Economic Wisdom

This Sunday, August 16th, 2009, would have been Fritz Schumacher’s 98th birthday. In honor of this occasion we have included a selection of our favorite quotes from Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.

Even thirty-five years after the publication of this text, one can see that Schumacher’s seminal collection of essays is filled with pertinent and appropriate wisdom for today’s economic climate. You can access our complete list of quotes, sorted by chapter, here.


A Selection of Favorite Quotes from “Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered”

Page numbers refer to the following edition: Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later…With Commentaries by E. F. Schumacher (Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc., 1999).

“Now that man has acquired the physical means of self-obliteration, the question of peace obviously looms larger than ever before in human history. And how could peace be built without some assurance of permanence with regard to our economic life?” (10)

“From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence. We must study an economics of permanence.” (19)

“Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it equally their products.” (39)

“As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.” (44)

“When people ask for education…I think what they are really looking for is ideas that would make the world, and their own lives, intelligible to them. When a thing is intelligible you have a sense of participation; when a thing is unintelligible you have a sense of estrangement.” (63)

“What is to take the place of the soul and life-destroying metaphysics inherited from the nineteenth century? The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction… Our task – and the task of all education – is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices.” (79)

“It might be said that energy is for the mechanical world what consciousness is for the human world. If energy fails, everything fails.” (98)

“…we should be searching for policies to reconstruct rural culture, to open the land for the gainful occupation to larger numbers of people, whether it be on a full-time or a part-time bases, and to orientate all our actions on the land towards the threefold ideal of health, beauty and permanence.” (114)

“[Scientists] must work on public opinion, so that the politicians, depending on public opinion, will free themselves from the thralldom of economism and attend to the things that really matter. What matters, as I said, is the direction of research, that the direction should be towards non-violence rather than violence; towards an harmonious cooperation with nature rather than a warfare against nature; towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant and economical solutions normally applied in nature rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences.” (116)

“In the simple question of how we treat the land, next to people our most precious resource, our entire way of life is involved, and before our policies with regard to the land will really be changed, there will have to be a great deal of philosophical, not to say religious, change. It is not a question of what we can afford but of what we choose to spend our money on. If we could return to a generous recognition of meta-economic values, our landscapes would become healthy and beautiful again and our people would regain the dignity of man…” (116-7)

“Taking stock, we can say that we possess a vast accumulation of new knowledge, splendid scientific techniques to increase it further and immense experience in its application. All this is truth of a kind. This truthful knowledge, as such, does not commit us to a technology of giantism, supersonic speed, violence, and the destruction of human work-enjoyment. The use we have made of our knowledge is only one of its possible uses and, as is now becoming ever more apparent, often an unwise and destructive use.” (124)

“Although we are in possession of all requisite knowledge, it still requires a systematic, creative effort to bring this technology into active existence and make it generally visible and available. It is my experience that it is rather more difficult to recapture directness and simplicity than to advance in the direction of ever more sophistication and complexity. Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again.” (127)

“Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of the rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside.” (170)

“Economic development is something much wider and deeper than economics, let alone econometrics. Its roots lie outside the economic sphere, in education, organization, discipline and, beyond that, in political independence and a national consciousness of self-reliance.” (170)

“Economics, and even more so applied economics, is not an exact science; it is in fact, or ought to be, something much greater: a branch of wisdom.” (201)

“Ideals can rarely be attained in the real world, but they are none-the-less meaningful. They imply that any departure from the ideal has to be specially argued and justified.” (208)

“The answer is self-evident: greed and envy demand continuous and limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation, and this type of growth cannot possibly fit into a finite environment.” (222)

“In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.” (248)

“There has never been a time, in any society in any part of the world, without its sages and teachers to challenge materialism and plead for a different order of priorities…Today, however, this message reaches us not solely from the sages and saints but from the actual course of physical events. It speaks to us in the language of terrorism, genocide, breakdown, pollution, exhaustion.” (248-9)

“Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.” (252)