Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

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The advanced economies of the West have had nearly a century of experience with industrialization and economic growth. During that time, the standard of living in those countries has risen dramatically. Along with this improved economic well-being has come a host of problems—social, political, and environmental. For most of this period, economists have extolled the successes and ignored the problems. Even when they have recognized the problems, they have maintained that science and technology would be able to solve them. In holding to this view they have argued that they, too, were dispassionately applying a science.

According to Schumacher, these economists are espousing a religion: Their theory that greed and profits will secure the best social decisions has no scientific basis. Although he mounts a strong attack on these presumptions, Schumacher is really seeking to attain balance in economic thinking. Economic decisions do need some measure of their worth, and profits serve this function well. Nevertheless, economic decisions that are not made within the context of a larger system of values become meaningless. Schumacher wants to incorporate into economics a system of values that combines Christian and Buddhist teachings. As a result, he can be criticized for seeing his own economics as a religion. Yet his infusion of religious values into economics is conscious, whereas traditional economists rarely appreciate the element of religiosity in their own thinking.

Schumacher also puts too much stress on the social influence of economics. Economists and economics tend to be influential only to the extent that they reflect dominant social values. Those who write about the virtues of the present economic system are heard because their views are in accord with powerful social forces, in this case the business community. Discordant voices are thus seldom needed. This applies to Schumacher as well. Small Is Beautiful was published at an opportune time, immediately after a decade of concern about the environment and just before a decade of energy crisis. Thus, Schumacher spoke almost as a prophet to a generation concerned with ecological problems and the difficulties that would exist as efforts were made to use nuclear energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. Small Is Beautiful is and will remain an influential book as long as there is concern over energy and the environment.

Traditional economists are interested in these problems, but their solutions rarely go beyond measuring the costs of environmental safety versus the lost benefits if a high standard of living is sacrificed. They continue to hope that profits can be used to solve the environmental and energy problems. Despite its inability to influence economists, Schumacher’s message that a standard of living is no substitute for a life worth living is an enduring one.