Monday, September 6, 2010

September 6 - E. F. Schumacher, Converted Economist

E.F. Schumacher was born in Bonn, Germany, to a family of political and economic influence. His father was a professor of Political Economy in Germany. This clearly had an effect on young Ernst because he would go on to explore economic issues for the remainder of his life. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and studied in Berlin, as well. Further, he studied at Columbia University in New York. He studied economics and proved to be more than capable in his chosen field of study.

However, as he approached his thirties Germany was becoming less and less comfortable for him. The Nazi party had gained power and control and began making life in Germany more restrictive and dangerous for those with a conscience. E.F. was one of the people that could not abide the restrictions of the Nazis and would not blindly overlook the atrocities that his State was committing. Instead, he left behind the country of his birth and of his parents and fled to Britain. When he arrived there, he was briefly interred in a camp for German immigrants. While there, he wrote an article on economic theory that somehow made it into the hands of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes engineered E.F.'s release and took him on as a protege at Oxford providing him with a position as professor of economics. During the war, E.F. helped mobilize and strengthen the British economy and army.

Though he later helped the nation of Burma by writing and developing something often called "Buddhist Economics." Buddhist economics were a departure from the typical capitalist systems of the west where the worker is compensated for their sacrifice of time with money but, otherwise, not supported more than necessary to maintain the worker. By decreasing the overall cost, profit could be maximized. E.F., however, theorized that the Buddhist system did not respond especially well to this apparent dehumanization of people for material gain. He wrote, "to organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence." For E.F. there was something more than numbers and spreadsheets to economics that had yet to be adequately expressed. From within E.F.'s Christian stance, there was a cry for a truly Christian economic theory.

These "Buddhist Economic principles" transferred well to Christian philosophy and economics, because E.F. noticed that both systems expressed a similar dictum of the value of life over things. For E.F.--a lifelong Christian--there should be no room for the destruction of individuals for the worldly gain of others. Through the writings of famous Christians like Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and Thomas Aquinas, E.F. remained committed to the ethics of the Kingdom of God even when placed in opposition to the seemingly successful ethics of the world. Though it would have been financially and professionally significant for E.F. to preach the orthodox economic assertions of people like Keynes and Adam Smith, E.F. preferred to speak about the value of even one person being significant enough to change the necessary economic prescriptions. In this way, E.F. was a bit of an "economic heretic" who resisted the soul-crushing aspects of economics in favor of affirming the individual and seeing the place of calling with each human. Each human was, in fact, a "pilgrim on a journey" that could not find completion or success outside of God and God's calling.

3 comments:

rob.cartridge said...

This is really interesting and very timely. Practical Action is a development organisation founded and inspired by E.F. Schumacher. We have just launched a year of activities to mark the centenary of his birth. You can read more and leave your own thoughts and comments at the webiste www.ef-schumacher.org

Nicola C said...

For anyone interested, Schumacher's biography 'Alias Papa' by his daughter, Barbara Wood, will be re-published by Green Books in 2011 - the centenary of Schumacher's birth. See www.ef-schumacher.org for more information about the centenary.

Joshua Hearne said...

Thank you both for sharing this information.