Fritz Schumacher: A Centennial Tribute
by John McClaughry
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
After four brief years of international fame, Fritz died in 1977. Like-minded people in
the US and UK founded E.F. Schumacher Societies to perpetuate the intellectual tradition he had
inherited and did so much to popularize. I was a founder of the US society and a director for 23
years. Two years ago it merged into the New Economics Institute, but it maintains its decentralist
library and a website at www.smallisbeautiful,org.
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
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.
John McClaughry co-authored, with Frank Bryan, The Vermont Papers: Recreating
Democracy on a Human Scale (1989) and has been Kirby Town moderator