagine if we set ourselves a goal in the opposite direction—to increase it sixfold, to about twenty per cent, so that twenty per cent of social time would be used for actually producing things, employing hands and brains and, naturally, excellent tools. An incredible thought! Even children would be allowed to make themselves useful, even old people. At one-sixth of present-day productivity, we should be producing as much as at present. There would be six times as much time for any piece of work we chose to undertake—enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful. Think of the therapeutic value of real work; think of its educational value.…Everybody would be welcome to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace—and with excellent tools. Would this mean an enormous extension of working hours? No, people who work in this way do not know the difference between work and leisure. Unless they sleep or eat, or occasionally choose to do nothing at all, they are always agreeably, productively engaged.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 161

(Emphasis mine.)

Small bricks and maker’s marks

On the size of bricks and maker’s marks:

The size of bricks also matters in the message they send. The great historian of bricks, Alec Clifton-Taylor, observes that what most counts about them is their small size, which just suits the human hand laying a brick. A brick wall, he says, “is therefore an aggregation of small effects. This implies a human and intimate quality not present to the same extent in stone architecture.” Clifton-Taylor further observes that brickwork imposes “a certain restraint…brick is anti-monumental…the smallness of the brick unit was not in tune with the grander…aspirations of the Classicist.”

Sennet, The Craftsman, page 135

“An aggregation of small effects” recalls E.F. Schumacher’s refrain that because humans are small, small is beautiful. Furthermore:

Ancient brick workers who labored on the classical empire’s most grandiose projects still held in their hands a material with quite a different physical implication, and it was with this material that the anonymous slave brickmaker or mason made his presence known. The historian Moses Finlay wisely counsels against using a modern yardstick to measure maker’s marks as sending signals of defiance; they declare “I exist,” rather than “I resist.” But “I exist” is perhaps the most urgent signal a slave can send.

Sennet, The Craftsman, page 135

Biscuit making

de Botton spends time with a biscuit manufacturing company in England, and uncovers the main source of sorrow in the modern workplace:

The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but the extent to which the activity can seem so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen different manufacturing sites. An endeavor endowed with meaning may appear meaningful only when it proceeds briskly in the hands of a restricted number of actors and therefore where particular workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact upon others.

de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, page 80

So, take an activity—say, cooking, which may be one of the most natural, human things we can do for one another—and break it up into a thousand pieces and you’ll find yourself with a dreary workforce and inferior biscuits. That we ever got to this point, when it is so clearly a source of despair, is astonishing. Further proof that we need an economy built not to maximize profits but to improve the quality of human life.

The parable of the bees

When the people of Mao County, in central China, killed off the last of their bees via pesticides and overuse, they turned to alternative methods to pollinate their apple trees: people. Laborers dipped “pollen from blossom to blossom using brushes made from chopsticks and chicken feathers and cigarette filters.” MacKinnon continues:

Fifteen years later, three American researchers published an economic analysis of what they called “the parable of the bees,” and turned that story upside down. Mao County’s apple growers told interviewers they actually preferred hand pollination. Human pollinators, it turned out, were better at getting to every blossom, performed cross-pollination more efficiently, and could work in windy, rainy weather that a bee would never venture out in. What’s more, wages paid to orchard workers were often spent in the local area, further bolstering the economy. Worker bees don’t head off to the bar or the grocery store when their day is done.

“Destroying and replacing the free gifts of nature can be an economic benefit,” the researchers concluded. They might have gone on to argue that we should immediately begin to identify other ecological processes that could be replaced with human labor and technology, but in this case the team, led by the economist John Gowdy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, moved in the opposite direction. The parable of the bees, they argued, is not that natural systems aren’t always valuable, but that it’s dangerous to measure the value of nature in dollars and cents. “Market valuation is an exercise for people who have lost all sense of ecological embeddedness,” they wrote. “This is us, the global economic human of the twenty-first century.”

MacKinnon, The Once and Future World, page 140

In other words: judging something solely by its economic value is foolhardy. Schumacher, writing nearly forty years earlier in Small Is Beautiful, outlines this more directly:

I am asking what it means, what sort of meaning the method of economics actually produces. And the answer to this question cannot be in doubt: something is uneconomic when it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money. The method of economics does not, and cannot, produce any other meaning. Numerous attempts have been made to obscure this fact, and they have caused a great deal of confusion; but the fact remains. Society, or a group or an individual within society, may decide to hang on to an activity or an asset for non-economic reasons—social, aesthetic, moral, or political—but this does in no way alter its uneconomic character. The judgement of economics, in other words, is an extremely fragmentary judgement; out of the larger number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision can be taken, economics supplies only one—whether a thing yields a money profit to those who undertake it or not.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 44

My, but how quickly we forget this. The prevailing storyline these days would have you believe that valuations and profit margins represent the complete and singular picture of a business’ worth. No other metric figures into the conversation. Schumacher, again:

Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of private profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 46

I’ve long thought (though I’m aware just how unlikely this is) that economics, as a discipline, ought to be kicked down a notch or two. We treat it, in our ordinary political conversations, as if it were all that mattered, or at least as if it mattered more than many other things. The subtitle to Small Is Beautiful—“Economics as if People Mattered”—remains an aspiration.