Most people think of E.F. Schumacher today (to the extent that they think of him at all) as some sort of vaguely leftist harbinger of the environmentalist movement. His most famous work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, is often reduced to “Buddhist Economics,” the title of one of the essays collected therein. Though it is true that Schumacher developed an interest in Buddhism during a stint as an economic consultant in Burma in 1955, his fascination with Catholicism ran much deeper, and after 15 years of intellectual and spiritual study, he entered the Catholic Church in 1971, two years before he published Small Is Beautiful.
For those familiar with the Church’s social teaching, the concept of subsidiarity, and the distributism of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Fr. Vincent McNabb, Schumacher’s work is as Catholic as Catholic can be, even if he never identified it as such. And there’s no reason why he should have: Subsidiarity is a doctrine developed from natural law, not from revelation, which means that all men can arrive at its truth, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof) in Christ.
Oddly enough, though, one of the reasons Schumacher is usually dismissed by American conservatives is that those conservatives—including many (indeed most) Christian conservatives in the United States—have taken their stand with the universalizing forces of modernity, otherwise known as liberalism. In both its economic and political forms, liberalism denies the truth of subsidiarity and the lessons derived from that truth. What matters is not the natural order that begins with the family and extends outward (with power and authority rightly decreasing the further we get from the most fundamental social unit), but the relationship between the “individual” and the centralizing forces of government (“the state”) and economics (“business”).
And so the rallying cry of both the liberals who identify as liberals and the conservatives who don’t but actually are is not “Small is beautiful!” but “Get big or get out!” Neither approaches economics (or politics, or culture) “as if people mattered” but as if all that matters is quantity, size, undifferentiated mass. The focus on national politics to the exclusion of state and local political activity rarely stems from a desire to limit the damage that the federal government undoubtedly does but from a belief that the sheer scale of national politics makes it easier to bring about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Jeremy Bentham, not Edmund Burke, is the true model of most American conservatives.
People laughed at Doug Sohn, the founder and proprietor of Hot Doug’s, Chicago’s legendary “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium,” because Sohn insisted on being on site whenever his restaurant was open for business. For that reason, he refused to franchise his business or even to open a second location. What kind of fool passes up the opportunity to make more money? The answer would have been obvious to Schumacher: the kind who thinks that serving his customers as best he can is the right way to make a living. Doug Sohn could live a comfortable life without opening a second location, but he couldn’t look each of his customers in the eye if he wasn’t physically there. He acted as if the people who bought his products mattered, and his customers rewarded him for that choice by lining up around the block every day he was open.
After I joined the board of the Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford, I was shocked by the number of avowed pro-lifers who told me that it was all well and good to support such an organization, so long as I realized that the more important battles were being fought in Washington, D.C. When I pointed out that this single pregnancy-care center had saved more babies (and thus also affected the lives of far more mothers and fathers) than the hard-won and much-hyped national ban on partial-birth abortion, the response was rarely disbelief (which might have been reasonable) but usually fury. What mattered most was the potential impact, and that was simply a matter of numbers: At any given moment, there are more unborn babies nationwide than there are in the Rockford area. That the actual impact of the Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford (and, for that matter, of every local pregnancy-care center in the country) was greater didn’t compute, because obviously bigger must be better.
With scale, though, comes anonymity, and the loss of a personal relationship that can change lives for the better and restore a culture. Conservatives used to offer this as a critique of national welfare programs versus state ones, and state welfare programs versuslocally focused and administered charities, but we rarely hear such critiques today. During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump made a few noises about eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, but under his appointee, Betsy DeVos, the department will not return significant control over education to states and localities but almost certainly grow at rates approaching its growth under Bill Bennett, whose own boss, Ronald Reagan, had vowed to kill Jimmy Carter’s creation.
For years now, certain conservatives of a more traditional bent (such as Paul Gottfried) have lamented the “failure” of journals such as this one to establish a significant presence on FOX News. If only Chronicles’ writers and editor could appear regularly on FOX, then . . . what? The level of analysis and the devotion to the truth that characterizes those writers and editors could never have a home in the 24-hour “news cycle,” which is really just a 15-minute news brief that repeats 96 times a day. To establish a beachhead inside FOX News would require being intellectually colonized by the medium. The medium is the message—and the mass media, by definition, has no room for the message of Chronicles: that small is beautiful, that we should approach politics and economics and culture as if people matter. The very structure of mass media is a rejection of the message our culture so desperately needs.
Thankfully, true reach—lasting influence—is a matter of quality rather than numbers. The magazine you hold in your hands never had more than 19,000 readers at any one time in its more than 40 years of publication, and for many of those years, the number of subscribers hovered somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000. That’s a pittance compared with the number of people that Sean Hannity reaches every night on FOX News. Yet Chronicles has changed (and will continue to change) lives in ways that Sean Hannity never will, precisely because its audience is smaller, and the relationship between Chronicles’ writers and editors and its readers is more personal. Hannity’s sound bites are aimed of necessity at the lowest common denominator, because that is how he attracts the largest possible audience. Chronicles will never attract an audience the size of Hannity’s, because the number of people at any given time who are ready and willing to hear the truth is always smaller than the number of people who desire a comforting lie. But those who are ready and willing to hear the truth are precisely the people who are most likely, in the long run, to change American culture for the better.
Still, we must give both liberal liberals and conservative liberals some credit where credit is due. If you’re not willing to do what’s necessary to get big, to cut the corners that will make you more money and tell the lies that will attract the largest audience, then it’s time to get out: out of the mindset that influence (and the potential for profit, for that matter) is always a matter of numbers. Small can indeed be beautiful—and like all beauty, it’s also good and true.
First published in the January 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.