Schumacher’s ‘Small Is Beautiful’ Behind UK’s ‘Austerity?’

The Guardian in the UK today has an in-depth article about the way the ideas in “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” by economist and philosopher E. F. Schumacher influence the thinking and policies of Prime Minister David Cameron of England and some of his Conservative Party colleagues. I was introduced to the book in 1975, the first time Prof. Dean Bergeron of UMass Lowell (then ULowell) taught his course on The History of Environmentalism.

Given the 250,000 protestors marching on Parliament in London yesterday, it was timely to find this article in The Guardian, which offered another angle on the dramatic policy changes being enacted in the UK. “Small Is Beautiful” (1973), as I recall, imagines a compassionate communal spirit animating society, which doesn’t jive with some of the harsher “get your hands off my wallet” shouts of  anti-government activists. I think the problem with Tories adopting this thinking is that it won’t work unless government at the top level is used to balance the interests of the less powerful with the super-wealthy and super-powerful. Central government is one of the few equalizers in a democracy that is pledged to ensure equal and fair treatment under the law. Schumacher’s book was perhaps in danger of become a period-piece associated with the back-to-the-land, late-stage hippie era of the 1970s. Maybe there’s some adaptive re-use possible as the global community confronts an overheated Earth, more competition for natural resources, alienation from mega-sized businesses and government structures, and desire for more self-determination. Read the article by Robert McCrum, The Observer, here, and see more at

Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to the prime minister, places Schumacher in a tradition of 20th-century anti-utopian thought represented by Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. Speaking for himself recently in Downing Street, Silva explained the government’s “emphasis on breaking up large-scale institutions into smaller elements. This,” he continued, “is absolutely what we are seeking to prosecute.” Repeating Schumacher, Silva said: “Smaller elements will enable people to choose a human scale – with an emphasis on the environment and well-being. There is more to progress than narrow economics, and more to life than GDP. We will be the first government to implement a measurement of well-being.”

Celebrating the concept of “enoughness”, Silva claimed that “the three pillars of the ‘big society’ are all consistent with Schumacher”. These pillars are, first, the decentralisation of power; second, public service reform; and third, social community reform helping people to come together to work responsibly for the common good. We have, said Silva, “an urgent sense of needing to embrace enoughness”.

One Response to Schumacher’s ‘Small Is Beautiful’ Behind UK’s ‘Austerity?’

  1. Andrew says:

    One of PM Cameron’s statements that has been attributed to Schumacher’s influence is this (as recounted in the Guardian article): “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.”

    I find the contrast between what he says and what he does fascinating. Or I may just be missing the connection between drastically worsening the British government’s deficit projections and increasing general wellbeing.

    The Tories really have managed quite a feat: slashing benefits and removing social safety nets while at the same time driving up the deficit. Sounds a lot like what our own Republicans are trying to accomplish.