E.F. Schumacher on the moral and the economic

I’ve been having some good conversations with people at the New Economics Institute, formerly the Schumacher Society, about alternative economic models and, in my searches, I came upon this remarkable essay by E.F. Schumacher, “Buddhist Economics” (reprinted in his very well-known book, Small is Beautiful). In lieu of summarizing the argument Schumacher makes, I would prefer to ask about the right relationship that would have to obtain between the moral and the economic. Is it possible to abstract from Schumacher’s Buddhist considerations to see how any sturdy conceptual framework would have to look in order to get this relationship right?

The first principle would be that a philosophical (or religious or spiritual) way of life would take priority over the economic. Understood rightly, the economic is meant to support, while bringing into being, the higher aims of those participating in a certain way of life. Schumacher believes that a Buddhist way of life would be supported by a Buddhist economics; he notes that our materialist way of life is buttressed by professional (classical, neoliberal, etc.) economics. Here, we are witnessing a profound inversion of priorities.

The second principle would be that work was not a necessary evil but rather the way in which each individuals realizes his gifts (Schumacher’s words: “a chance to utilise and develop his faculties”) and helps to achieve the common good. On this understanding, leisure would not be recompense for work but would instead be time for self-reflection and contemplation.

The final principle would distinguish “enoughness” from “too much” as well as their respective aims. As a philosopher, I need to have “just enough” in order to cultivate my moral and intellectual character whereas citizens of developed nations are primed to maximize unnecessary desires in order to encourage more economic growth and greater consumption.

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