Fritz Schumacher: A Centennial Tribute

August 16 marks the centennial of the birth of the economist E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher, author of the widely acclaimed Small Is Beautiful (1973).

Fritz was a Rhodes scholar who escaped from his native Germany to Britain at the onset of the Nazi era. For years he was the model of an undistinguished British bureaucrat, eventually serving as chief economist for the British National Coal Board. But along the way he was somehow drawn into the orbit of a little U.K. magazine entitled Resurgence: The Journal of the Fourth World. The theme of Resurgence was a repudiation of “the existing power structures of the world, not because they are capitalist or communist or fascist or whatever, but simply because they are too big”.

Under the tutelage of some very interesting but unorthodox thinkers, notably the Austrian-born economist Leopold Kohr, Fritz began to ask some penetrating questions about the organization and desirability of increasingly globalized industrial society. Fritz soon found himself an advocate for a “Fourth World where government and economics are under genuine human control because the size of such units are small, sensible, and human scale, where there is a maximum of decentralized decision making, and where the pace of change is regulated not by the appetites of an overmighty minority for profit and power, but by the day to day needs of small scale human communities and the psychic capacities of their members to adapt.”

In 1973 Fritz offered his first book, Small Is Beautiful, and was startled to find that it became a huge best seller. Not only that, but the buttoned-down Coal Board bureaucrat suddenly transformed into a shaggy-maned, twinkly-eyed speaker in great demand in Europe and the U.S. The main points of Fritz’s book, engagingly presented, included:

  • A criticism of overgrown and overorganized systems as anti-human
  • The danger of too rapid depletion of the earth’s natural resources
  • An attack on acquisitiveness and overconsumption
  • The need for some limiting principle – enough!
  • The vital importance of human scale
  • The need for “intermediate technology”, simple, nonviolent and controllable
  • The importance of recapturing convictions about the good life
  • The eternal relevance of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

After four brief years of international fame, Fritz died in 1977. Like-minded people in the US and UK founded E. F. Schumacher Centers to perpetuate the intellectual tradition he had inherited and did so much to popularize. I was a founder of the US Center and a director for 23 years.

Small Is Beautiful has been reprinted several times. The 1989 Harper & Row paperback edition contains prefaces by two apparent political opposites: a founder and chronicler of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (Kirkpatrick Sale) and a former Reagan White House senior policy advisor (me). It is fascinating that our independently written prefaces were so compatible.

Some of Fritz’s 1973 ideas no longer resonate. A couple were impractical from the beginning. But in this age of onrushing bigness— in government, business, labor, education, religion, and many other areas of what we call Western civilization, Fritz Schumacher’s inspiring and evocative arguments for decentralism, human scale and the human spirit remain well worth reading. It was good that he lived.