The Vision of E.F. Schumacher

Church social doctrine played a major role in the development of Small Is Beautiful. The Register takes a look at the work and the author 100 years after his birth.

A century ago, on Aug. 16, 1911, the great economist E.F. Schumacher was born in the German city of Bonn. An icon of the early “green” movement, few people seem to know that Schumacher’s vision was inspired by the great papal encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI, or that Schumacher himself was a convert to Catholicism.

Disgusted with the Nazis, Schumacher moved to England before the beginning of the Second World War and remained there for the remainder of his life. Best known for his international bestseller Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, he is regarded by many as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The enormous impact of Small Is Beautiful, which became the bible of a new generation of environment-conscious politicians, economists and campaigners, makes it one of the most important books of its time.

Jimmy Carter, following his election to the presidency in 1976, invited Schumacher to the White House for a photo shoot. Pictures of Carter and Schumacher, arm in arm, were splashed across the newspapers, indicating, so the president would have us believe, that he was in tune with the latest thinking on “economics as if people mattered,” which was the subtitle of Schumacher’s book.

There was, however, a secret behind Schumacher’s book that his millions of admirers did not know. It was a secret that some of them would not wish to know. It was, in fact, a secret that many of them still want to keep secret. The shocking secret is that Schumacher was hugely influenced in his writing of Small Is Beautiful by the teaching of the Church, a fact that appears to remain a major embarrassment to today’s E.F. Schumacher Society, if its deafening silence on the subject is anything to go by.

At first skeptical that the Popes could have anything of worth to teach him in the sphere of economics, Schumacher read Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and he was astonished by the insight that the social teaching of the Church had to offer. It was, however, the promulgation of another encyclical, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968), which would have the most immediate impact on his life.

This encyclical prompted his wife and one of his daughters to seek instruction in the Catholic faith. The message that Humanae Vitae conveyed, wrote Schumacher’s daughter, “was an affirmation and support for marriage, for women … who had given themselves entirely to their marriages and who felt acutely the pressure from the world outside that shouted ever louder that homebound, monogamous relationships were oppressive to women and prevented them from ‘fulfilling themselves.’”

Although, at the time, Schumacher did not feel able to follow his wife and daughter into the Church, he concurred with their view of the encyclical. “If the Pope had written anything else,” he told a friend, “I would have lost all faith in the papacy.”

On Sept. 29, 1971, Schumacher was finally received into the Catholic Church. Two years later, his worldwide bestseller was published — a work, both popular and profound — which almost single-handedly redefined the public perception of economics and its impact upon the human person and his environment.

It is, in fact, ironic that the modern environmental or “green” movement derives its weltanschauung not from any New Age philosophy or neo-pagan “religion,” but from the expertise and wisdom of a world-renowned economist who found inspiration from the social doctrine of the Church.

Schumacher died on Sept. 4, 1977, shortly before his second major work, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published, in which he sought to outline the underlying spirituality and philosophy from which the economic vision in Small Is Beautiful is derived.

Schumacher’s lasting legacy is to illustrate that subsidiarity — the essence of the Church’s social teaching as taught by successive Popes, as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and as reiterated by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus (1991) and by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (2009) — has worldwide popular appeal. It was with this thought in mind that I decided to write Small Is Still Beautiful: to show that Schumacher’s original book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published — and as a means of making the Church’s teaching known to the wider world.

I changed the subtitle to “economics as if families mattered” to show that families are the most important units in any society and to emphasize this message in light of the concerted attacks on the family since Schumacher’s book was written. I believe that Schumacher would have endorsed the change of title, given his wholehearted support of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life.

In practical terms, Schumacher counteracted the idolatry of giantism with the beauty of smallness. People, he argued, could only feel at home in human-scale environments, of which the family was the archetype. His insistence that the question of scale in economic life should not — and, indeed, morally speaking, could not — be separated from the overriding dignity of the human person shifted the whole focus of economic thought away from impersonal market forces and back to the dignity of human life.

He argued forcefully that the tendency of modern economics to genuflect before Mammon in the name of quasi-mysterious market forces, and to disregard the dignity of the human person, is ultimately not an economic question at all. It is a moral question.

As such, we should not be surprised that the whole issue has concerned the Church for more than a century, nor that the Church’s teaching inspired the work and ultimately the conversion of one of the world’s finest and most important economists.

Joseph Pearce, writer in residence at Ave Maria University, is author of Small Is Still Beautiful(ISI Books).