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