Small is Beautiful, pt. 6

My final post on Small is Beautiful. Other posts on Schumacher can be found here.

Schumacher includes another section, on Social Organization, that I won’t survey in detail, primarily because I found it to be the least interesting in the book. I imagine there’s quite a bit of sophistication that I missed, therefore, and don’t want to shortchange him. Schumacher was himself the director of some very large-scale and successful organizations, and he almost certainly offers quite a bit of insight into the subject. Just one more reason for you to check out the book for yourself.

The guiding principle behind Schumacher’s ideal social organization is the venerable principle of subsidiarity, that matters (politial, social, etc.) ought to be handled by the smallest, most local, or least centralized competent authority. Things generally ought to be handled by those who are closest to the situation at hand yet who have enough power to properly deal with the situation. Whenever possible, power ought not be assumed by higher powers unless absolutely necessary. In these cases, the burden of proving their unique capability to handle a given problem lies with the higher power:

they  have to prove that the lower level is incapable of fulfilling this function satisfactorily and that the higher level can actually do much better.

Small is Beautiful, 261 (emphasis his)

Moreover, when the higher power steps in, this must be recognized as an exception, not a rule. So, if a higher power is required to deal with the stresses put on a local system that outstrip that locale’s capacities, the nature of the exception and the scope of the higher power’s intervention needs to be clearly delineated and limited. For example, if the federal government is required to dramatically intervene in the governance of individual states to repair the damage, social and economic, of some natural disaster or social unrest, that intervention ought not be permanent. The aftermath of disaster is not an excuse to destroy subsidiary authority, but to support it until the crisis has passed. At which point, the higher should cede control back to the lower. The fact that this essentially never happens is one of the great problems of modern governance.1

Subsidiarity is, of course, one of the core planks of Catholic Social Teaching, and it was one of the gateways which led to Schumacher’s own conversion. So much for his discussion of social organization. Again, I encourage you to check out the whole book, he’s got a lot more to say.

We’ll thus wrap up our discussion of Small is Beautiful with some quotes from the book’s conclusion.

First, an identification of the central problem the book confronts:

In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.  If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place.  Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss.  The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, not matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place.

Small is Beautiful, 313

Note, the book was published more than 45 years ago. The problem has only gotten worse.

Next, the recognition that the problem is not one of technical incapacity or inadequate allocation of resources but a philosophical and spiritual one that can only be resolved, therefore, by philosophical and spiritual transformation:

We shrink back from the truth if we believe that the destructive forces of the modern world can be “brought under control” simply by mobilizing more resources–of wealth, education, and research–to fight pollution, to preserve wildlife, to discover new sources of energy, and to arrive at more effective agreements on peaceful coexistence.  Needless to say, wealth, education, research, and many other things are needed for any civilization, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve.

Small is Beautiful, 314-5

How might we begin this spiritual transformation?

Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.  The guidance 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. 

Small is Beautiful, 318

The solution lies in the virtues:

Out of the whole Christian tradition, there is perhaps no body of teaching which is more relevant and appropriate to the modern predicament than the marvelously subtle and realistic doctrines of the Four Cardinal Virtues–prudentia, justitita, fortitudo, and temperantia.

Small is Beautiful, 316

Cultivate the virtues in yourself and seek to build the structures that will enable others to do the same. It is this, not AI, not “more education”, not “green” technology, that will save you and, with you, us.


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