Ruskin as a Political Economist (1888)

by Frederic Jesup Stimson (1855-1943)

RPE.1 Writing, in 1871, the final preface to Munera Pulveris [Online editor’s note: “Offices of Dust” – a reference to Horace’s Archytas. – RTL], Mr. Ruskin says, “The following pages contain, I believe, the first accurate analysis of the laws of political economy which has been published in England.” On the other hand, the Daily News, as quoted by Ruskin himself, called his Fors Clavigera [Online editor’s note: An untranslatable pun: “Fortune bearing a club (clava), a key (clavis), or a nail (clavus).” – RTL] “a curious magazine of the blunders of a man of genius who has travelled out of his province.”
RPE.2 Mr. Ruskin has both undertaken to meet the subject on its old ground and to extend it over new. He has treated it according to the rules other economists had left, and he has sought to establish for it new rules of his own. He has written of political economy as understood by economists, and of political economy as understood by himself. Let us take the narrower limit first.
RPE.3 Ruskin’s economic writings are to be found chiefly in Munera Pulveris, The Crown of Wild Olive, Unto This Last, Sesame and Lilies, and Time and Tide; secondarily, scattered through the leaves of Fors Clavigera; and, lastly, passim in all his works. He has never written a systematic treatise, hardly even a synopsis, of his views. There is, consequently, much obscurity, more repetition, and some contradiction. Obviously, the first difficulty of the critic of Ruskin’s principles will be the discovery and just expression of them.
RPE.4 Ruskin is always wandering and digressive, imaginative, and capricious in style and thought. He is generally egotistical, sometimes ill-tempered, occasionally even childish and absurd. Many of his earlier sentences were penned in prejudice and ignorance; some of his last, in senile irritation at the world in which he writes; and, having said all this once, his critic should forever and finally dismiss it from the question.

RPE.5 “Eleven years ago, in the summer of 1860,” says Ruskin, in the preface to Munera Pulveris, “perceiving then fully (as Carlyle had done long before) what distress was about to come on the said population of Europe though these errors of their teachers, I began to do the best I might to combat them, in the series of papers for the Cornhill Magazine, since published under the title of Unto This Last. The editor ... was my friend, and ventured the insertion of the first three essays; but the outcry against them became then too strong for any editor to endure, and he wrote to me ... that the magazine must only admit one economical essay more. ... As I had taken not a little pains with the essays, and knew that they contained better work than most of my former writings, and more important truths than all of them put together, this violent reprobation of them by the Cornhill public set me still more gravely thinking; and ... I resolved to make it the central work of my life to write an exhaustive treatise on Political Economy.” Unto This Last, then, was the first essay; but Ruskin’s system has been such as to make any sort of historical treatment impossible. Let us, without regarding order of publication, first consider his views of political economy as it then existed, or – shall we say? – as it now exists.
As domestic economy regulates the acts and habits of a household, political economy regulates those of a society or State, with reference to the means of its maintenance [says Ruskin]. Political economy is neither an art or science, but a system of conduct and legislation, founded on the sciences, directing the arts, and impossible except under certain conditions of moral culture. The study which, lately, in England has been called political economy is, in reality, nothing more than the investigation of some accidental phenomena of modern commercial operations; nor has it been true in its investigation even of these. [Munera Pulveris, i.]
RPE.7 And the object of political economy is the maintenance of the State, i.e., –
The support of its population in healthy and happy life, and the increase of their numbers, so far as that increase is consistent with their happiness. It is not the object of political economy to increase the numbers of a nation at the cost of common health or comfort, nor to increase indefinitely the comfort of individuals by sacrifice of surrounding lives or possibilities of life. The assumption which lies at the root of nearly all erroneous reasoning on political economy – namely, that its object is to accumulate money or exchangeable property – may be shown in a few words to be without foundation. ...
We must yet farther define the aim of political economy to be “ the multiplication of human life at the highest standard.” It might at first seem questionable whether we should endeavor to maintain a small number of persons of the highest type of beauty and intelligence or a larger number of an inferior class. But I shall be able to show in the sequel that the way to maintain the largest number is first to aim at the highest standard. ...
The perfect type of manhood, as just stated, involves the perfections (whatever we may hereafter determine them to be) of his body, affections, and intelligence. The material things, therefore, which it is the object of political economy to produce and use (or accumulate for use) are things which serve either to sustain and comfort the body or exercise rightly the affections and form the intelligence. Whatever truly serves either of these purposes is “useful” to man, wholesome, healthful, helpful, or holy. By seeking such things, man prolongs and increases his life upon the earth. ...
To thoughtless persons, it seems otherwise. The world looks to them as if they could cozen it out of some ways and means of life. But they cannot cozen IT: they can only cozen their neighbors. ... For every piece of wise work done, so much life is granted; for every piece of foolish work, nothing; for every piece of wicked work, so much death is allotted. ... But, when the means of life are once produced, men, by their various struggles and industries of accumulation or exchange, may variously gather, waste, restrain, or distribute them, necessitating, in proportion to the waste or restraint, accurately, so much more death. ...
Such being the everlasting law of human existence, the essential work of the political economist is to determine what are in reality useful or life-giving things, and by what degrees and kinds of labor they are attainable and distributable. This investigation divides itself under three great heads, – the studies, namely, of the phenomena: first, of wealth; secondly, of money; and, thirdly, of riches.
RPE.13 It will be seen that, by the definitions with which Ruskin starts, we are perhaps carried out of the domain of the orthodox science. Political economy has become, as it were, qualitative, not quantitative merely, – and qualitative of other elements than money, as the mercantile school thought, or even than wealth, as defined by Smith and Mill.
RPE.14 Now, this is the first great change that Ruskin seeks to make in the orthodox science, in the idea of what is wealth; that is, of what is value. Yet this may be said to be within the scope of orthodox economy, which treats of labor, of value, of money, of x, y, and z, and the quantity of each. Ruskin does not yet introduce a fourth variable; but he says: “Your y is not y: it is a + b. In fact, you do not know anything about y.”
The real gist of these papers, their central meaning and aim, is to give ... a logical definition of WEALTH. ... The most reputed essay on that subject which has appeared in modern times, after opening with the statement that “writers on political economy profess to teach or to investigate the nature of wealth,” thus follows up the declaration of its thesis: “Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by wealth. ... It is no part of the design of this treatise to aim at metaphysical nicety of definition.” [Unto This Last, Preface.]
RPE.16 What should we think, says Ruskin, of a writer on astronomy who began his treatise by saying, Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by stars? “There is not one person in ten thousand who has a notion sufficiently correct, even for the commonest purposes, of ‘what is meant’ by wealth; still less of what wealth everlastingly is, whether we mean it or not.”
RPE.17 He quotes Mill’s definition: wealth consists of all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value. What, then, is value?
The word “value,” when used without adjunct, always means in political economy value in exchange (Mill, III. 1. 3). [Online editor’s note: Actually 1.2. – RTL] So that, if two ships cannot exchange their rudders, their rudders are, in politico-eocnomic language, of no value to either? [Unto This Last, iv.]
RPE.19 Moreover, usefulness and agreeableness underlie the exchange value, and must exist before we can esteem the thing an object of wealth.
Now, the economical usefulness of a thing depends not merely on its own nature, but on the number of people hio can and will sue it. A horse is useless, and therefore unsalable, if no one can ride, a sword if no one can strike, and meat if no one can eat. Thus every material utility depends on its relative human capacity. Similarly, the agreeableness of a thing depends not merely on its won likeableness, but on the number of people who can be got to like it. ...
That is to say, the agreeableness of a thing depends on its relative human disposition. Therefore, political economy, being a science of wealth, must be a science respecting human capacities and dispositions. But moral considerations have nothing to do with political economy (Mill, III.i.2). Therefore, moral considerations have noting to do with human capacities and dispositions.
RPE.22 Ruskin also combats the views that “anything which is an object of desire to numbers, and is limited in quantity so as to have rated worth in exchange, may be called or [even] virtually become wealth”; and that “the worth of things depends on the demand for them instead of in the sue of them.” And he compares an obscene French lithograph with the pictures of Tintoret in Venice. The labor employed on the stone for the lithograph was very much more than Tintoret gave to is picture; if labor be the origin of value, therefore, the stone is the more valuable article of the two. And since, also, it is capable of producing a large number of immediately salable or exchangeable impressions, for which the “demand” is constant, the city of Paris is, under all hitherto stated principles of political economy, richer in the possession of the lithographic stone than Venice with the picture.
RPE.23 But no. Wealth consists in an intrinsic value developed by a vital power; and the study of wealth is a province of natural science, – it deals with the essential properties of things. The study of money is a province of commercial science: it deals with conditions of engagement and exchange. The study of riches is a province of moral science: it deals with the due relations of men to each other in regard to their material possessions, and with the just laws of their association for the purposes of labor. And wealth consists of things in themselves valuable; money, of documentary claims to the possession of such things (not only a “medium of exchange”); and riches is a relative term, expressing the magnitude of the possessions of one person or society as compared with those of others.
RPE.24 Now, then, what is value?
Value signifies the strength or “availing” of anything towards the sustaining of life, and is always twofold; that is to say, primarily, INTRINSIC, and secondarily, EFFECTUAL.
The reader must, by anticipation, be warned against confusing value with cost or with price. Value is the life-giving power of anything; cost, the quantity of labor required to produce it; price, the quantity of labor which its possessor will take in exchange for it. Cost and price are commercial conditions, to be studied under the head of money.
Intrinsic value is the absolute power of anything to support life. A sheaf of wheat of given quality and weight has in it a measurable power of sustaining the substance of the body; a cubic foot of pure air, a fixed power of sustaining its warmth; and a cluster of flower of given beauty, a fixed power of enlivening or animating the senses and heart.
It does not in the least affect the intrinsic value of the wheat, the air, or the flowers, that men refuse or despise them. Used or not, their own power is in them, and that particular power is in nothing else.
But, in order that this value of theirs may become effectual, a certain state is necessary in the recipient of it. ... The production of effectual value, therefore, always involves two needs: first, the production of a thing essentially useful, then the production of the capacity to use it. Where the intrinsic value and acceptant capacity come together, there is effectual value, or wealth; where there is either no intrinsic value or no acceptant capacity, there is no effectual value, – that is to say, no wealth. A horse is no wealth to us if we cannot ride, nor a picture if we cannot see, nor can any noble thing be wealth, except to a noble person. As the aptness of the user increases, the effectual value of the thing used increases, and in its entirety can co-exist only with perfect skill of use and fitness of nature. [Munera Pulveris, i.]
RPE.30 “Valuable material things,” he goes on, “may be conveniently referred to five heads” –
(1) Land, with its associated air, water, and organisms.
(2) Houses, furniture, and instruments.
(3) Stored or prepared food, medicine, and articles of bodily luxury, including clothing.
(4) Books.
(5) Works of art.
RPE.32 A list notable chiefly for its omissions.
RPE.33 Value depends neither on price, as when the owner of a “galled jade” paid for it his hundred pounds, nor on cost, as in the Paris lithographic stone, nor on caprice[.] “And the wealth of the world consists broadly in its healthy food-giving land, its convenient building land, its useful animals, its useful minerals, its books and works of art.”
Valor, from valere, to be well or strong (hugiaino), – strong, in life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing), or valuable. To be “valuable,” therefore, is to “avail towards life.” A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength. In proportion as it does not lead to life, or as its strength is broken, it is less valuable. In proportion as it leads away from life, it is unvaluable or malignant. The value of a thing, therefore, is independent of opinions and of quantity....
The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life, and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction. And if, in a state of infancy, they suppose indifferent things, such as excrescences of shell-fish and pieces of red and blue stone, to be valuable, and spend large measure of the labor which ought to be employed for the extension and ennobling of life in diving or digging for them and cutting them into various shapes; or if, in the same state of infancy, they imagine precious and beneficent things, such as air, light, and cleanliness, to be valueless; or if, finally they imagine the conditions of their own existence, by which alone they can truly possess or use anything, – such, for instance, as peace, trust, and love, – to be prudently exchangeable, when the market offers, for gold, iron, or excrescence of shells, – the great and only science of political economy teaches them, in all these cases, what is vanity and what is substance, and how the service of Death, the Lord of Waste, and of eternal emptiness, differs from the service of Wisdom, the Lady of Saving, and of eternal fullness, – she who has said, “I will cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE, and I will FILL their treasures.” [Online editor’s note: Proverbs 8:21. – RTL] [Unto This Last, iv.]
RPE.36 And the term “wealth” is never to be attached to the accidental object of a morbid desire, but only to the constant object of a legitimate one. It is intrinsic. It is dependent, in order to become effectual, on a given degree of vital power in the possessor. “In giving the name of wealth to a thing we cannot use, we in reality confuse wealth with money” for it has only value in exchange, not effectual value. It is at best a cumbrous form of bank-note. “Wealth is the possession of the valuable by the valiant.” And it follows, the actual existence of wealth being “dependent on the power of its possessor, that the sum of wealth held by the nation, instead of being constant or calculable, varies hourly – nay, momentarily – with the number and character of its holders. And, further, since the worth of currency is proportioned to the sum of material wealth which it represents, if the sum of the wealth changes, the worth of the currency changes.”
RPE.37 So much for the material of the science, the y of which it treats. I have quoted at length upon this point, partly because it seems likely to remain the most effectual part of Ruskin’s quota to the history of economics, partly because it was necessary once for all to give an idea of Ruskin’s style and matter, – a style loaded with thought so broad, with meaning so full, that it is as unjust to sum it up in formulas as to represent a statue by mathematical lines. Yet all this can hardly be said to transcend the scope of economics. So far as Ruskin places his wealth in land and its products, he merely reacts towards the physiocrats and Quesnay from Adam Smith’s criticism of them. And many others before Ruskin have pointed out that Adam Smith, after distinguishing value in exchange fro intrinsic or, as Ruskin calls it, effectual value, drops the latter from the case. Ruskin picks it up. So far, the consensus of later economists is with him, even as reported in those repertories of the average, the enclyclopædias. Let us now turn to minor but more mooted points.

RPE.38 What is productive labor? “That which produces utilities fixed and embodied in material objects,” says Mill. Ruskin takes the definition, and with amusing irony, too long to quote (see Fors, letter iv.), reduces it rapidly to a Saxon sentence: “The Greatest Thinker in England means by these beautiful words to tell you that Productive labor is labor that produces a Useful Thing, which, indeed, perhaps you knew.”
But, if Mr. Mill had said so much, simply, you might have been tempted to ask farther, “What things are useful and what are not?” And as Mr. Mill does not know, nor any other Political Economist going, and as they therefore particularly wish nobody to ask them, it is convenient to say, instead of “useful things,” “utilities fixed and embodied in material objects,” because that sounds so very complete and satisfactory information that one is ashamed, after getting it, to ask for any more. ... [Fors, iv.]
Mr. Mill has not defined the real meaning of usefulness. The definition which he has given – “capacity to satisfy a desire or serve a purpose” (III.i.2) – applies equally to the iron and silver; while the true definition – which he has not given, but which, nevertheless, underlies the false verbal definition in his mind, and comes out once or twice by accident (as in the words “any support to life or strength” in I.i.5) – applies to some articles of iron, but not to others, and to some articles of silver, but not to others. It applies to ploughs, but not to bayonets, and to forks, but not to filigree, [Unto This Last, iv.]
RPE.41 Ruskin is equally intolerant of Mill’s exposition of a demand for labor not a demand for commodities, in which celebrated argument (Mill’s Principles, vol. i. p. 102) he discovers three fallacies, and concludes: –
Underlying these three fallacies, however, there is in the mind of “the greatest thinker of England” some consciousness of a partial truth which he has never yet been able to define for himself, still less to explain to others. The real root of them is his conviction that it is beneficial and profitable to make broadcloth, and unbeneficial and unprofitable to make lace. [Fors, ii.]
RPE.43 Ruskin is never so jocund as when detecting these failures in consistency in Mr. Mill, which, he seems to think, yet may save Mill’s soul.
RPE.44 So much for wealth and value and produce; i.e., product of productive labor. Now, what is money? Not merely nor even chiefly, but only incidentally, a “medium of exchange”: essentially, it is far more than this. Whether gold or silver or bank-notes, or even perhaps bonds, it is a documentary evidence of legal claims.
It is not wealth, but a documentary claim to wealth, being the sign of the relative quantities of it or of the labor producing it to which at a given time persons or societies are entitled.
If all the money in the world – notes and gold – were destroyed in an instant, it would leave the world neither richer nor poorer than it was. But it would leave the individual inhabitants of it in different relations.
Money is, therefore, correspondent in its nature to the title-deed of an estate. Though the deed be burned, the estate still exists, but the right to it has become disputable. ... [Munera Pulveris, i.]
The currency of any country consists of every document acknowledging debt which is transferable in the country. [And a gold piece is as much a document as a bond.]
This transferableness depends upon its intelligibility and credit. Its intelligibility depends chiefly on the difficulty of forging anything like it; its credit, much on national character, but ultimately always on the existence of substantial means of meeting its demand. ...
Legally authorized or national currency, in its perfect condition, is a form of public acknowledgment of debt so regulated and divided that any person presenting a commodity of tried worth in the public market shall, if he please, receive in exchange for it a document giving him claim to the return of its equivalent, (1) in any place, (2) at any time, and (3) in any kind.
When a currency is quite healthy and vital, the persons intrusted with its management are always able to give on demand either,
A. The assigning document for the assigned quantity of goods,
B. The assigned quantity of goods for the assigning document.
If they cannot give document for goods, the national exchange is at fault.
If they cannot give goods for document, the national credit is at fault.
The nature and power of the document are therefore to be examined under the three relations it bears to place, time, and kind. [Ibid., ii.]
RPE.55 And cost and price are commercial conditions, to be studied under the head of money. They are counted in labor. Labor is literally the quantity, “lapse,” loss or failure of human life caused by any effort; the suffering in effort; “that quantity of our toil which we die in.” And cost, “the quantity of labor necessary to obtain a thing, the quantity for which it ‘stands’ (constat); you shall win it, come at it, for no less than this.” But its price is dependent on human will.
The price of anything stands on four variables: –
(1) Its cost.
(2) Its attainable quantity at that cost.
(3) The number and power of the persons who want it.
(4) The estimate they have formed of its desirableness.
Its value only affects its price so far as it is contemplated in this estimate; perhaps, therefore, not at all. [Ibid., i.]
RPE.58 Demand and supply, it will be seen, are to fare hardly with Ruskin. He claims: first, that both wages and (largely) prices should be regulated artificially; second, that they are so regulated to a great extent. “I give my servants what I choose; nor do we offer prime minister-ships for sale at a Dutch auction.” The costermongers downset the price of fish in London : if the supply becomes dangerous, the surplus is destroyed. So Chicago beef-men fix the price of steaks in Boston, and close corporations or majorities the price of milk, and doctors’ fees, and the wages of plumbers; and in free New England towns, of unskilled labor, – two dollars a day. “All that I want you to see is,” cries Ruskin, “not only the possibility of regulating prices, but the fact that they are now regulated, and regulated by rascals, while all the world is bleating out its folly about Supply and Demand.” And in his St. George’s Utopia he bases the price of a day’s produce on a day’s maintenance, with due regard to surplus and requirements of the occupation; and will have machinery, mining, coal work, and steam work – not agriculture – done by criminals.
RPE.59 When we come to questions of land and rent, money and interest, capital and profits, Ruskin shares in the obscurity and self-contradiction that seem to possess all writers who are not visionaries, since and beginning with the later works of John Stuart Mill, – a cloud slow to lift because, of the underlying prospect, the world would fain yet be blind; although the result is always confusion and hypocrisy. This obscurity arises from the fact that we have reached the junction of two ways ; and economists, at least, do not dare to choose. So simple is this question, so old and hackneyed; and yet not a legislator in Westminster or Washington that sees, or, if he sees, is true, to either side. Yet persistently now fate iterates the question, and inexorably shall the answer be demanded: Do you recognize the right of private property, or do you not ? And then, pressing close on this, another and a darker question, whose answer largely hangs upon the first: Do you recognize individual liberty (so long as man commits no crime upon his fellows), or do you not?
RPE.60 Ruskin takes up Fawcett’s [Online editor’s note: English economist Henry Fawcett (1833-1884). – RTL] definition: –
“We have described the requisites of production to be three, – land, labor, and capital. Since, therefore, land, labor, and capital are essential to the production of wealth, it is natural to suppose that the wealth which is produced ought to be possessed by those who own the land, labor, and capital, which have respectively contributed to its production. The share of wealth which is thus allotted to the possessor of the land is termed rent, the portion allotted to the laborer is termed wages, and the remuneration of the capitalist is termed profit.”
You observe that in this very meritoriously clear sentence both the possessor of the land and the possessor of the capital are assumed to be absolutely idle persons. ...
But Professor Fawcett’s sentence ... yet is not as clear as it might be. It is, indeed, gracefully ornamental in the use, in its last clause, of the three words “share,” “portion,” and “remuneration” " for the same thing; but this is not the clearest imaginable language. The sentence strictly put should run thus: “The portion of wealth which is thus allotted to the possessor of the land is termed rent, the portion allotted to the laborer is termed wages, and the portion allotted to the capitalist is termed profit.”
And you may at once see the advantage of reducing the sentence to these more simple terms; for Professor Fawcett’s ornamental language has this danger in it, that “remuneration” being so much grander a word than “portion” in the very roll of it seems to imply rather a thousand pounds a day than three and sixpence. And, until there be scientific reason shown for anticipating the portions to be thus disproportioned, we have no right to suggest their being so by ornamental variety of language.
Again, Professor Fawcett’s sentence is, I said, not entirely scientific. He founds the entire principle of allotment on the phrase “it is natural to suppose,” but I never heard of any other science founded on what it was natural to suppose. Do the Cambridge mathematicians, then, in these advanced days, tell their pupils that it is natural to suppose the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right ones? Nay, in the present case, I regret to say it has sometimes been thought wholly unnatural to suppose any such thing, and so exceedingly unnatural that to receive either a “remuneration” or a “portion” or a “share” for the loan of anything, without personally working, was held by Dante and other such simple persons in the Middle Ages to be one of the worst of the sins that could be committed against nature; and the receivers of such interest were put in the same circle of hell with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. ... [Fors, xi.]
RPE.66 Thus – at first hesitatingly, in his last writings utterly – Ruskin condemns all interest for loans. The fallacy in his expressed argument is easily found. [Online editor’s note: What follows is a reference to Ruskin’s critique of an example from Bastiat. – RTL] William borrows of James a plane January 1. He makes a plank, and uses up the plane in the year. On December 31, he returns James a new plane therefor – and a plank. On January 1, he borrows the new plane; and the process goes on as before. The “position of James” is that he gets a new plank every year; and Ruskin wastes endless irony on the position of the obliging, the “sweetest of possible Williams,” who gives it him. But why not? The plank was not the only plank William made during the year, as Ruskin tacitly assumes; and, as to James, suppose the plane had been an acre of land? Interest is the rent of unfixed capital. Will you forbid the rent of land? Then why not the purchase money? If a man can sell forever, cannot he sell for a year?
RPE.67 Interest and rent are both the logical consequence of the institution of private property. Ruskin, therefore, should attack this, But what does he say of private property?
The first necessity of all economical government is to secure the unquestioned and unquestionable working of the great law of Property, – that a man who works for a thing shall be allowed to get it, keep it, and consume it in peace; and that he who does not eat his cake to-day shall be seen without grudging to have his cake to-morrow. [Munera Pulveris, ii.]
I did, indeed, cut out a slip from the Birmingham Morning News last September (12th), containing a letter written by a gentleman signing himself “Justice” in person, and professing himself an engineer, who talked very grandly about the “individual and social laws of our nature[”]; but he had arrived at the inconvenient conclusions that “no individual has a natural right to hold property in land,” and that “all land sooner or later must become public property.” I call this an inconvenient conclusion, because I really think you would find yourselves greatly inconvenienced if your wives couldn’t go into the garden to cut a cabbage without getting leave from the Lord Mayor and Corporation; and, if the same principle is to be carried out as regards tools, I beg to state to Mr. Justice-in-Person that, if anybody and everybody is to use my own particular palette and brushes, I resign my office of Professor of Fine Art. ... [Fors, xi.]
RPE.70 And of land? Ruskin fully appreciates the problem. He speaks in The Crown of Wild Olive of “that beautiful arrangement of dwelling-houses for man and beast by which we have grouse and blackcock, so many brace to the acre; and men and women, so many brace to the garret.” Yet in Fors he says, in answer to the question, “Can the world – its oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, continents, islands, or portions thereof – be rightfully treated by human legislators as the ‘private property’ of individuals?” “Certainly. Else would man be more wretched than the beasts, who at least have dens of their own.”
RPE.71 Land was obtained by force (see Fawcett, Political Economy, p. 112), and must be maintained by force. “It is the nearest task of our day to discover how far original theft may be justly encountered by reactionary theft, – what, excluding either, are the just conditions of the possession of land. ... The British constitution is breaking fast. It never was, in its best days, entirely what its stout owner flattered itself. Neither British constitutions nor British law, though it seal with as many seals as the meadow had buttercups, can keep your landlordships safe henceforward for an hour. You will have to fight for them, as your fathers did.”
Two merchants bid for the two properties, but not in the same terms. One bids for the people, buys them, and sets them to work under pain of scourge; the other bids for the rock, buys it, and throws the inhabitants into the sea. The former is the American, the latter the English method of slavery. Much is to be said for and something against both.
RPE.73 And latest of all (Fors, Aug. 31, 1880): –
I am obliged also to affirm the one principle which can, and in the end will, close all epochs of Revolution, – that each man shall possess the ground he can use, and no more, – USE, I say, either for food, beauty, exercise, science, or any other sacred purpose; that each man shall possess for his own no more than such portion, with the further condition that it descends to his son inalienably, right of primogeniture being in this matter eternally sure. The nonsense talked about division is all temporary. You can’t divide forever.
RPE.75 By “primogeniture,” Ruskin probably means, or we may modify it to mean, descent to the children (or, perhaps, the sons only*) in common. And, further (October, 1884): “Possession of land implies the duty of living on it and by it. ... The nonsense thought and talked about nationalization of land, like other nonsense, must have its day, I suppose, and I hope soon its night.” In brief, Ruskin recognizes property in all things but land; and of land his views resemble Henry George’s, – perhaps it would be truer to say are the source of Henry George’s.
RPE.76 Rapidly passing over a few minor points of difference or agreement with the admitted economists, let us hasten to Ruskin’s more radical writing, – his constructive chapters, his general social scheme: –
I am and always have been an utterly fearless and unscrupulous free-trader. ... Let other nations, if they like, keep their ports shut. Every wise nation will throw its own open. It is not the opening them, but a sudden, inconsiderate, and blunderingly experimental manner of opening them, which does the harm. [Unto This Last, iv.]
The only honest and wholly right tax is one not merely on income, but property, increasing in percentage as the property is greater. [Fors, vii.]
The first beginnings of prosperity must be in getting food, clothes, and fuel. ... All capital is imaginary and unimportant, except the quantity of food existing in the world at any given moment. ...
Rent is an exaction by force of hand, ... but had better at present be left.
Wealth ... has been generally obtained by pillage of the poor [i.e., by the engrossing of their labor : see below].
Modern folly in supposing there can be overproduction. The power of machines. ... They cannot increase the possibilities of life, but only the possibilities of idleness.
There are, in the main, two great fallacies which the rascals of the world rejoice in making its fools proclaim. The first is that, by continually exchanging and cheating each other on exchange, two exchanging persons, out of one pot, alternating with one kettle, can make their two fortunes. That is the principle of Trade. ...
“No person whatsoever shall buy fish, to sell it again, in the markets of Florence.” [And Ruskin desires such laws], entirely abolishing the profession of middle-man, or costermonger, of perishable articles of food.
RPE.85 We may now appropriately close this branch of the subject with the consideration of individual wealth, – i.e., riches, – which will naturally lead us to that moral view of political economy, in general, which chiefly distinguishes Ruskin from all save the earliest economists.
RPE.86 Now, riches is a relative term. There may be said to be two economies, says Ruskin: political economy, – the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things; and mercantile economy, – the economy of merces, or pay, the accumulation in the hands of individuals of legal or moral claim upon or power over the labor of others, every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on one side as it implies riches or right on the other. The product of the former economy is wealth; of the latter, riches. To become rich is “to establish the maximum inequality in one’s favor.” But such inequality cannot be shown in the abstract to be either advantageous or disadvantageous to the body of the nation. Suppose two sailors cast away: they work equally, and in several years obtain a hundred acres of cultivated land and a house apiece, certain stores and cattle. All these are wealth, real riches. Then one falls ill: he asks the other to sow and reap for him. “Certainly,” says the latter, “but you must give a written promise to work as many hours for me at any future time at any work I choose.” What is the position of affairs when the invalid is able to resume work?
RPE.87 Considered as a state, they are poorer than before. Considered as individuals, the sick man has not only pledged his labor for a year or more, but has probably exhausted his own stores, and will be dependent on the other for some time for food, which he can only “pay” or reward him for by further written promises to labor. If these be held entirely valid (among civilized nations their validity is secured by legal measures), the well person may perhaps, if he choose, do no more work at all. He has acquired riches, the other is poor; yet the State has less wealth than before.
RPE.88 It will be seen what view Ruskin takes, when he applies this reasoning to a national debt; and how, in his positive or constructive economics, he is led to criticise it, and propose instead a “national store.” But for the present let us stop at the conclusion “that the establishment of the mercantile wealth, which consists in a claim upon labor, signifies a political diminution of the real wealth, which consists in substantial possessions.”
And success (while society is guided by laws of competition) signifies always so much victory over your neighbor as to obtain the direction of his work, and to take the profits of it. This is the real source of all great riches. No man can become largely rich by his personal toil. The work of his own hands, wisely directed, will indeed always maintain himself and his family, and make fitting provision for his age. But it is only by the discovery of some method of taxing the labor of others that he can become opulent. Every increase of his capital enables him to extend this taxation more widely; that is, to invest larger funds in the maintenance of laborers, – to direct, accordingly, vaster and yet vaster masses of labor, and to appropriate its profits. [Munera Pulveris, vi.]
RPE.90 Ruskin’s father left him some two hundred thousand pounds, acquired by the “engrossing of labor” in Spanish vineyards. What has he done with this? His accounts of it with the English people will be found accurately set forth in Fors. He has spent it for his poor relations, for the encouragement of art, and directly for the public benefit, – so wholly spent it that not only will he leave no interest-breeding document to his heirs, but hardly, as it now seems, enough seemly to furnish forth his end. He admits a certain inconsistency in having taken rent or interest at all; but, on the whole, we cannot challenge him here.

RPE.91 To present Ruskin’s own view of political economy, as understood by him, we must seek for sentences throughout his works, as he nowhere says all at once. Let us collect a few of the most important: –
Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious – certainly, the least creditable – is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.
Of course, as in the instances of alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds, political economy has a plausible idea at the root of it. “The social affections,” says the economist, “are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature, but avarice and the desire of progress are constant elements. Let us eliminate the inconstants, and, considering the human being merely as a covetous machine, examine by what laws of labor, purchase, and sale the greatest accumulative result in wealth is attainable. Those laws once determined, it will be for each individual afterwards to introduce as much of the disturbing affectionate element as he chooses, and to determine for himself the result on the new conditions supposed.”
This would be a perfectly logical and successful method of analysis, if the accidentals afterwards to be introduced were of the same nature as the powers first examined. Supposing a body in motion to be influenced by constant and inconstant forces, it is usually the simplest way of examining its course to trace it first under the persistent conditions, and afterwards introduce the causes of variation. But the disturbing elements in the social problem are not of the same nature as the constant ones; they alter the essence of the creature under examination the moment they are added; they operate not mathematically, but chemically, introducing conditions which render all our previous knowledge unavailable. We made learned experiments upon pure nitrogen, and have convinced ourselves that it is a very manageable gas. But, behold! the thing which we have practically to deal with is its chloride; and this, the moment we touch it on our established principles, sends us and our apparatus through the ceiling.
Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions of the science, if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown on that supposition that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables, and that, when these results were effected, the reinsertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death’s heads and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world. [Unto This Last, i.]
RPE.96 The above is the most concise statement to be found in Ruskin’s works of that which I have termed the second of his economic labors. Elsewhere (Fors, xxx.), he has attempted a definition in fewer words: –

Food can only be got out of the ground, and happiness only out of honesty. ...
But, as we have seen that Ruskin is more than a mere physiocrat, so we shall probably find that he is much more than an ordinary moralist.
RPE.97 Political economy, he furthermore says, is no science, because it has omitted the study of exactly the most important branch of the business, – the study of spending. Ultimately, you must spend as much as you make; and it is money’s worth, not money, we are after. And, even for the making, industry, frugality, and discretion, the three foundations of economy, are moral qualities, and cannot be attained without moral discipline, – a flat truism, yet one vociferously denied by the entire populace of Europe, who are at present hopeful of obtaining wealth by tricks of trade, have lost the very conceptions of frugality, and have never possessed the faculty of discretion.
RPE.98 Having established what is wealth, we are now to inquire respecting riches: first, into the advisable modes of their collection; second, into the advisable modes of their administration. And, as to collection, we must first inquire if we are justified in calling a nation rich if the quantity of wealth be large, irrespectively of the manner of its distribution, or whether a certain mode of distribution of the riches or their operation enters into our conceptions; and, second, whether the inequality, which is the condition of riches, has been established by increase of possession on the one side or by decrease of it on the other, – whether the correlative property was produced by being surpassed only, or by being depressed also. And, as to the administration of riches, their possession involves three great economic powers, – those of selection, direction, and provision. Since the rich have power to choose, the business of the economist is to show how this choice may be a Wise one. Since, ultimately, in one way or another they acquire the direction of or authority over the labor of the poor, both mental and bodily, the business of the economist is to show how this direction may be a Just one. And since the power of Provision is dependent upon the redundance of wealth, whence capital, – i.e., bread or source-material, – the economist has to show how this may be a Distant (far-sighted) one.
RPE.99 Ruskin is well known – as a single bit of misinformation may always be well known – to be a person not fond of steam machinery and liking pictures. And he is commonly understood to have applied one to the other, and so mixed up this taste and this distaste in a hopelessly illogical way. As he himself complains, –
The hacks of English art and literature wag their heads at me, and the poor wretch who pawns the dirty linen of his soul daily for a bottle of sour wine and a cigar talks of the “effeminate sentimentality of Ruskin.”
RPE.101 The fact is, machinery has no necessary connection with Ruskin’s economy, one way or the other; and, so far as Mr. Ruskin has an economic objection to it, his own logic is at fault, – using economic in its narrow sense. But, nevertheless, the question of machinery and manufactures will serve as a convenient starting point from which to view (1) the collection, (2) the administration, of riches, as set forth above.
RPE.102 Now, why does he object to machines, – their working, their product, their results? The question almost suggests its answer. Not because corn-reaping machinery does not increase the possibilities of productive labor, but only those of idleness; for this, as I have said, involves a fallacy, – his day’s work done in fifteen minutes, the farmer may paint pictures; nor because “it is in the greater increasing power of production and distribution, as compared with demand, enabling the few to do the work of the many, that the active cause of the wide-spread poverty among the producing and lower middle classes lay,” for this is, as Ruskin says, accurately the most foolish thing that has been said in all the ages.
RPE.103 He objects to their working, as we all do, more or less, – is there any one who regards a steam-engine as a good in itself? – because they consume pure air and earth and water, the three material things most needful in support of life, and therefore (as both he and Herbert Spencer say) things of truest value; and because they oppose beauty, both of nature and the human soul, destroying thus the three ideal things of greatest value (Ruskin would claim strictly in the same sense value as before), which are admiration, hope, and love.
RPE.104 He objects to their produce as, in the main, not useful, – of no physical value (if all their machines and all their railways and appliances could produce so much as one poor grain of corn!) and of no ideal value, because no food for the soul; a product we were better all without; a supply for any false or foolish demand that England can provoke the itch for elsewhere in the world.
RPE.105 He objects to their results: first, in the nation, of which it makes a nation of slaves in labor and of fraud in trade; second, in the workmen, who are, or tend to be, most miserable in mind and body of all time, most stunted in soul, and their masters most corrupt. For it is manufactures that encourage the engrossing of labor and the setting it to any false or foolish work, – cannon or worthless cotton cloth, bayonets or filigree,– that capital may levy its percentage thereupon.
RPE.106 Ruskin would not object to machines, even steam, that were really necessary, or that produced things of value, though preferring water power and wind to coal: –
The first question, ... “What store has it?” is one of equal importance, whatever may be the constitution of the State; while the second question – namely, “Who are the holders of the store?” – involves the discussion of the constitution of the State itself.
The first inquiry resolves itself into three heads: –
1. What is the nature of the store?
2. What is the quantity in relation to the population?
3. What is its quantity in relation to the currency?
The second inquiry into two: –
1. Who are the Holders of the store, and in what proportions?
2. Who are the Claimants of the store (that is to say, the holders of the currency), and in what proportions? ...
QUESTION FIRST. What is the nature of the store? Has the nation hitherto worked for and gathered the right thing or the wrong? On that issue rest the possibilities of its life. [Munera Pulveris, ii.]
RPE.110 Thus, on the one hand, Ruskin places a society occupied in procuring and laying up store of corn, wine, wool, silk, and other such preservable materials of food and clothing, and on the other the enormous part of the most earnest and ingenious industry of the world, which is spent in producing munitions of war. Or, to take the famous comparison, at the beginning of The Crown of Wild Olive, of the spring at Carshalton with the public house in Croydon; the useless iron railing in front of the public house “represented a quantity of work which would have cleansed the Carshalton pools three times over,” –
Of work partly cramped and deadly in the mine, partly fierce and exhaustive at the furnace, partly foolish and sedentary, of ill-taught students making bad designs; work from the beginning to the last fruits of it, and in all the branches of it, venomous, deathful, and miserable. Now, how did it come to pass that this work was done instead of the other, that the strength and life of the English operative were spent in defiling ground instead of redeeming it, and in producing an entirely (in that place) valueless piece of metal, which can neither be eaten nor breathed, instead of medicinal fresh air and pure water? ...
Half a dozen men, with one day’s work, could cleanse those pools, and trim the flowers about their banks, and make every breath of summer air above them rich with cool balm, and every glittering wave medicinal, as if it ran, troubled of angels, from the porch of Bethesda. But that day’s work is never given, nor will be; nor will any joy be possible to heart of man, for evermore, about those wells of English waters. ...
There is but one reason for it, and at present a conclusive one, – that the capitalist can charge percentage on the work in one case and cannot in the other. ...
On any given farm in Switzerland or Bavaria, fifty years ago, the master and his servants lived in abundance on the produce of their ground without machinery, and exchanged some of its surplus produce for Lyons velvet and Hartz silver (produced by the unhappy mechanists and miners of those localities), whereof the happy peasant made jackets and bodices, and richly adorned the same with precious chain-work. ...
That is entirely healthy, happy, and wise human life. Not a theoretical or Utopian state at all. ...
And now examine the facts about England in this broad light.
She has a vast quantity of ground still food-producing in corn, grass, cattle, or game. With that territory she educates her squire, or typical gentleman, and his tenantry, to whom together she owes all her power in the world. With another large portion of territory – now continually on the increase – she educates a mercenary population, ready to produce any quantity of bad articles to anybody’s order, – population which every hour that passes over them makes acceleratingly avaricious, immoral, and insane. In the increase of that kind of territory and its people, her ruin is just as certain as if she were deliberately exchanging her corn-growing land and her heaven above it for a soil of arsenic and rain of nitric acid. ...
But the root of all the mischief is not in Arkwrights or Stephensons, nor in rogues or mechanics. The real root of it is the crime of the squire himself. ...
The action of the squire for the last fifty years has been, broadly, to take the food from the ground of his estate and carry it to London, where he feeds with it a vast number of builders, upholsterers, ... carriage and harness makers, dressmakers, grooms, footmen, bad musicians, bad painters, gamblers, and harlots, and, in supply of the wants of these main classes, a vast number of shopkeepers of minor useless articles. The muscles and the time of this enormous population being wholly unproductive [for, of course, time spent in the mere process of sale is unproductive, and much more that of the footman and groom; while that of the vulgar upholsterer, jeweller, fiddler, and painter, etc., is not only unproductive, but mischievous], the entire mass of this London population do nothing whatever either to feed or clothe themselves. ...
Now, the peasants might still be able to supply this enormous town population with food (in the form of the squire’s rent) ; but it cannot, without machinery, supply the flimsy dresses, toys, metal work, and other rubbish belonging to their accursed life. Hence, over the whole country, the sky is blackened and the air made pestilent, to supply London and other such towns with their iron railings, vulgar upholstery, jewels, toys, liveries, lace, and other means of dissipation and dishonor of life. Gradually, the country people cannot even supply food to the voracity of the vicious centre; and it is necessary to import food from other countries, giving in exchange any kind of commodity we can attract their itching desires for and produce by machinery. The tendency of the entire national energy is, therefore, to approximate more and more to the state of a squirrel in a cage, or a turnspit in a wheel, fed by foreign masters with nuts and dog’s-meat.
RPE.121 And again and again Ruskin terms these servants and mechanics and miners slaves, – slaves of the farmers and the landlords, to whom they must go for things of real value, products of pure air, water, and earth; slaves of the artist, to whom they go for works of real value, producing admiration, hope, and love.
RPE.122 And elsewhere Mr. Ruskin gives us a shorter phrase, which, while it were quite unjust to call it an epitome of all this, may yet serve as a catchword: “The greatness of England does not consist in coal. ... I wish still to keep her fields green and her cheeks red.”
RPE.123 So much for the broad view, the national point of view. And now for distribution and the social system. Such fortunes (Time and Tide, letter xv.) as are now the prizes of commerce can be made only in one of three ways, – by obtaining command over the labor of multitudes of other men and taxing it for our own profit, by treasure-trove (as of mines, useful vegetable products, and the like, in circumstances putting them under our own exclusive control), and by speculation (commercial gambling). And, as to spending, a man’s power over his property is, at the widest range of it, fivefold. It is power of Use for himself, Administration to others, Ostentation, Destruction, or Bequest; and possession is in use only, which for each man is sternly limited. He would have us spend in food, in clothing, in beauty of surroundings, in healthy play, in land, both for use and (within limits) for beauty, and indefinitely in art, but not employ labor in mere domestic service, nor in ostentation, nor in brutal or debasing work, which should be left to the lowest and to criminals.
RPE.124 Ruskin thinks that all ill things work together for further ill, that it is not by chance that productive labor (which is mostly agriculture, good weaving, and art) is far more difficult to engross or accaparize, that it also leads both to things of real value and to health of body and soul, that it both does away poverty and strengthens and betters the character; and that the “moral element” for which he is sneered at is still the economic right. His reasoning in this is strikingly of a piece with passages in Spencer’s Man versus the State: –
It is always the interest of both master and servant that the work should be rightly done and a just price obtained for it; but, in the division of profits, the gain of the one may or may not be the loss of the other. It is not the master’s interest to pay wages so low as to leave the men sickly and depressed, nor the workman’s interest to be paid high wages if the smallness of the master’s profit hinders him from enlarging his business or conducting it in a safe and liberal way; ... and the varieties of circumstances which influence these reciprocal interests are so endless that all endeavor to deduce rules of action from balance of expediency is in vain. And it is meant to be in vain. ... No man ever knew, or can know, what will be the ultimate result to himself or to others of any given line of conduct; but every man may know, and most of us do know, what is a just and unjust act.
RPE.126 Laissez faire, we might say, Mr. Ruskin, after all? No, he would reply, faîtes faire. [Online editor’s note: Not “let [people] do” but “make [people] do.” – RTL] “The essential thing for all creatures is to be made to do right. How they are made to do it does not matter, by pleasant promises or hard necessities,” – by education, if you can, but, if not, then boldly by the whip, by government. “It has been the great error of modern intelligence to mistake science for education. You do not educate a man by telling him what he knew not, but by making him what he was not.”

RPE.127 So we are brought to Ruskin's social scheme, – both those things he would do in the world as it now exists and those he would do in his St. George’s Utopia. It must be dismissed in a few words.
RPE.128 Writing in 1874, to give an abstract of the first seven letters in Fors, he says, “Men’s prosperity is in their own hands, and no forms of government are in themselves of the least use.” And, again, in 1871, “I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.” And, again, in Munera Pulveris (p. 88): “Note finally that all effectual advancement towards this true felicity of the human race must be by individual, not public effort. Certain general measures may aid, certain revised laws guide, such advancement; but the measure and law which have first to be determined are those of each man’s home.” But (and for the necessity of this but, as well as for the curious instruction to be gained by comparing two writers herein radically disagreeing and yet with many ideas and aims in common, the reader may be referred to Spencer’s Man versus the State), in Time and Tide, he said, –
The Americans as a nation set their trust in liberty and in equality, of which I detest the one and deny the possibility of the other; and because, also, as a nation, they are wholly undesirous of Rest, and incapable of it; irreverent of themselves both in the present and in the future; discontented with what they are, yet having no ideal of anything which they desire to become, as the tide of the troubled sea when it cannot rest.
RPE.130 Yet in modern place [Online editor’s note: An error for “parlance”? – RTL], in Herbert Spencer’s parlance, as between English radicals and individualist conservatives, as between Bismarck and German national liberals, Americans are Tories in the main. So Ruskin says again: –
If there be any one point insisted on throughout my works more frequently than another, that one point is the impossibility of equality. My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing more such persons or person to guide, to lead, or, on occasion, even to compel and subdue their inferiors. ...
Government and co-operation are in all things the laws of life; anarchy and competition, the laws of death.
[And, again,] instead of saying you have a right to a thing, it will serve to clear your minds to say, in future, you deserve a thing. ...
Of all attainable liberties, then, be sure first to strive for leave to be useful. Independence you had better cease to talk of; for you are dependent, not only on every act of people whom you never heard of who are living around you, but on every past act of what has been dust for a thousand years.
RPE.135 In short, Ruskin is a socialist, a socialist, indeed, of Bismarck’s school, and not a democratic one, but still a socialist. Yet some things may be learned from those that he would have us do; for the what may be attempted by any individualist, it is only in the how that we diverge. And, indeed, Ruskin himself, in his St. George’s Guild, has sought to work in what we all may admit to be the proper way, by voluntary action. And, if he has failed in this concrete attempt, it is for forgetting what he himself has elsewhere well set forth: that one man cannot find both the word and the deed, that the word must be found long ages ere the world is ready for the deed. Just as he himself has taken interest and dividends, while not believing in them, and has said that rent, though wrong, had for the present better be allowed, so even we, who disagree with much, may yet hope to see the truth that may be in his teaching broaden, – from precept to example, and from example to custom, and from custom even to law, not by State experiment, but by individual education, education in Ruskin’s own sense, teaching men to do good work only, and that honestly; in his own words, “to be brave for the help of Man, and just for the love of God.”
RPE.136 Insensibly, inevitably, we recur to Ruskin as a moralist; and it is perhaps in this capacity that posterity will chiefly take him. Let us, nevertheless, recapitulate what merits we have found in his political economy, to which alone this article has, so far as possible, been limited. We are likely to see with the practical failure of St. George’s Guild a reaction against its master; and also from the irritability and exaggeration that may accompany his closing years, and from his mental infirmities, an argument drawn by the dull against the sanity and truth of the teaching of his health and youth. In a letter written February 8,1880 (Fons, No. 4, New Series), Ruskin seems to feel this, and asks the world to forgive him for his imagination, for his poetry, for his caprice of style, his digressions, his egotism, and for his going mad.
They [the doctors] made and still make my friends more anxious about me than there is occasion for, which anxiety I partly regret, as it pains them; but much more if it makes them more doubtful than they used to be (which, for some, is saying a good deal) of the “truth and soberness” of Fors itself, throughout every syllable of which, hitherto written, the reader will find one consistent purpose and perfectly conceived system, far more deeply founded than any bruited about under their founders’ names; including in its balance one vast department of human skill, – the arts, – which the vulgar economists are wholly incapable of weighing, and a yet more vast realm of human enjoyment, – the spiritual affections, – which materialist thinkers are alike incapable of imagining: a system not mine nor Kant’s nor Comte’s, but that which Heaven has taught every true man’s heart, and proved by every true man’s work, from the beginning of time to this day. ...
All this effort or play of personal imagination is utterly distinct from the teaching of Fors, though I thought at the time its confession innocent. ...
The doctors said that I went mad, this time two years ago, from overwork. I had not been then working more than usual, and what was usual with me had become easy. But I went mad because nothing came of my work. People would have understood my falling crazy if they had heard that the manuscripts on which I had spent seven years of my old life had all been used to light the fire with, like Carlyle’s first volume of the French Revolution. [Online editor’s note: J. S. Mill, having borrowed Carlyle’s only manuscript of this work, mistakenly left it with papers to be burned. – RTL] But they could not understand that I should be the least annoyed, far less fall ill in a frantic manner, because, after I had got them published, nobody believed a word of them. Yet the first calamity would only have been misfortune, the second (the enduring calamity under which I toil) is humiliation, resisted necessarily by a dangerous and lonely pride.
RPE.140 Premising, therefore, that we will not consider all his writings madness should Mr. Ruskin be next year insane, let us recapitulate what we have found.
RPE.141 We have found that the one great change he has wrought into orthodox economy – a change not to be neglected nor forgotten in the future – is in the element of value and in the other economic conceptions of which it is a factor, such as wealth, riches, and productive labor. Other ordinary economic questions Mr. Ruskin has treated with varying success: some, instructively, like money, riches, and debt; some, doubtfully, like interest, rent, and land. In so far as it is not original, his writing seems to be based on the classics and the French physiocrats of the last century. In so far as Mr. Ruskin has transcended the scope marked out for him by Smith and Mill, he has written always suggestively, with originality, and frequently with logic and force; and, in both these fields of study, he has been in general consonance with the lines of the general economic thought of his time. For one thing, he has, as it seems, most notably of all who have attacked it, overthrown and destroyed that figment of the orthodox imagination, the “economic man.”
RPE.142 Even in his most widely advertised and popularly distrusted antipathy to steam and manufactures, he is not now out of step with the van of modern thought. Others than Ruskin have appreciated the national evil, many others have felt the social evil, of a purely manufacturing civilization, of huge mills and factory towns. John Randolph said that he so hated manufactures that he “would travel three miles out of his road to kick a sheep”; and this is but a picturesque exaggeration of what, in Randolph a prejudice, has become with others a belief. Many social philosophers, with broad enough minds to see with Carlyle that that yet may be slavery to which nature as a last word contemptuously throws a bag of gold, have deplored, while they failed to see an escape from, the massed humanity of the cotton mill, the foul congestions of the factory town. Many “practical” men have not failed to think and say that the slaves of steam, the vast aggregations of working units, who hopelessly, monotonously, serve in petty ways the master Power, are in danger of having their bodies degraded, their ambitions stifled, their hearts corrupted, and their souls debased. A friend of the writer lately made a long journey with a carload of criminals, condemned to imprisonment for life. What, he was asked, was the most common expression of their faces and their characters? Not, he replied, that they were born different from others, but that no work had ever been set before them by which their ambitions were aroused. Now, this cannot be said of a nation, even in the so-called barbarous times, of shepherds, soldiers, sailors, nor to-day of artists, artificers, individual trades. Thus it is that, despite Ruskin’s trend to socialism, the secret of his thought on the silk-worm civilization of modern England is that it enslaves the individual and destroys his soul.
RPE.143 In his general social scheme, Mr. Ruskin has been less practical, and at the best can be hardly called more than interesting and suggestive[.] His logic and general cogency are damaged by a certain cloudiness and inconsistency between his ideas of property and rights to land, of progress by education or individual effort and progress by State socialism, which, in his case, means despotic government. Yet even here he is hardly out of touch with the much advertised German or “historical” school.
RPE.144 His imagination and his humor pardoned, his digressions and unpractical speculations overlooked, it may be fair to say that the rest of his economic writing present thinkers may do well to read; for, though the future political economy may not build from him directly, yet it will be rather with Ruskin’s earth than with Ricardo’s straw that its bricks for building shall be made.


RPE.n1.1 * Ruskin’s views on women’s rights may be conveniently mentioned here.
RPE.n1.2 “Not only do you declare yourselves too indolent to labor for daughters and wives, and too poor to support them, but you have made the neglected and distracted creatures hold it for an honor to be independent of you, and shriek for some hold of the mattock for themselves. Believe it or not, as you may, there has not been so low a level of thought reached by any race since they grew to be male and female out of star-fish or chickweed, or whatever else they have been made from by natural selection, according to modern science.”

Quarterly Journal of Economics 2, no. 4 (July 1888), pp. 415-445.