Small is Beautiful, pt. 3

[Part 1], [Part 2]

Schumacher was an economist, and thus some of his most penetrating analysis comes in his section on economics and the evils attendant therein. First, in keeping with the materialistic orientation of the world discussed in the previous post, we see that, in a materialist world, the gravest error is to fail to be profitable:

If an activity has been branded as uneconomic, its right to existence is not merely questioned but energetically denied. Anything that is found to be an impediment to economic growth is a shameful thing, and if people cling to it, they are thought of as either saboteurs or fools. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be “uneconomic” you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper…something is uneconomic when if fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money.

Small is Beautiful, 44

Of course, this is a downright stupid way to think about the world and about value, it’s ridiculousness so obvious that it hardly needs to be refuted, merely stated. It is, like the vision of Chesterton’s madman, cripplingly narrow:

The judgment of economics, in other words, is an extremely fragmentary judgment; 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 

Small is Beautiful, 45

This narrowness, I have referred to it elsewhere (here and here) as flatness, is the defining characteristic of the modern mindset and the biggest reason why a world shaped by that mindset (and ours is everyday more so, though it resists1) is so deeply unsatisfying (in a profound metaphysical way, this is a dissatisfaction that destroys souls2).

To make matters worse:

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions

If I could destroy just one myth in the mind of my readers, it would be this presumption of neutrality. Economics, like all the bastard children of the “Enlightenment,” presumes to detach itself from its own practitioners (if you listen carefully, you can hear Kierkegaard screaming and kicking in the distance). Detached from men (who have already been detached from God), these practices become fundamentally anti-human and begin to devour.

A few concrete instances of how the economic world-picture has impoverished us. First, despite ostensibly being the science that describes work, economics fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of labor:

Now the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. 

Small is Beautiful, 57

And today more and more people see their livelihoods sucked into the maw of automation, while an even greater number can find no joy in their work, their jobs having been designed in light of this mindset and thus deprived of joy in their very constitution. As Josef Pieper, the great theorist of work and leisure (see also Sayers and von Hildebrand), has pointed out the economic world-picture also drains the leisure and comfort that is supposedly the point of work of any true meaning. Leisure simply becomes the island of not doing anything amidst the grind of the day-to-day.

Many of the corruptions brought about by the economic world-picture (and of modern thought more generally) are obscured by technology’s shininess. Ignored, however, is the reality that this technology rarely makes us happier. Indeed it rarely even makes us more efficient or grants us more leisure.3

While people, with an easy-going kind of logic, believe that fast transport and instantaneous communications open up a new dimension of freedom (which they do in some rather trivial respects), they overlook the fact that these achievements also tend to destroy freedom, by making everything extremely vulnerable and extremely insecure, unless conscious policies are developed and conscious action is taken to mitigate the destructive effects of these technological development.

Do you have more or less time for yourself since you first bought an iPhone?
We, therefore, not only have emptied out work and leisure of any real significance, making the former especially onerous, but we’ve also dramatically increased the amount of time we spend at work in the name of becoming ever more efficient.

This process leads to ever greater social disconnection, especially as economic circumstances require the consolidation of people in urban areas (this is a huge topic, and I’ll thus only gesture towards it here).

The factor of footlooseness is, therefore, the more serious, the bigger the country. Its destructive effects can be traced both in the rich and in the poor countries. In the rich countries such as the United States of America, it produces, as already mentioned, the “megalopolis.” It also produces a rapidly increasing and ever more intractable problem of “drop-outs,” of people, who, having become footloose, cannot find a place anywhere in society. Directly connected with this, it produces an appalling problem of crime, alienation, stress, social breakdown, right down to the level of the family. In the poor countries, again most severely in the large ones, it produces mass migration into cities, mass unemployment, and, as vitality is drained out of rural areas, the threat of famine. The result is a “dual society” without any inner cohesion, subject to a maximum of political instability. 

Small is Beautiful, 75

America has always suffered from rootlessness of a sort (see Chateaubriand, for instance), but it has now reached, perhaps surpassed, the stage of crisis, and we can see this crisis manifest essentially everywhere if we have eyes to see.

Enough with the dour diagnosis, however. Next time, what is to be done!

  1. naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. Horace, Epistles i. x. 24
  2. see here, for instance. On why this is the inevitable result, see here.  
  3. Remind me to write about this essay one day.  

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