Issue 1, Volume 1

"The Ontario Green News"

"Don't hate the media, be the media" Jello Biafra

 

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Ben Bennett: Solid Waste in Ontario

Frank De Jong: A History of the Green Party in Ontario

Glen Estill: Electricity in Ontario

Bill Hulet: Gandhi, Agriculture, Justice

Gayle Valeriote: Poverty in Ontario---Voices from a Neighbourhood

Peter Meisenheimer: The Great Lakes Fishery

Doug Woodard: Energy and the Fossil Fuel Situation

Regular Stuff:

Editorial

Columns

The Green Library: John Ruskin's Unto This Last

 

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THE GREEN LIBRARY: JOHN RUSKIN'S "UNTO THIS LAST"

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Both Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. credited a collection of essays by John Ruskin for dramatically shaping the way they viewed both politics and the economy. Unto This Last was first published in 1860 as a series of articles in "Cornhill Magazine". Even though it is 143 years old, I believe that Ruskin's critique of classical economics is just as fresh and important as if it was written yesterday. As such, I think it deserves a place on any green's bookshelf.

 


The title, Unto this Last refers to Christ's parable of the vineyard labourers from Chapter 20 of Matthew's Gospel. For those who are not acquainted with the New Testament, this is the story of the farm owner who hired different groups of day labourers at dawn, breakfast, noon, and supper to work in his vineyards. When dusk came and it was time to pay up, he gave the same amount of money to each---no matter how many hours of work each had done. When some of the fellows hired at dawn grumbled and said that this is unfair, the landowner told them to mind their own business. I assume that Ruskin choose this title because the parable specifically undermines conventional attitudes about wages and suggests the need for an ethical dimension in economic transactions.

 

One of the first issues Ruskin examines is the concept of "wealth". He argues that wealth has two components: material possessions and power. Briefly stated, wealth can consist of how much food, housing, clothing, etc, a person owns. In addition, it also consists of the ability to get other people to do things for you. The thought-example that he employs is to consider a wealthy land owner. If the other people in his county are all well-off independent farmers, he will have a problem finding servants to work in his fields. If, on the other hand, they are impoverished and landless, he will have no trouble at all getting them to do just about anything for low wages. The general case is that if all citizens have a certain level of material prosperity it will become increasingly impossible for the wealthy to hire others to do certain jobs. A current example would be to consider that if Canada were to have universal employment with good-paying jobs, MacDonalds would find it extremely hard to find people willing to work at minimum-wage jobs flipping hamburgers.

 

What this means, in effect, is that to a certain degree you can only have rich people (as powerful) if you have poor people (as powerless). Conversely, insofar as government programs such as welfare, employment insurance, minimum wage, universal healthcare, low-cost housing, guaranteed annual income, etc, create a secure "base level" to society, so the power of wealthy individuals and corporations over ordinary citizens declines. When we understand these two points, it becomes clear that the wealthy have a clear and vested interest in maintaining a certain number of people in absolute poverty.

 

Wealth as power also has an impact on wealth as possessions in those instances where the items in question are in short supply. For example, consider the case of housing. The wealthy will compete with each other to purchase most of the limited stock of real estate, which will drive up prices. This will make it harder and harder for the poor to either purchase land for their own homes, or will increase the cost of rental accommodation as landlords pass their increased costs onto their tenants. So it doesn't really matter how much the wages of a worker go up in absolute terms if a significant income gap opens up between different segments of the population---it will be harder to afford a place to live.

 

What this means is that the "rising tide lifts all boats" argument that is often used to justify inequality is simply false. In many cases it is meaningless to say that everyone's income can increase if disparity between rich and poor is allowed to continue or accelerate. And in fact it certainly is the case that even though most Canadians have gotten richer since the Second World War in terms of material possessions (ie: ability to purchase televisions, clothing, etc), because of rising income disparity over the last thirty years it is becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to be able to buy their own home. Every new subdivision of "monster homes" or "estate lots" built for the powerful wealthy means that fewer humble bungalows and cheap apartments are being built for the powerless poor. (The reasons why this situation is not more obvious is because women have entered the workforce, which has allowed most families to bring dual incomes to bear on mortgages. In addition, most people's toleration for high debt loads has increased far beyond their parents' and grandparents' "comfort zone". Finally, ease of transportation has allowed people to commute longer distances from areas where homes are relatively cheaper to places that offer employment.)

 

It is because of this competition for scarce resources driving up the cost of housing that any move towards dealing with the homeless problem will not work without a significant attempt at income redistribution. In some communities most of the people who live in homeless shelters and "couch surf" already have jobs. They simply don't make enough money to be able to compete with the middle and upper classes for housing. Unless we level out the extreme disparity in purchasing power that has developed between the working poor and the secure and affluent, government attempts to end homelessness by building social housing will be like trying fill a bathtub with an eye-dropper. (In contrast, increasing the minimum wage and/or developing a guaranteed annual income tied to a maximum allowable income plus draconian planning regulations would address the core issue.)

 

This competition also exists for public services. For example, since public transit has increasingly been relegated to serving poor folks who cannot afford cars, the middle and upper classes have used both their voting and lobbying powers to progressively strip-away financial and planning support for public transit and replace it with aggressive road-building projects. As greens, we need to realize that land and transit resources are simply two of a large number of intrinsically scarce commodities (eg: oil, clean water, natural gas, etc). If income disparity is already removing access to housing and public transit, won't increasingly obvious scarcity in other resources also deny the powerless access to these as well? (Eg: will the poor eventually lose access to potable water because the wealthy need it to fill their swimming pools and water their lawns?)

 

Ruskin's discussion of wealth as power raises another issue that economists never touch on: the moral obligations of wealth. He does this by asking "Why it is that most people routinely hold soldiers, teachers, doctors and lawyers in higher regard than business people?" His answer is that it is because each of these professions has an (at least theoretical) ethical obligation to defend some moral value with their lives, if need be. The duty of a soldier, according to Ruskin, is ultimately to die for his country. Similarly, a teacher must uphold the Truth no matter what the personal cost to her career or life (think of Dr.Nancy Oliveri and her struggles to publish the truth even though strongly opposed by Sick Children's Hospital and Apotex). A doctor must stay by his post and treat people during epidemics and plagues (like the folks who go into the back country of Africa to fight outbreaks of Ebola). Lawyers must see that people get full support of their rights no matter how unpopular (someone has to represent even Paul Bernardo). In contrast, classical economics presents the ideal business person as having absolutely no greater ethical compass than greed pure and simple.

 

Ruskin believes that this is a total perversion of reality. In his opinion being a merchant or business person is potentially just as noble a calling as any other. The problem is, however, that classical economics has strongly promoted the idea that business people have absolutely no ethical responsibility to the other folks in society. Insofar as anyone actually believes this foolishness, they are supporting the idea that a business person should shirk her ethical responsibilities in much the same way as a cowardly soldier, teacher, doctor or lawyer.

 


Business people do great good in society by organizing wealth-creating enterprises, risking capital on ventures and so on. But insofar as they do follow an ethical calling, they need to have some sort of moral foundation to fall back on. Ruskin asks the simple question "If the essence of being a soldier is the potential to be asked to die for his country, what similar potential sacrifice does our society ask of the business person?" The implication is that the business person should risk her wealth for the greater good of the community. The soldier hopes for victory, but he does risk his life. In the same way, a business person risks her capital in the hope of making a profit, but the profit is only legitimate if it can be made by not harming the greater good of society.

 

Ruskin fleshes out this principle by arguing that it is possible to develop an economic system that is based on non-fluctuating wages. That is, wages will no longer be based upon supply and demand, but rather on what is considered a reasonable income. At this point, the efficiencies that one entrepreneur seeks to use while competing with others become technological innovation, quality, and goodwill. Payroll will be controlled through good management practice such as only hiring the very best employees and scheduling work as efficiently as possible. (In Christ's parable, the vineyard owner was penalized for not doing a better job at recruiting his day labourers instead of passing on the cost to his employees in the form of reduced wages.)

 

Classical economics does a tremendous disservice to society by arguing that commerce has absolutely no moral obligations whatsoever. This is not, Ruskin would argue, a statement of scientific objectivity, but rather a specifically narrow-minded point of view that is being promoted as if it were a scientific fact. In effect, the discipline of economics is actually a form of propaganda for a specifically amoral worldview. (Or as a post-modernist philosopher would say, any human activity, simply because it is a human activity, cannot be "value-free". Insofar as an academic continues to argue that it is, he is simply attempting to hide his own particular values---probably because if they were clearly articulated they would be seen as obviously indefensible.)

 

Moreover, Ruskin would argue that a great many business people do not act simply out of self-interest because they are influenced by values that bleed into their economic activities from other aspects of their lives (ie: religion, personal philosophy, etc). Moreover, these values not only do not always harm their businesses, they often benefit them by creating labour stability, "good will" with both clients and fellow business people, and so on. Furthermore, Ruskin argues it is these businesses that create most of the true wealth in a society. In contrast, those managers and businesses that most clearly follow the amoral worldview of classical economics often do much more harm than good. (Consider the chaos that has been created by business dealings such as Bre-X, Enron, the Savings and Loan fiasco, etc. As well, how much absolute benefit does a society receive from a company that can only survive by keeping its employees in poverty? Is Macdonalds a net benefit to Canadians?) It is only when the greed of business people is reigned in by ethical considerations that the free market becomes a benefit to society instead of a liability. Why, Ruskin asks, shouldn't our society admit this fact and stop teaching at universities (and to all who are foolish enough to listen) that people are inherently greedy and no one should ever consider anything but their own narrow self-interest?

 

Stated boldly in a book review, Ruskin's ideas might seem absolutely outrageous. But in actual fact a great deal of what he argued for back in 1860 has already come to pass. Minimum wage laws, collective bargaining legislation, safety standards, environmental regulations, etc, have all forced the marketplace to reward companies that consider other issues beyond the narrow ones of supply and demand. Unfortunately, the academic economics of university, right-wing political parties and certain vested interests still don't understand the importance of ethical values and continue to exert great energy in undermining what gains that have been made since Ruskin's time. Even Marxists, because of their dogmatic adherence to naive 19th century materialism, usually refuse to accept the importance of ethics to the economy and seek to define all reform movement in terms of "class struggle". Ruskin, Gandhi and Luther-King Jr., as religious men, were free from the conceptual blinders that limit academics and Marxists and were therefore able to see things from a much more open and pragmatic perspective. (Indeed, the importance of religious leaders on the development of social welfare in Canada is very well documented.)

 

Most greens come to their activism from a sense of moral outrage over injustice to both man and nature. Because of this, they are more willing to admit that ethics should guide the economy instead of being subservient to it. (Indeed, the world's first Green party was actually formed under the title of the "Values" Party.) Greens do not oppose the marketplace per ce, but want to make sure that the rules governing it accurately reflect the values of society as a whole. I'm sure that Ruskin would agree with us that the economy is like fire: a valued servant but a terrible master.

 

Bill Hulet is a long-time activist and Green Party cadre from Guelph Ontario. He is also the editor of "the Ontario Green News".