The phrase “Small is beautiful” was coined, or at least popularized, by the economist E.F. Schumacher, who chose it for the title of his ground-breaking international best-seller, published in 1973, that exploded like a beneficent bomb, demolishing, or at least throwing into serious question, many of the presumptions of laissez-faire economics.  The subtitle of Schumacher’s book, “A Study of Economics as if People Mattered,” reflects his insistence that the question of scale in economic life should not—and, indeed, morally speaking, cannot—be separated from the overriding dignity of the human person.  The tendency of modern economics to genuflect before Mammon in the name of quasimysterious market forces, and to disregard the dignity of the human person, is ultimately not an economic but a moral question.  As such, we should not be surprised that the whole issue has concerned the Catholic Church for more than a century.

Perhaps Schumacher’s lasting legacy is to illustrate that subsidiarity, the essence of the Church’s social teaching as expounded in social encyclicals by popes such as Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II, and as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, has worldwide popular appeal and, more significantly, is a practical and viable alternative to laissez-faire concepts of economics.

Schumacher warned of impending calamity if rampant consumerism and economic expansionism were not checked by human and environmental considerations.  Like a latter-day prophet, he asserted that humanity was lurching blindly in the wrong direction, that the pursuit of wealth could not ultimately lead to happiness or fulfillment, that the pillaging of finite resources and the pollution of the planet constituted a threat to global ecological and economic stability, and that a renewal of moral and spiritual perception was essential if disaster was to be avoided.  His greatest achievement was the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern economics in a language that encapsulated contemporary doubts and fears about the industrialized world.  He confronted the presumptions of modernity with the dynamism of tradition.  He stressed that the wisdom of the ages, the perennial truth that has guided man throughout history, serves as a constant reminder to each new generation of the dangers of self-gratification.  The lessons of the past, if heeded, should always empower the present.

In practical terms, Schumacher counteracted the idolatry of giantism with the beauty of smallness.  People, he argued, can only feel at home in human-scale environments.  If structures—economic, political, or social—grow too large, they become impersonal and unresponsive to human needs and aspirations.  Under these conditions, individuals feel functionally futile, dispossessed, voiceless, powerless, excluded, and alienated.  He applied similar criteria with regard to technolatry, the idolization of technology.  He wrote that modern technology often pursues size, speed, novelty, and violence in defiance of all laws of natural harmony.  The machine was becoming master and not the servant of man, severing him from his natural environment and encasing him in an increasingly artificial world.  Since Schumacher’s time, this process has accelerated.  Reality is being systematically replaced by virtual reality.  How can mankind address the urgent problems confronting the real world when it is being simultaneously stimulated and stupefied by electronic fantasies?  As techno-man plugs himself into the latest electronic illusions, he simultaneously disconnects himself from the real world and its very real problems.

The harsh reality, unheeded by those hooked on fantasy, is that the ecological “bottom line”—conservation of limited resources—is not compatible with the economic “bottom line”: consumer-driven expansionism without limit.  The fact is that the globalist’s dream is the realist’s nightmare.  As Schumacher observed: “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it.  He even tells of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”  We were given authority over nature as stewards of the goodness she has to offer, not as locusts devouring what we have no intention of replenishing.  The moral is easy enough to discern for those who have ears to hear: Ultimately, small is beautiful because the earth herself is not only beautiful but small.

Isn’t this a little alarmist?  Wasn’t Schumacher overstating the case?  Certainly, many conventional economists would have us believe so.  When it comes to explaining, or explaining away, the possible problems confronting a blind faith in laissez-faire economics, these apologists for continual economic expansion are the proverbial eternal optimists.  This touching optimism is attributable to what might be called the Micawber Factor, in honor of Dickens’ endearingly feckless character who believed that “something will turn up.”  Few, however, would suggest that Mr. Micawber’s wilfully extravagant and futile short-sightedness offers a model of sound economic living.  On the contrary, isn’t it merely prudent to be conservative in our approach to conserving resources that might be in short supply?  And, similarly, isn’t it prudent to assume that pollution might be a contributor to global warming until irrefutable evidence is provided to the contrary?  Aren’t those so-called conservatives who urge that we throw caution to the wind being somewhat less than conservative in the practice of their beliefs?  In truth, what might be termed the Theoretical Virtues of economic orthodoxy—faith in the hidden hand of market forces, hope that “something will turn up,” and love of economic growth—are all inimical to conservatism, truly conceived.

What, then, is conservatism, truly conceived, and how does it diverge from laissez-faire economics?  On a purely political level—and conservatism, truly conceived, can never subsist solely on the purely political level—it might be said that Edmund Burke is the original conservative.  Burke analyzed the anarchy of the French Revolution and wrote a devastating critique of the destructive forces unleashed by that debacle.  “Liberty,” he wrote, “must be limited in order to be possessed.”  This is the paradox at the heart of human life—and, therefore, at the heart of economics—that is ignored by laissez-faire libertarians.  In reality, these libertarians are economic anarchists who say that nothing must restrict the liberty of market forces.  In exactly the same way that political anarchists believe that a perfect world would be ushered in by the removal of all government and all law, these economic anarchists believe that a better world will be ushered in by the removal of all efforts to limit the liberty of the hidden hand of the free market.  Yet why should we believe that this mysterious “hidden hand” is always and infallibly beneficial?  On what authority should we place such faith in this mystery?  What did Christ have to say on the subject?  Did He command us to genuflect before the Almighty Market?  Not exactly.  His two greatest commandments are that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.  Commandments are not options.  What happens if and when there is a conflict between these commandments and the worship of the free market?  In such cases, which should prevail?  What if the free market should dictate that sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll are the most profitable sectors of the economy?  Prostitution and pedophilia are both highly profitable areas and, no doubt, would be even more so if the hidden hand of the market were not thwarted by the prudishness of Christian morality enshrined in law to protect women and children.  Clearly, in such circumstances, prudishness is simply prudence, and the freedom of the market, merely madness.

The absence of what might be termed a “soul” in economics, its unremitting materialism, leads to the assumption that all of mankind’s problems can be solved by the attainment of universal material prosperity.  The road to riches is the road to happiness.  This dominant modern belief is particularly alluring, because it suggests that the faster you get one desirable thing, the more surely you attain another.  It has the added attraction of being devoid of any ethical constraints, such as the need for self-sacrifice.  On the contrary, the more we try to enrich ourselves, the happier we shall be.  The materialist mantra is “Get Rich, Be Happy.”  Once this golden rule is accepted, the only problem confronting humanity is an economic and technological one: How do we make everybody richer so that everybody can be happier?

Gandhi spoke disparagingly about “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”  Yet the golden rule just cited does not mention being good, for that is irrelevant.  On the contrary, if goodness is an obstacle to happiness, it is to be shunned.  The name of the game is self-gratification, not self-sacrifice.  And this raises an interesting question.  At what point will people decide that they are rich enough to be happy?  Indeed, what exactly is “enough”?  Conventional economics, obsessed with perpetual growth, has no concept of “enough.”  The keyword is not enough but more.  And, although there are poor societies that have too little, there are no rich societies saying that they have enough, let alone that they have too much.

This prompts another question: Can a society be called “happy,” however materially affluent, if it always wants more?  Clearly, the answer is no.  It is not satisfied—a word whose Latin root, satis, means “enough.”  It can be seen, therefore, that the “Get Rich, Be Happy” mantra is a futile hymn to a false god.  It is neither satisfying in practice nor satisfactory in principle.  In fact, a more appropriate hymn for the restlessly rich countries of the world would be the Rolling Stones anthem, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Ultimately, conventional economists are making the perennially fatal mistake of ignoring the metaphysical truths that underpin physical facts.  They forget that greed is a metaphysical reality and is, therefore, unlimited.  Greed is larger than the world and may, if unchecked, outstrip the world’s ability to meet its demands.  As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough for every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”  Or, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the process loses his soul.”  And Solzhenitsyn’s words are, of course, a variation on the words of Jesus Christ: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Such is the folly of Economic Man, who is set to lose his soul and the world, poisoning the one with greed and the other with the pillage and pollution it causes.

The solution is to replace the soulless economics—which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing—with an economics with soul, an economics “as if people mattered.”  As Pope Pius XII put it, “The wound of our individualistic and materialistic society will not be healed, the deep chasm will not be bridged, by no matter what system, if the system itself is materialistic in principle and mechanical in practice.”

Burdened by materialism and mechanism, man has enslaved himself to the rule of the Giants.  In economics, multinational corporations rule the roost, assisted by such international financial institutions as the IMF and the World Bank.  Small businesses struggle to survive in a system weighted unfairly in the direction of the Giants.  In politics, power continues to be centralized into larger and larger entities that are further and further removed from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people and families.  In the United States, Congress and the Supreme Court erode the power of the individual states; in Europe, the essentially undemocratic European Union continues to swallow up smaller sovereign states with its voraciously secular appetite.  Everywhere, the small and the beautiful are being threatened by the big and the ugly.  Small business is threatened by big business; small government, by big government.

“To the size of states there is a limit as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature or are spoilt.”  Thus wrote Aristotle, and, as Schumacher commented, “it’s hard to equal the language of the ancients” when dealing with these fundamental problems of life.  Then, echoing Aristotle’s ancient wisdom, Schumacher reiterated his belief that “the question of the proper scale of things” is “the most neglected subject in modern society.”  This, of course, is at the center of the Catholic Church’s teaching on subsidiarity—a teaching rooted in the belief that power should be devolved upward from the family, not imposed downward by impersonal centralized power.

Perhaps G.K. Chesterton summed up the whole matter best: “That which is large enough for the rich to covet,” he wrote, “is large enough for the poor to defend.”  Let this be a rallying cry for all true conservatives.