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Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered Paperback – September 27, 1989
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“Embracing what Schumacher stood for--above all the idea of sensible scale--is the task for our time. Small is Beautiful could not be more relevant. It was first published in 1973, but it was written for our time.” (Bill McKibben, from the Foreword)
“An eco-bible” (Time magazine)
“Small Is Beautiful changed the way many people think about bigness and its human costs.” (New York Times)
“Nothing less than a full-scale assault on conventional economic wisdom. . . . Schumacher believes economists need a new set of values, to obtain maximum well-being with minimum consumption.” (Newsweek)
From the Back Cover
The classic of common-sense economics. "Enormously broad in scope, pithily weaving together threads from Galbraith and Gandhi, capitalism and Buddhism, science and psychology."-- The New Republic
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The 297 page book has four parts:
The Modern World has essays on sustainability and scale.
Resources discusses land, education, energy and technology
The Third World gets very deep into the similarities and differences between economic systems in "our world" and a poor village.
Organization and Ownership discusses different ownership structures and how their incentives (dis)serve man and society.
Schumacher's perspective is informed by Gandhian and Buddhist concepts of scale, i.e., the appropriate scale for a business or a job is the scale that an individual can understand and enjoy. As such, he runs directly against the "bigger is better" philosophy of mainstream economics that argues in favor of increasing scale until marginal costs begin to rise. Further, Schumacher goes against the idea that profits, per se, are the only goal. As a free-market economist, I have strong doubts about these ideas; as an environmental economist concerned with sustainable systems, I have to agree that his ideas are more sensible than those that pursue profits at all costs.
If these ideas had displaced mainstream economics (to the extent that Gordon Gekko said "small is beautiful" instead of "greed is good"), we would be living in a very different world today. Schumacher is certainly aware that he is fighting an uphill battle, but his analysis never veers from good economics. He does not hope that people will just "do the right thing." Instead, he pays attention to incentives and how they can be changed to accomplish his goals.
This book is full of wisdom, and the writing sparkles. Although you should read it to experience it yourself, I will leave you with this passage:
We are always having all sorts of clever ideas about optimizing something before it even exists. I think the stupid man who says "something is better than nothing" is much more intelligent than than the clever chap who will not touch something unless it is optimal.
Bottom Line: Economists study how humans use scarce resources. Their decisions are motivated by philosophies of why they want to use those resources. This book discusses those decisions with an important question: Is the goal more consumption or happier people? Since consumption does not appear to make us more happy, we have to ask what does, and Schumacher answers that question by noting that people living in communities and doing meaningful work are happier.
2014 update (after using the book to teach): Schumacher has a lovely vision for how a bottom-up system of production by the masses would work, but he does not describe a strategy for dealing with people(s) who prefer large and ugly, e.g., China, the US, Canada, et al. This weakness puts his advice into the aspirational rather than pragmatic section of my bookshelf.
I would go so far as to say that this book belongs in the annals with Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital as an integral book in the school of economic thought. I think this is the most underrated book on economics out there- because with the sheer degree of soundness of its discussions and the scathing critiques of our current materialist economic paradigms (both capitalist and socialist), it provides a blueprint for HOW to think about what economics actually IS in the context of its place in human civilization on planet earth.
If in the future, there are future breakdowns of our current economic models, or revolutionary paradigm shifts, I would hope that this book has as much influence on policy makers as the Communist Manifesto had on Communists, or what Rothbard and Mises had on Libertarians-except this book is superior to them both. Why? It takes into account holistic systems, ecology, and NON-material aspects of mankind- justice, beauty, truth, harmony, sustainability.
I hope policy makers start implementing the strategies of this book asap.