Book review: Small Is Still Beautiful

Joseph Pearce is a noted English Catholic writer who has written books on G. K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis among others. In Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered, Pearce seeks to update the wisdom of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful for the 21st century.

Small Is Still Beautiful is one among a recent spate of books re-thinking what it means to be conservative in light of the apparent triumph of global capitalism and the preeminence of America as global hegemon. Fans of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons (review here) and Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America (review here) will find much to like here, as Pearce upholds the small, familiar and local against the forces of globalized homogeneity.

Pearce doesn’t break much new ground in terms of fundamental ideas; this book is more of an update of Schumacher’s original. But this actually works well since Schumacher’s ideas seem just as timely now as they did thirty years ago. The issues that this book grapples with – our insatiable appetite for growth, environmental despoilation, and the plight of local communities – have gained a new resonance in recent years.

If you had to boil down Schumacher’s (and Pearce’s) message into a pithy maxim, I think it would be that “Economics was made for man, not man for economics.” Schumacher’s vision was rooted in a view of humankind as having transcendent worth, but also part of an ordered cosmos that has its own beauty and integrity. For Schumacher, much of the problem of conventional economic thinking was that it subordinated the ends of human life to the means of economic production – a complete reversal of the proper order of things.

Pearce sees both cause for worry and celebration in the events that have transpired since Small Is Beautiful was originally published. On the one hand, many of the worrying trends Schumacher identified have only accelerated: neoliberal globalization and its attendant monoculture, skewed theories of development that privilege intensive industrial production and agriculture, and, of course, the worship of centralization and “giantism.” On the other hand, a counter-movement of organic farmers, craft brewers, proponents of local economies, co-ops, and movements for political decentralization have also made a surprising amount of headway.

The underlying premise of Schumacher’s work is that unlimited economic growth in the pursuit of meeting a never-ending stream of consumer demands is “unnatrual” in the deepest possible sense. It goes against the grain of human nature in that it won’t satisfy our deepest longings, and it threatens to destroy the fragile biosphere upon which we and all other life depend. Only a reorientation of our economic and political life toward proper human ends – joy, wisdom, peace – can stave off an ecological disaster.

This view is both radical and conservative in that it requires a massive re-thinking of the political and economic status quo, but does so in the name of a very traditional, even religious, view of human beings and their destiny. Schumacher’s less-known work, A Guide for the Perplexed, actually presents the key to his thought here. His aim in that work was to recover the traditional metaphysical view of humanity and the universe that underlies what Huston Smith calls the “wisdom traditions” of the world. This philosophia perennis stands in stark opposition to the materialism of post-Englightenment modernity.

Pearce, like Schumacher, is a practicing Catholic who combines what we’d call social conservatism with economic positions well to the “left” of most Democrats, much less Republicans. He opposes “free trade” and thinks government policy should favor small businesses and local producers. He takes the issue of climate change and environmental degradation with the utmost seriousness, seeing them as direct consequences of growth-oriented and inequitable economic policy. He excoriates the World Bank and IMF and their regimes of “structural adjustment” programs for developing nations. And he opts for organic farming as the only way to save the land from destruction at the hands of intensive agriculture.

Somewhat confusingly, and despite the subtitle, Pearce says little directly about families. There are a few asides about the ways in which market capitalism breaks up social bonds, leaving atomized individuals in its wake. But very little is said about how families in particular are affected. For instance, it seems to me that Pearce could’ve made a lot of hay out of the way that our current economic practices force parents to work long hours, depriving them of the opportunities to spend time with their children as well as to participate in their communities.

I have to say that this book likely won’t convince anyone who isn’t already at least somewhat familiar with and somewhat sympathetic to Schumacher’s original arguments. But Pearce has done us a service even if the only effect of his book is to send people (particularly the more conservative-leaning people likely to read this) back to Schumacher’s original works. And beyond that, it’s nice to see Schumacherian principles applied to the current scence, giving us a picture of their continuing relevance.

Dear Publishers: I would be happy to review books like this when they come out instead of waiting till they’re available at the library. Please feel free to send review copies. 😉

5 thoughts on “Book review: Small Is Still Beautiful

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