Is Work Just a Necessary Evil?

Re-Visiting “Buddhist Economics”

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(Third in a series of articles highlighting the ongoing relevance of EF Schumacher’s vision.)

All Wish to Get Rid of Work

The value of Schumacher’s contribution partially resides in his identification of unexamined assumptions that govern economic decision-making. These assumptions relate directly to the value of work. He recognized that all stakeholders engaged in economic decision-making tended to treat work as a “necessary evil”:

• From the point of view of employer and economist, work is a cost (i.e., “labor cost”) and should accordingly be reduced to a minimum if it is not possible for automation to eliminate it altogether.

• From the point of view of the worker, to work is to sacrifice leisure and comfort. It is
important for wages to be increased as much as possible because wages are
“compensation” for this sacrifice.

The ideal from for the point of view of the employer is to produce a product or service without employees, whereas the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

Is Work Just a Cost?

While we treat work as if it is a cost – and accordingly wish to rid ourselves of it as much as possible – life is not possible without work. Even if it were possible to live without work, life without work is not part of a life well-lived. Schumacher identified three vital functions of work, only one of which informs economic decision-making:


• Develops and utilizes human skillfulness. Work is important because it requires the
learning and cultivation of skill.

• Enables us to overcome our self-centeredness. Work requires that we join with other people in the pursuit of a common task. Work is intrinsically pro-social: its goal is to produce something of value for others. It requires that we attend to and cooperate with others and that we tame attitudes and behaviors that are antithetical to such cooperation.

• “Brings forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” This third function is the only aspect that tended to be admitted to economic thinking. By producing some good or service for others, work enables us to survive with some degree of comfort.

While the first two functions of work are ignored by economists, they are at least as important as the third function: as far as we are aware, we cannot “get rid of work” without diminishing skillfulness and prosocial behavior. The conditions that govern human existence have not yet allowed us to experiment with societies that have functioned without work. History and everyday experience suggest that it would be reasonable to be concerned about the potential direction of human energies not channeled by a governing structure. Many anthropologists and sociologists would characterize work as the cornerstone of social control in any society.

There is yet another problem that accrues to the prospect of “getting rid of work”: this goal implicitly assumes that the quality of our lives will inevitably be enhanced by leisure. This assumption is probably erroneous. “To strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be to misunderstand that work and leisure are complementary part of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.” Schumacher’s thinking here is squarely within the western tradition, and is consistent with conclusions articulated by Hesiod1, Schopenhauer2,Bertrand Russell3, and Hannah Arendt4.

Values and Technology

The contest between human work and technology is embodied in John Henry, an American folk hero who worked as a “steel-driving man”. His legendary prowess as a steel-driver led to a race between man and rock drilling machine.  John Henry won the race but died in victory, hammer in hand. 

Schumacher distinguished two types of technology:

• Technology that enhances human skill and power

• Technology that “turns the work of human beings over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.”

When machines do “the essentially human part of the work” they destroy culture. Schumacher points to this challenge without further clarifying how one might determine those aspects of work that are “essentially human”. A first step in such a process would entail acknowledging that decisions about technology are essentially decisions about values. The deliberative process in which one might engage to determine those aspects of work that Schumacher calls “essentially human” entails identifying human skills that we most value and that we accordingly deem most worth preserving.5

Esoteric Religion or Common Sense?

Buddhist novitiation ceremony in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma). The initiation of boys to Theravada Buddhism is considered the most important duty that parents owe to their sons. The boys are dressed in a traditional prince attire, almost always wearing make-up. They are led through the village on horseback accompanied by an orchestral band and accompanied by their families and relatives to the local temple. The procession symbolizes Prince Siddhartha’s departure from the royal palace, leaving behind his family and a life of luxury in search of the Four Noble Truths. 7

Schumacher refers to awareness that work cannot be reduced to a cost as “Buddhist.” Yet none of the ideas consistent with such an awareness are exclusively Buddhist. A rich Western intellectual tradition celebrates work: the value of work was the subject of what may be the first book of Western civilization whose authorship is definitively known. 6 Although the drive to eliminate work through automation and AI has accelerated, most non-Buddhists continue to value hard work, admire those whose possess skill, and hold those who work well with others in high esteem. While it is true that we tend to render collective economic decisions as if considerations related to the psychic and social value of work do not apply, there is nothing exclusively Buddhist about valuing work. It would be more accurate to characterize the capacity to recall the value of work (i.e., the fact that work is not exclusively a cost) as something many Westerners would regard as “common sense” or, alternatively, as a recurring theme in the western canon.

Perhaps Schumacher’s work among Buddhists in Burma awakened an awareness in him that would otherwise have remained dormant. If so, it would not be the first time that travel to another country illuminated contemporary aspects of one’s own culture that had become untethered to wisdom – even if such wisdom constituted the canon upon which one’s own civilization originated.

In any event, the dysfunctional assumptions governing work identified by Schumacher are not intrinsically “Western” but are rather secondary to a penchant for creating arbitrary distinctions that divide knowledge into separate academic and professional categories. By carving up human knowledge into distinct disciplines (such as “Economics”), we place ourselves at risk for arriving at conclusions unfertilized by considerations beyond the ken of one’s academic or professional field. In adhering to such arbitrary demarcations, we blind ourselves to considerations that might otherwise impress us as “common sense”.

Although there is a rich western tradition that does not seek to “get rid of” work, there was no means by which knowledge and values from this tradition could be admitted to the academic and professional category called “Economics”. Disciplines such as History, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science and Religion addressed values and the best ways to organize a society based on such values, whereas economists saw themselves as engaged in a strictly quantitative value-neutral science (excepting the values of “growth” and “progress”, as discussed in prior articles in this series). Hence “Buddhist Economics” is less about eastern religious principles and more about the devastating intellectual impact of dividing knowledge into arbitrary and artificial academic categories.

The Elemental Dichotomies

The real division characterized by Schumacher is neither geographic (i.e., East versus West) nor religious (i.e., Christian versus Buddhist), but is rather composed of the following systems of value:

• Materialism versus Humanism. Because Economics is concerned with output and consumption, it emphasizes the work product over the worker. Attention is thereby shifted from the human to the subhuman. To focus attention on the impact of work on the worker is not particularly Eastern or Buddhist, since both western and eastern traditions are informed by an awareness of the centrality of work to the human condition.

• Desire versus Freedom. Because Economics is concerned with maximizing output and consumption, it encourages the multiplication of wants. Freedom from the desire to consume is antithetical to economic imperatives of growth and progress. The idea that “it is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but attachment to wealth” is not an exclusively Buddhist idea but can be readily located in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

• Decay Versus Dignity. The purification of human character that can be accomplished through work is a focus of both western and eastern traditions. Both Buddhism and Christianity (particularly Protestantism) see “character (as) formed primarily by a person’s work … (and see) … work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, (as a blessing to) those who do it …” Such considerations are not taken into account in our economic decision-making not because they are Buddhist but because they are not seen as relevant to the quantitative discipline of Economics.

• Consumption Versus Creativity. Economics assumes that consumption is more important than creative activity because it assumes that a person who consumes more is “better off” than one who consumes less. For the economist, consumption is a means to human well-being. To the extent that creative activity is valued, it is directed towards eliminating work (i.e., “innovation”, automation, and AI), stimulating desire through the manufacture of new products and services to want, and through the creation of a felt need for such products and services (“marketing”). Given the catastrophic ecological trajectory we found ourselves on half a century ago (which has only become more conspicuous in the interim), Schumacher observed that “our aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

One needs no exposure to Buddhism to recognize the validity of Schumacher’s conclusion that it is “utterly irrational” to embrace systems of thought and decision-making that implicitly and inevitably value desire and consumption at the expense of freedom and creativity.


The ideas that are discussed in this article – and all quotations – are from the following (unless otherwise noted):

“Buddhist Economics” in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.
Harper & Row. New York. 2010. Originally published in 1973.

  1. Hesiod.  Works and Days. Edited and translated by Glenn W. Most. Loeb Classical Library 57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  3. Ibid.
  6. Hesiod. Works and Days. Edited and translated by Glenn W. Most. Loeb Classical Library 57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  7. Translator and author Stephen Batchelor refers to “Tasks” to perform rather than “Truths” to believe. In particular, Batchelor believes it advantageous – and more faithful to the Buddha’s teaching – to refer to the “Fourfold Task” rather than the “Four Noble Truths”. See Batchelor, Stephen. After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. Harper Element, 2016. See also:

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