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E. F. SCHUMACHER AND THE MAKING OF “BUDDHIST ECONOMICS,” 1950 – 1973

  • Robert Leonard (a1)

Abstract

Until around 1950, the German émigré Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911–1977) was a relatively conventional economist, believing in progress based on economic growth and developments in science and technology. Then, as he turned forty, he went through a period of prolonged self-examination and spiritual quest, which, amongst other things, led him to become critical of Western modernity. Developing a great interest in Buddhist spirituality and culture, in 1955 he travelled to Burma, where he spent three months as a United Nations consultant. His encounter there with the encroachment of Western development upon a traditional society proved pivotal for him, confirming his skepticism about modernity and stimulating him to write a renegade essay, “Economics in a Buddhist Country.” This experience in Burma shaped his work thereafter, as contributor to debates on development both East and West, as promoter of intermediate technology, and as author of the prophetic, popular book of 1973 Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

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This paper grew out of my presidential address to the History of Economics Society at Michigan State University in June 2015. For discussion of various parts of it, I am grateful to Alessandro Barattieri, Abhay Ghiara, Viviana Di Giovinazzo, and Filippo Sabetti, as well as to participants at the History of Recent Economics (Cergy-Pontoise, 2013), 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics (Montreal 2014); History of Economics Society meetings at Duke (2016) and Toronto (2017); the History of Political Economy conference on the history of development economics, Duke University, April 2017; and the Mercatus Center seminar, George Mason University, November 2017. For helpful comments on the final paper, I am grateful to two anonymous referees for this journal. For their kind hospitality, assistance with archival material, and discussions of Schumacher, I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Barbara Wood, London, and both Susan Witt (Director) and Amelia Holmes (Librarian) of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, Gt. Barrington, MA. I thank Brihas Sarathy of the Pariyatti organization and Vreni Schumacher of Llampeter, Wales, for her kindness and for discussions of her late husband’s life and work. Finally, I thank the Schumacher Center for permission to quote from, and reproduce, archival material.

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