Small Is Beautiful - The Old '70s Idea Sounds Good Again

IT has been nearly 25 years since a British economist won space on bestseller lists and bumper stickers by coining an appealing phrase: ''Small Is Beautiful.'' In a book bearing that title that was eventually translated into 15 languages, E.F. Schumacher criticized what he called ''an almost universal idolatry of gigantism.'' Arguing persuasively against overconsumption, overindustrialization, and excess materialism, he challenged the long-cherished notion that bigger is better.

Even for people who never read the book, the idea held charm. It suggested a romantic simplicity, a livable scale, a planet-friendly approach to shepherding resources, a humane way of dealing with people. Schumacher, in fact, subtitled his book ''Economics as if People Mattered.''

Today the bumper stickers have long since disappeared, and the book mostly gathers dust on library shelves. High-minded theories, however valid, do not always translate well into reality. Yet in an age filled with multiple theories of expansion, contraction, productivity, and growth, Schumacher's views make intriguing rereading.

These days the appeal of smallness depends on where one sits. Conflicting messages abound:

To a chief executive officer, small is beautiful when it applies to a company's shrinking payroll. But when the subject is the CEO's own paycheck, bigger is apparently still best. By one calculation, the average compensation for a CEO is 190 times greater than that of the average worker in his company.

To a working-class American, small is beautiful when it describes the unpaid balance on a credit card. But to retailers distressed by holiday shoppers who tried to keep indebtedness under control, smaller sales are cause for complaint. Americans, they seem to suggest, have a duty to spend.

To a campaigning politician, small is beautiful when it refers to the balanced budgets and lower taxes he or she promises to vote for if elected. But when it comes to a candidate's campaign spending, the philosophy changes to read: Megabucks are best.

Thinking small remains equally unappealing to corporate chieftains involved in recent mergers that have created new giants in the communication and entertainment industries and in banking. Schumacher called mergers and takeovers a ''trend towards vastness.''

Big is not inherently bad, of course, nor is small automatically good. But here and there, like crocuses peeking through the snow, signs can be found that some Americans are ready to side with Schumacher, at least in certain arenas.

For example, many voters are fed up with the excesses of political campaigns. Tired of lengthy races and outrageous spending, they long for a smaller-scale way to elect public officials.

Similarly, in sports, huge spending may be testing the tolerance of fans as already astronomical salaries continue to soar. The $8 million-a-year paycheck announced recently for Seattle baseball player Ken Griffey Jr., makes him the highest-paid player in major league history.

Among other hopeful signs, President Clinton in his State of the Union message promised an end to big government.

Even some of the nation's newest millionaire families report that they are scaling down. Instead of investing in hugely expensive yachts and cars or taking exotic vacations, they prefer bicycling and backpacking with their children.

Behind all the contradictions and confusion concerning big and small - extending even to the arts, where long novels are assumed to be major and miniature paintings are assumed to be minor - one thing remains constant. Human beings don't feel at ease with things too greatly exceeding the human scale, whether it's a megacorporation, a megamachine, or a megaweapon. And if this held true in 1973, no wonder ''Small Is Beautiful'' sounds good again today, when everything has grown so hugely since Schumacher first shared his ideals.

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