Disappointing “Buddhist Economics”

I had been looking forward to reading E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful for a long time. It’s often credited with either originating or at least popularising a set of ideas dear to my heart, about the ultimate goals economics ought to serve, and the problems with the eternal quest for more stuff, at higher speed and greater scale. So it’s been bitterly disappointing to finally get around to it and discover quite how deeply flawed a work it is.

The first three chapters are quite good. The Problem of Production and Peace and Permanence deal with the damage done by economics ignoring fundamental limits to growth, the increasing alienation of work for most people in a globalised society, and the difference between consuming natural capital and harnessing renewable resources. I agree with them wholeheartedly, they were probably groundbreaking in their time, and they make their points quite convincingly in not that many words – so far so good. Some of it felt rather ironic coming from the British Coal Board’s chief economic advisor, but he wouldn’t be the first person to see the flaws of a system from deep within it. Chapter 3, The Role of Economics is a prescient warning about economists’ hubris and the danger of mistaking economic growth for an end in itself; a problem that’s only got worse since the book was written.

SMBC Comic on the subject

Unfortunately chapter 4, Buddhist Economics, which I had particularly been looking forward to, is where Schumacher goes off the rails.

It starts off with what looks like a good point expressed archaically:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

At this point I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that the gendered language was just down to this being an essay published in 1966, but it turns out that this was far too generous.  Two pages later, we get [emphasis mine]:

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.

I’m sorry Dr. Schumacher, but if they can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.

Then I realised that much of the piece reads like an apologia for the Burmese Junta. It turns out that the research trip to Burma on which this essay was based had been in 1955, before military rule, but by the time the essay was published in 1966 the country was under the same brutal dictatorship it still suffers under today. Seeing this essay, with all of its praise for Burma, published without any acknowledgement of this makes Schumacher seem more than a little like a premonition of George Galloway. Perhaps that’s been distracting me, because I can’t find a specific quote to anchor my other main criticism in: in reading this essay I felt horribly like he was outlining a highly prescriptive way of life for the little people, while presuming that there is a wise ruling class to make the big decisions for them.

The next chapter, A Question of Size certainly picks up on this “one rule for the masses, one for a privileged class” theme, with its approving nostalgia for a former age when:

…the movement of populations, except in periods of disaster, was confined to persons who had a very special reason to move, such as the Irish saints or the scholars of the University of Paris.

It’s in the middle of a quite sensible argument about the costs of people being so mobile that entire cities are rootless, but I can’t accept dealing with that by simply telling the masses that this is a privilege they can’t have. Once again, if they can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.

The rest of this chapter is material I broadly agree with, but it’s not particularly well argued. Actually it seems to presume prior agreement, it makes projections to the future that haven’t been borne out by history, and it’s so heavily reliant on assertions, bile about the status quo and repetition that I could have written it myself after a long night at the pub; not exactly the enlightenment I look to classic books for.

If you have read more of the book, and it gets better, please tell me, because this is the first of 4 sections and I’m finding myself with little desire to bother with the rest. Frankly it’s been so frustrating that I’m starting to view institutions named for Schumacher with a little suspicion, which is troubling when they tend to be my intellectual fellow-travelers.

This entry was posted in Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.