Small is Beautiful
October 4, 2009 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Most of Africa, India and the developing world depends on innovative and inventive people coming up with ways to make a living with no cash and next to no resources. Fritz Schumacher ( wiki ) was an internationally influential economic thinker with a professional background as a statistician and economist whose 1973 book "Small is beautiful" - Economics as if People Mattered; is among the 100 most influential books published since World War II ( Review ). There are links to several articles, Essays and Videos on the Schumacher Society webpage including the Essay "Buddhist Economics". He was a founder of the Charity Practical Action. ( Related 1; 2 )
posted by adamvasco (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

Romanticizing Africa, India and the developing world always gives me the heebie geebies. Sorry, but I had to say it.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 9:56 AM on October 4, 2009

Also, "Buddhist Economics" under the Dalai Lama was slavery for 95% of the population. Like pick_the_flowers, I'm sorry, but I had to say it.
posted by shetterly at 10:41 AM on October 4, 2009

Hmm. And since Schumacher was a Catholic convert, I'll be fair and add that "Catholic Economics" under the Popes was also slavery for most of the population.

There's much that I admire about what Schumacher said. Small is beautiful. But the card he is palming, the love of hierarchy, really sucks.
posted by shetterly at 10:50 AM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think Schumacher's failure as a thinker is revealed here (from his "Nonviolence" essay): "Well, if you leave things free, then things will be very uneven and unequal, and if you enforce egality then your liberty goes out of the window."

His premise, that if things are free, then things will be uneven and unequal, is false. He's desperately trying to refute communism, but he's afraid to mention it. He has the slaver's idea that "freedom" is the freedom to enslave others, but there is no contradiction between egality and liberty. They require each other: if everyone isn't free, then everyone isn't equal, and if everyone isn't equal, then everyone isn't free.
posted by shetterly at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2009

If Schumacher is a failure then I'd like to fail similarly. I don't agree with all his thought, but Practical Action (formerly known as Intermediate Technology) is a fantastic legacy.
posted by johnny novak at 12:08 PM on October 4, 2009

Well, then...thank god we have the Chicago school to worship, amirite?
posted by Thorzdad at 12:10 PM on October 4, 2009

Well, if you leave things free, then things will be very uneven and unequal

Things will be very uneven and unequal no matter what system is imposed. There will always be winners and losers, even if only by comparison. Hey, I only got one flat screen, he's got three! Oppressor!

The real point of equality can only be equality of opportunity. As long as people don't feel the game is rigged, they'll play for whatever they can get and only grumble to the gods instead of blowing up buildings.

Sadly, whatever the system, there's always room for that oldest and most practical of human management methods, cronyism. And that's the worm in the apple.
posted by tspae at 12:20 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

johnny novak, I agree that Practical Action has done a lot of good.

tapae, agreeing that cronyism is a problem in any system, and I'll throw in nepotism as well.
posted by shetterly at 12:23 PM on October 4, 2009

From Buddhist Economics:
"The very start of Buddhist economic planning would be a planning for full employment, and the primary purpose of this would in fact be employment for everyone who needs an "outside" job: it would not be the maximisation of employment nor the maximisation of production. Women, on the whole, do not need an "outside" job, and the large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure. In particular, to let mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild would be as uneconomic in the eyes of a Buddhist economist as the employment of a skilled worker as a soldier in the eyes of a modern economist."
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 1:00 PM on October 4, 2009

shetterly They require each other: if everyone isn't free, then everyone isn't equal, and if everyone isn't equal, then everyone isn't free.
tspae The real point of equality can only be equality of opportunity. As long as people don't feel the game is rigged, they'll play for whatever they can get and only grumble to the gods instead of blowing up buildings.

What in this context do "equal" and "free" mean?

Human beings do not have equal capabilities. Some people are smarter than others, some are more attractive than others, some are physically stronger than others. We do not have equal circumstances of birth because our parents do not have equal capabilities and/or equal resources. We do not have equal formative experiences either, because the circumstances of our childhood (eg, what our schooling is like) are mostly out of anyone's control and even where not, are controlled with no idea as to what the effect of that control might be.

"Equality of opportunity" is IMO mostly an oxymoron or a tautology. It's usually thought of as a "fair" opportunity, such as a low-level job offered by a bureaucratic employer such as a large corporation or a government department: the applicants are given selection criteria to address and tests to take and these are assessed and the highest-scorer(s) employed without knowing anything else about them. (Interviewing would be, in the context, just another test.) While the criteria are independent of the applicants, the applicants' abilities to meet the criteria vary wildly, and even at an individual level, vary somewhat from day to day and hour to hour.

While equality of opportunity to attend educational courses (subject to the criteria of passing various entrance tests, high school results, etc) exists in theory, in most places for most people this doesn't come free of financial charges. Even capacity to support oneself while studying, whether from a trust fund or a series of low-paying, mind-numbing night fill jobs, makes the ability to make use of the opportunity unequal. Different courses have different employability (and more broadly, life-success) outcomes.

The closer one looks at it, the more "life" turns into a vast chain of assessment criteria that judge various capacities, many of which are provided to or gained by each person more-or-less randomly. Even if multiple people can "apply for" any given opportunity, there may still exist "other candidates" whose capacity to meet the criteria--whatever they be--is better; and that, from any individual's point of view, is also random.

Equality of "interest" (in this context, your life, wealth, health and sanity are "interests" of yours) is IMO much more important. This is the justification for, say, affirmative action quotas: for example, it's better for all if candidates from a variety of ethnic backgrounds enter the police force, therefore criteria additional to simple "capacity to be a police officer" (which we can assume gets a sensible definition, for the purpose of the argument) are added. However, this merely lowers the criteria for capacity to be a police officer (because rather than choosing candidates ranked 1,2,3,4,5, we are choosing 1,2,4,7 and 15 because 15 was the highest-ranked of ethnicity X, and 3 shares the ethnicity of 1 and 2), it does not abrogate them entirely; and subsequent experiences will greatly differentiate individual performance as a police officer.

In the end, it is performance to opportunities rather than opportunities themselves that determine the course of our lives. On that point, mere panoply of opportunity is not the same as equality of opportunity and is usually counter-productive: everything you could have been is a potential regret. People seem happiest with a few choices, say three to five, to make their minds up among, and then having made their minds up, to devote themselves to making the best of whatever it is. It often seems that those people who have great capacity to meet many opportunities (ie, the highly intelligent and adaptable) are unhappy because they have so many regrets; whereas those who only wanted to be one or two things, accepted that fate, and did it as well as they could, live happier lives and produce more benefits for themselves and others and the wider humanity.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:19 PM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I forgot to make my point with regard to affirmative action and outcomes: abrogating "fair" assessment--ie, "equality of opportunity--genuinely can and really does lead to better outcomes for candidates themselves and for the wider society those candidates serve. As such, the addition of criteria designed to improve the overall outcome, whether or not the criteria are directly related to the prospect at hand, is justified. (Providing one can properly define "improve the overall outcome", of course - no doubt the idea of denying women employment hinted at in slappy_pinchbottom's quote was thought up with the intention of "improving the overall outcome". Outcomes must be constantly reviewed.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:24 PM on October 4, 2009

Outcomes must be constantly reviewed.

Yup. I'll agree in an instant that perfect fairness is impossible to achieve under any system. It's still the right goal.
posted by shetterly at 5:02 PM on October 4, 2009

If you're interested in development economics, you might enjoy reading about the UN Millennium Development Project. I'm not saying you should take their starry-eyed optimism completely seriously but their intentions are good.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 6:03 PM on October 4, 2009

Interesting comments. What I remember from when I read the book was more this perspective:

"The conventional wisdom of what is now taught as economics bypasses the poor, the very people for whom development is really needed. The economics of giantism and automation is a leftover of nineteenth-century conditions and nineteenth-century thinking and it is totally incapable of solving any of the real problems of today. "

Compare to Rushkoff's "Economics Is Not Natural Science."

"Monarchs forcibly made abundant local currencies illegal, and required people to exchange value through artificially scarce central currencies, instead."
"The resulting economy encouraged — and often forced — people to accept employment from chartered corporations rather than create value for themselves."
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:04 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

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