Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher

Small is Beautiful came out in 1974.  You might think that a book about society and its relationship with economics would be dated within months, let alone decades.  Fortunately for the book, almost none of the points made lack meaning for the world in 2016.  Unfortunately for society, most of those points are about how our priorities are entirely out of whack.  One of the main tenets of the book is that thinking in purely economic terms cannot and should not inform decisions that have nothing to do with economics.  E.F. Schumacher writes of how when economics was first added as a discipline at Oxford University, it was done with trepidation.  The thinking was that this “new science” would creep its way into all others and its conclusions would supersede established sciences.  You need only look at the bevy of statistical predictors used in any sporting event to see that the trepidation was at least somewhat founded.  The crux of the book concerns size as the title suggests.  Schumacher argues that businesses and even social units need not believe that larger and more complex is better.  He shows in multiple ways how larger and larger entities tend to usurp the creativity and usefulness of any smaller unit encountered, whether this be a mammoth corporation that depersonalizes work or a bureaucracy that removes autonomy from smaller nation-states.

If it seems odd that a man who spent many years of his life working for the National Coal Board in Britain would write a book extolling the virtues of smaller work, less mechanization/automation, and safeguards for the environment, then don’t worry -- it is odd.  Schumacher understood all too well the dangers of aiming for infinite consumption in a finite environment.  He pulls from just about every discipline to make his case:  economics, sociology, philosophy, religion, even a brief recounting of Kafka’s The Castle.  He comes at a multitude of issues from a variety of angles.  One of the most impressive things about Small is Beautiful is that everyone can find something with which to agree (or, conversely, disagree).  In an election year, it is refreshing to read a book that doesn’t cling to an ideology as the panacea but lays out ways for humankind to care for one another and still conduct the business of the day.  I don’t expect to hear that message on the campaign trail but it’s nice to know I can find it on the bookshelf.

If you like this book, you might also like The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken or This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, both available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

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