Wednesday, September 16, 2009

E. F. Schumacher And Buddhist Economics

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self Reliance introduced me to E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful in the mid-nineties. I said that I hadn’t read it because the title made me think it was probably smarmy.

It isn’t, and Schumacher was not a smarmy guy. He made tough choices in his life. He left his native Germany in the thirties because he objected to the Third Reich. He was an agnostic who converted to Catholicism. You try telling all your snobby free-thinking friends you’re becoming a mackerel snapper.

Schumacher’s economics is contrarian, and tough-minded. The bottom line is that people are more important than goods. People need food, shelter, meaning, and a hospitable natural environment. Western economics subordinates people to goods, using indices that measure total activity, ignoring moral judgement, to diagnose an economy’s robustness. Subordinating people to goods means tolerating less than complete employment and temporary layoffs, to say nothing of worker stress, and occupations that use only a fraction of a worker’s capabilities. A fraction of the workforce, a fraction of each worker. An economy in which production is paramount tries to minimize human labor, but is promiscuous in its use of fuel, material, and machinery. What do we make things for, though? Why do we have economies?

The truth is, and Schumacher would say, that production and commerce should be means to providing humans with "a becoming existence" -- a nice phrase of Schumacher's. If we need to feed and shelter ourselves, we should discover the most elegant way to do so, the way that uses the least material or capital, the way that uses machinery to enhances our skills instead of replacing them. Providing for ourselves in that elegant way will, in Schumacher’s description of the function of work, “give a man (sic) a chance to utilize and develop his faculties (and) enable him to overcome his egocenteredness by joining with other people in a common task.”

An economy like that would ultimately solve problems of pollution and fuel shortage, and avoid exacerbating damages we’ve already caused. Most attractively, we would realize finally what it really means to be this extravagantly intelligent ape.

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