Political Economy: Science or Witchcraft?

By Ron McArthur

The following is a talk given by Dr. Ronald McArthur, founding President of Thomas Aquinas College, on June 25, 2011.  Before Dr. McArthur’s death he kindly made it available for publication in Third Millennium.

 

Many years ago, when some of us founders of our college were teaching at Saint Mary’s College, we were privileged to have as our colleague Colin Clarke, a world-class economist from Australia who was with us for a year as a visiting lecturer. We were then teaching in the integrated liberal arts program, and he asked us if we studied economics. We told him that we read some parts of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, but nothing more in economics. He told us we were wise not to pursue in detail the study of economics since it was an illiberal study, and rightly called “that dismal science”. Now Dr. Clarke was immensely learned in his field, and had become a convert by reading Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. He therefore opposed many of the tenets of modern political economics, so well presented by Adam Smith, and further developed and promulgated by David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. This is the view of economics which supplanted the economics of Christendom. We in America live within its folds, and our continuing acceptance, or rejection, of it will determine not only the shape of our lives-the lives of our families and friends, our communities, cities, states and country- but shape as well the lives of everyone in the world.

I don’t intend this evening to discuss whether the study of economics is part of liberal education, but I have become convinced over the years, pace Dr. Clarke, that we Catholics must join with Leo XIII, Pius XI, and succeeding Popes in understanding, in its broad and determining principles, the nature of modern political economics. Only then will we be able to contend with it, as I believe we are called to do by the Gospel itself.

What then are the broad and determining principles of this modern economics, assumptions upon which it stands? They can be summarized briefly: a) man can be considered, in so far as he is involved in wealth-getting, in isolation from any other aspect of human nature; b) the science of economics considers this isolated man as governed by natural laws, akin to the laws of physics, which cannot be altered or modified by human will; c) one of these natural laws is the law of supply and demand, i.e., if supply is greater than demand, the price comes down, while if the demand is greater than supply the price goes up, which is reducible to the more general principle that man always intends, in mercantile exchange, to get as much as he can and give as little as he must; d) a focused desire for personal gain is the result of a natural self-interest and works for the good of all, since the competition which results guarantees the lowest prices; e) there are wages paid for labor and prices paid for commodities, but there is no such thing as a just wage or a just price — wages and prices are adjusted according to the natural laws which govern economics; f) labor is a commodity, and acquires a price which is subject to the law of supply and demand; g) the role of government is to ensure that enlightened self-interest and the law of supply and demand can freely bring about their beneficent effects; h) morality may govern economic relations to the extent that there must be laws against fraud, but the economic relationship itself has nothing to do with morals. There is never a gap, in economic transactions, between what is and what should be; what should be is what is.

This is the thinking which came to permeate the economic life of our civilization, and which prompted Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum, considered the founding document of Catholic social thought. The encyclical, of course, is authoritative for us Catholics, but Leo was not alone in his assessment of the enemy. While his time had become imbued with the thinking which had by then all but destroyed the connection between civilization and Catholicism; while politicians and leaders were extolling the new economics as the road to well-being, there was a minority of thinkers who opposed that same political economy. Such a one was John Ruskin, who wrote a series of essays in the early 1860s called Unto this Last. Most of us, if we have heard of Ruskin at all, have heard that he was a romantic poet. He was, however, much more than that, and an accomplished writer besides. My point in this lecture will be to expose, in prose much inferior to his own, some of his criticisms of modern economics, criticisms based upon the ancient wisdom so dear to the thinking which lies at the root of Catholic Social Thought.

It is first of all interesting to note that Ruskin claims that political economy has, in his mind, the same status as alchemy, astrology and witchcraft. As alchemy was characterized by the pursuit of the transmutation of base metals into gold, as astrology was concerned with the influence of the planets upon the destinies of men, as witchcraft was concerned with the power of wizards, so political economy assumes that there can be some relations among men which are wholly devoid of humanity – i.e., devoid of anything except the acquisition of wealth. The first object of Ruskin’s essays in opposition is “to give an accurate and stable definition of wealth”. His second object is “to show that the acquisition of wealth [is] finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first [is] the belief in the existence, and even, for practical purposes, in the attainment of honesty”. Here, in this connection, is his reaction to Smith’s contention that, “The effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is not that of his corporation, but of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds, and corrects his negligence.” Ruskin says in rebuttal, “I will make… a very earnest request to any Christian reader to think within himself what an entirely damned state of soul any human creature must have got into, who could read with acceptance such a sentences as this: much more, write it.” He opposes Smith with the words on the church of San Giacomo di Rialto, built in A.D 421, and located in the Rialto market, the original center of Venice. They say “Be the true cross, oh Christ, the salvation of this place. Around this temple, let the merchant’s law be just, his weights true, and his contracts guileless.”

Later in the essays, he will wonder how is it that we can be gotten to think it acceptable to buy as cheaply as possible and sell as dearly as possible. At the same time, he realizes that it has become possible because of the prior acceptance of the “economic man”, the man of enlightened self-interest abstracted from the real men the majority of whom work to acquire the necessities of minimal decency. This world of economy, the road to riches, includes the elimination of “affection”, his word for the normal unfolding of human relations, the relations without which life itself becomes degraded and misshapen…

By way of opposition, Ruskin first of all tells us that all those who are hired to perform a task in whatever capacity will, since they are flesh and blood, do their work better if those who hire them show them affection, and respect their humanity… Since this is obviously so, why then opt for economic relations which deny it? He even goes further to say that those who are relatively poor, relatively uneducated, and of ordinary talent should be mentored by those who hire them — mentored so that they may develop as human beings in their work, and given work which brings about something worthwhile. In short those who hire others must violate the rules which are supposed to insure the economic success of their ventures.

There are other considerations which count against modern economics. Though we may, with one part of our mind, accept this modern view, there are, in the recesses of that same mind at least a partial agreement with a tradition we think we have supplanted. We think (and in this we are still with the ancients) that there are what we call professions, and that the professionals are concerned with the good of those to whom they minister, for which ministry they should be remunerated.  The doctor is as such concerned not with his own health but with the health of his patient, the judge is not concerned with what is justly due himself, but what is due those whose entanglements he is concerned to equalize, the lawyer is concerned with achieving justice for his client, the minister is concerned with the spiritual good of his parishioners. (To laugh at all this is to make the point, for we think that those who do not seek the health of their patients, justice for their clients, equity in court, the good of souls, are different sorts of fakes and failures — crooks if you will.)

Now, to keep following Ruskin, take those who are concerned with what we call the market, with those in agriculture, in manufacture, in retail trade. How do we look upon them? Remember first of all that were there no farmers, no manufacturers, and no retail traders, we would not have the wherewithal to become healthy, to become just in any but a rudimentary sense, to be able to seek justice in courts, or to have the free time to hear the gospel preached. Should not they then, be seen as concerned with those to whom they minister? They are, after all, concerned in our society with the basics, without which none of the other arts and services could develop. Yet in these cases, which we consider that part of life concerned with economics, we assume that the farmer, the manufacturer, and the middleman seek exclusively their own private good, and do so without criticism. Those who become rich at the expense of all others are not fakes and failures; rather, they are many times counted successful, and can become pillars of the community. Ruskin looked aghast at this assessment, for it meant to him not only the enshrining of greed, but the assumption that it was as a property of man, as unchangeable as the laws of gravity. No wonder then his castigation of the Christian who would ever entertain such a concept, and no wonder that he took as his masters both the Old and New Testaments, Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero. He does not refer to Aristotle, but to those of us who read Aristotle one finds an ally. Aristotle maintained that there could be no polis worthy of the name without a pervasive general justice, and that there could not be general justice without friendship — at least the friendship of utility — where even though the association is one of utility alone it should be yet a friendship, whereby there was on both sides concern for the other, “affection” if you will, and honesty certainly.

One could go on, but we all get the point: economics is not emancipated from the rest of life, and is therefore to be brought under the governance of right reason and the moral virtues. If in the Middle Ages there was an antipathy to merchants, it was because their role encouraged an all-too-common greed. For modern political economists, that greed is a property of human nature, as fixed as gravity. To give an example: If you go to the second floor of a building with a rock and drop it, the rock will fall down and hit the ground. If you take Socrates to that same second floor and drop him he too will fall down and hit the ground: Gravity. If now you take Socrates and place him in an economic situation, wherein he has a small supply of things which are in great demand, he will charge more than usual for his product: Economic law of supply and demand. It is clear, however, that Socrates need not charge more for his product under those conditions; it was not nature, but his greed, a vice, which prompted his action. Where Socrates had to go to the ground when he was thrown out the window, he does not have to charge more for his product. He would in fact be immoral if he charged excessively for something much needed by others who could barely afford what he was demanding. Socrates is not in this situation an economic man abstracted from his nature as a man, and separated from the other human actions which shape his life. It is this supposed abstraction of economic man which leads Ruskin to say that the modern economy, which calls itself political is not in fact a political economy. It is instead a mythical economy based upon that part of life which is concerned with the exchange of goods and services. It is therefore concerned almost exclusively with private riches, and not directly with the wealth of the community. In fact it is for Ruskin a recipe for the destruction of the Commonwealth. I would think, though he does not say it, that he would object to the title of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations...

Now our author is well aware of the other side of the argument. His adversaries will tell him almost by way of concession, that there may indeed be many advantages of affection in all kinds of human relationships, advantages not to be disdained, but which they exclude from their new science. Their science is simply the science of getting rich. Ruskin concedes that the successful businessman may be able to tell you how he became wealthy, how he balanced his gains and losses. What he won’t be able to tell you is how his activities, along with the similar activities of all those who implemented that same science of getting rich, affect the myriad activities and fortunes of families, communities, and states. The application of the new science compares to the ripples caused by skipping pebbles on a windless pond. They may not disturb the equanimity of the one who throws the pebbles, but they can disturb and confuse the fish in the pond.

Here, in his own words, is what Ruskin proposes as true political economy:

Political economy (the economy of the state, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlor, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice, are all political economists in the true and final sense; adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.

Mercantile economy, by contrast, is

…the economy of ‘merces’ or of ‘pay,’ [and] signifies 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 the one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.

Those of capitalist mentality may suppose that we are now headed toward another version of socialism or communism. This, however, is not the case, for Ruskin detests economic equality, thinks not only that there will be a wealthy class, but that it is in many ways beneficial to the state that there be significant wealth among some of its citizens. When he says that wealth implies a claim upon, or power over the labor of others, he is merely stating a fact. He says:

Suppose someone be put in possession of the largest state of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in his gravel, countless herds of cattle in his pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores: then suppose, after all, that he can get no servants. In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighborhood must be poor, and in want of some of his gold — or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plow his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labor to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and gardens, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces.

A wealthy man will have power over others is so far as he can hire them to work for him, those he pays so that they in their turn have the means to pay for some of the goods the wealthy man already has. This implies that those hired will be able to pay for the labor which produces the goods they buy. Since, however, (and this is a moral imperative for Ruskin) it makes all the difference that the original wealthy man, who hires those who must work, hires them to do something conducive to the good life of the community, offers work that somehow leads to the moral and mental development of the workers, and pays them a wage which will enable them to lead a life befitting their dignity as men. Only this relationship, Ruskin claims, will permit a vibrant and happy social order; anything else leads to conflict, violence and the death of the soul, if not the body.

There would still be the wealthy, but there would be a better distribution of wealth, and the wealthy would have less power over the rest of us. Here is how Ruskin sees it: Let there be a wealthy man, and let there be, for the desire to hire workers, a disproportionate number of those who need work. The prospective workers will be willing, since they are in competition with each other, to work for less money than if there was a greater demand for the work. The one who hires them, therefore, could pay each of them one half of what he would have had to pay them had they been fewer. Therefore, he who hires them can hire more of them at the same price he would have had to pay for fewer of them, and he can then increase his own wealth in the bargain. Therefore, in this situation the wealthy man becomes wealthier, and if wealth bespeaks power over others, he has increased his power when he hires workers for the lower wages.

However, following Ruskin, no matter the supply of workers, the worker must be paid a wage which permits a modest well-being. He too must be able to acquire a modicum of wealth, and to that extent be freed from the domination of the wealthiest. (This permits, by the way, an expansion of private property, and adds to the self-sufficiency of the worker, the reverse of Socialism.)

The great social question as it came to be understood in Ruskin’s time was the question of wages for the workers who constitute the large majority within the state. The moral solution to that question demanded, in his mind, “the organization of labor, with fixed wages”, which in its turn demanded the overturn of the so-called “natural” laws of the fictional political economy he opposed.

Here, if I follow him, is the way to look at this question. The one who works for another is owed something for his work. In the simplest terms, his employer owes him the same amount of work in return. However, his employer has money, and so he pays the worker, who would be then able to hire another to do the same amount of work for him, who would now be the employer. The original worker, however, does not have the wherewithal to pay that other to work for him; he must buy the things he needs in order to live- food, clothes shelter. But, when he buys those staples, he is buying indirectly the labor of others that went into producing the staples. The price of the staples depends upon, and should be gauged by, the labor it took to produce them. The one who made the shoes may not have plowed the fields of the buyer, but he did in fact work for him; he made him the shoes, and in that sense he was hired. Now the cobbler is a living, breathing man, not an economic abstraction, and so he should get a living wage. An equitable exchange demands that the wage of the first worker, who worked on the estate, be measured against the labor of the cobbler who made the pair of shoes he sold. In other words, a way of figuring out what is just includes figuring out the right price for the shoes. Therefore, the just wage is inseparably connected to the just price.

It may be easier to see if we take the first worker and, instead of working for the landowner, we have him making houses, which he exchanges for shoes… The question then becomes the number of shoes he should get for the house, and that will be determined by the amount of labor in each case. This is demanded because every such exchange happens between equals, and must be evenly balanced, which means that there can be no profit to either party.

The exchange may, as Ruskin claims, be advantageous on both sides, but never profitable — never, that is, based upon unjust wages, too little or too much for the worker, and too little and too much in the exchange of products. Those, then, who engage in economic transactions must act according to the cardinal virtue of justice, which means that they must not only be concerned with what they get, but with what the other gets as well; not only with what they give, but with what the other gives.

Now when you hear all this you might be inclined to smile at the naiveté of it all, or, more soberly, to question the possibility of determining, especially in any complicated economy, just prices and just wages. Ruskin is aware of the difficulty, and states clearly that only God can determine them perfectly. He claims, however, that we must try the best we can to approximate the Divine mind, and reminds us that while only a few may be able to successfully bridge the gap between Divine wisdom and our own approximations to it, men in general have a sense of justice and injustice, and recognize almost instinctively the gross violations of justice when they see them.

Ruskin aids us in seeing that justice is possible. He brings to our attention Solomon and all his riches, thus showing us that it is morally possible to own significant wealth, that the man of wisdom can at the same time be wealthy, that it is for the good of all that some wise men are wealthy, and that such wealth could not have been legitimate at the expense of a sense of justice. Solomon, that wisest of all men, emphasizes the importance of justice in Proverbs, his book filled with maxims of practical wisdom. Some of them show, according to Ruskin, “that it is possible for a very practical and acquisitive tradesman to hold, through a not unsuccessful career, that principle of distinction between well-gotten and ill-gotten wealth…” We find in the Proverbs that “the getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death”; that “treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but justice delivers from death”; that “he that oppresses the poor to increase his riches, shall surely come to want”; that we should “Rob not the poor because he is poor –neither oppress the afflicted in the place of business. For God shall spoil the soul of those that spoiled them”.

Now all this, Ruskin contends, is intimately related to the just wage and the just price. He begins his last essay of Unto this Last by reminding us that

We saw that just payment of labor consisted in the sum of money which would approximately obtain equivalent labor at a future time; we have now to examine the means of obtaining such equivalence. Which question involves the definition of Value, Wealth, Price, and Produce.

He insists that we need to define them, since:

Most persons confuse the value of the thing with its price (which is as though they should estimate the healing powers of the medicine by the charge of the apothecary); confuse the wealth (or the possessions which constitute the well-being of an individual) with riches (or the possessions which constitute power over others); and, finally, confuse production, or profit, which is an increase of the possessions of the world, with acquisition or gain, which is an increase of the possessions of one person by the diminution of those of another.

The popular notion of value, which is also the view of the political economists, means “value in exchange”. But, according to the political economists, the subject of political economy is wealth. And wealth consists in all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value. But, says Ruskin, to possess exchangeable value means not only that the objects might be useful and agreeable in themselves, but that they are thought so by a sufficient number of people who demand them. If there is no demand, there is no value. But the demand for an exchangeable commodity depends upon the character and disposition of the prospective consumer. However, says Ruskin, we are told that morality has nothing to do with political economy, and so “moral considerations have nothing to do with human capacities and dispositions.” Against this, Ruskin maintains that the only reasonable understanding of value comes to this:

The value of the thing… is independent of opinion, and of quantity. Think what you will of it, gain how much you may have of it, the value of the thing itself is neither greater nor less. Forever it avails, or avails not; no estimate can raise, no disdain repress, the power which it holds from the Maker of things and of men.

Having said this, Ruskin is prompted to transform our understanding of political economy into a conception of the real science of political economy. It is, after this transformation,

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 distraction. And if, in a state of infancy, they suppose indifferent things, such as excrescences of shellfish and pieces of blue and red stone, to be valuable, and spent large measures on 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 markets offer, for gold, iron, or excrescences or shells — the great and only science of political economy teaches them, in all these cases, what is vanity, and what 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.’

As for wealth, Ruskin begins by accepting John Stuart Mill’s statement that, “To be wealthy is to have a large stock of useful articles.” He nevertheless disagrees with Mill about how it should be understood. What, asks Ruskin, is the meaning of “to have”, and the meaning of “useful”? As to possession he begins with an example:

At the crossing of the transepts of Milan Cathedral has lain, for 300 years, the embalmed body of St. Carlo Borromeo. It holds a golden crosier, and has a cross of emeralds on its breast. Admitting the Crosier and the emeralds to be useful articles, is the body to be considered as having them? Do they, in the politico economical sense of property, belong to it? If not, and if we may, therefore, conclude generally the dead body cannot possess property, what degree and period of animation in the body will render possession possible?

While it may be difficult to decide, it is at least true, according to Ruskin,

that possession, or ‘having’, is not an absolute, but a graduated, power; and consists not only in the quantity or nature of the thing possessed, but also (and in a greater degree) in its suitableness to the person possessing it and in his vital power to use it.

Ruskin’s first modification of the definition of wealth, then, becomes “The possession of useful articles which we can use.” This leads him to consider the meaning of ‘useful’. Ruskin says the useful, according to a right-thinking political economy, is something material which, worthwhile according to the exigencies of our nature, is enjoyed, consumed, or exchanged, by one whose soul is rectified, and therefore alive so that he can truly possess it. This leads him to his final definition of Wealth: “THE POSSESSION OF THE VALUABLE BY THE VALIANT”, which he claims should be one of the principal aims of any strong and vibrant nation.

Ruskin goes equally against our modern grain when he turns his attention to price, “that is to say, of exchange value, and its expression by currencies.” He claims, first of all, that there can be no profit in exchange. “It is”, he says “only in labor there can be profit — that is to say, of making in advance, or making in favor of”; and this from proficio – to make headway, to advance, to make progress. This is contrary to the general notion of profit, where the exchange of goods is the very arena in which profit is made. Our notion of profit is taken from political economy, wherein it is defined as “excess of returns over outlay or expenditure”. “In exchange”, says Ruskin, “there is only advantage, i.e., a bringing advantage or power to the exchanging persons.” They exchange what has been gained by labor; nothing is constructed or produced in the exchange.

Only that which had been before constructed is given to the person by whom it can be used. If labor is necessary to effect these changes, that labor is in reality involved in the production, and, like all of the labor, bears profit. Whatever number of men are concerned in the manufacture, or in the conveyance, have a share in the profit; but neither the manufacture nor the conveyance are the exchange, and in the exchange itself there is no profit.

There may however, be acquisition; each, by exchange, acquires something — something which was the result of labor. But if there is gain at all, it must be prejudicial. Listen to Ruskin:

The Science of Exchange… considered as one of gain, is, therefore, simply nugatory; but considered as one of acquisition, it is a very curious science, differing in its data and bases from every other science known. Thus– if I can exchange a needle with a savage for a diamond, my power of doing so depends either on the savage’s ignorance of social arrangements in Europe, or on his want of power to take advantage of them, by selling the diamond to anyone else for more needles. If, further, I make a bargain as completely advantageous to myself as possible… the advantage to me in the entire transaction depends wholly upon the ignorance, powerlessness, or heedlessness of the person dealt with. Do away with these, and the [mercantile] advantage becomes impossible.

Ruskin goes on to say that “it is therefore a science founded on nescience, and an art founded on artlessness.”

Further,

This science, alone of sciences, must, by all available means, promulgate and prolong its opposite, nescience; otherwise the science itself is impossible. It is, therefore, peculiarly and alone the science of darkness; probably a bastard science — not by any means a divina sciencia, but one begotten of another father, that father who, advising his children to turn stones into bread, is himself employed in turning bread into stones, and who, if you would ask the fish of him….., can but give you a serpent.

Since the basis of all political economy, the right political economy, is labor, “The price of anything is the quantity of labor given by the person desiring it in order to obtain possession of it.” Since, however, there are different kinds of labor, different grades of labor, and different circumstances attending labor, to ascertain the right price for commodity, itself the result of labor, is very difficult. “Phenomena of price, therefore, are intensely complex, curious, and interesting”, but they reduce finally to the value and price of labor. “[T]he price of things must always be counted by the quantity of labor, not the price of labor by the quantity of other things.”

Someone may say that this is all very interesting, and even intriguing as a series of puzzles, but it cannot be applied to the world as it is. That world is now so complex that all attempts to quantify labor are useless. Ruskin’s answer however is to say, again, that we may not be able to get that just price known by the mind of God alone, but that we must approximate it if we are to concern ourselves with the poor of this world, and the large number of people who have no other way of living except to sell their labor for the things they need to live.

While it may be impossible to find the accurate measure of labor, it is yet certain that labor produces something, and it is through his conception of production that Ruskin advances his general view of the right conception of political economy. He knows, in this connection, that labor well executed can have various aims. These aims can be judged by the product produced, and it is those products that should be our concern. So much is this true, he says, that all labor should be divided into “positive and negative labor: positive, that which produces life; and negative, that which produces death”. Murder, for example, produces death, while rearing children produces life. All labor that produces life is honorable, while all labor that produces death is dishonorable. Therefore, says Ruskin, “labor being various in its result, the prosperity of any nation is in exact proportion to the quantity of labor which it expends in obtaining and employing means of life.” He means by this not only producing wisely, “but wisely distributing and consuming”, and he holds that “consumption is the end Crown and perfection of production.” So much is this true that he claims, “the vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ But ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”

All this leads him, finally, to consider Capital and its functions. Capital, to follow him, is “material by which some derivative or secondary good is produced. It is only capital proper… when it is producing something different from itself.” It is as a root producing fruit. There is something malign, then, about capital which, without producing fruit produces more roots; production is for consumption, and only the fruit can be consumed. If, for example, a well constructed plowshare “did nothing but beget other plowshares…. it would have lost its function of capital.” The test of the plowshare as capital is not other plowshares, but furrows. This being the real nature of capital, it follows that

there are two kinds of true production, always going on in an active state: one of seed, and one of food; or production for the ground, and for the mouth, both of which are by covetous persons thought to be production only for the granary; whereas the function of the granary is but intermediate and conservative, fulfilled in the distribution; else it ends up in nothing but mildew, and nourishment of rats and worms. And since production for the ground is only useful with future hope of harvest, all essential production is for the mouth and is finally measured by the mouth; hence as I said above consumption is the crown of production; and the wealth of a nation is only to be estimated by what it consumes.

Ruskin concludes:

 The final object of political economy, therefore, is to get good method of consumption, and great quantity of consumption: in other words, to use everything, and to use it nobly; whether it be substance, service, or service perfecting substance.

Ruskin also holds that the demand for commodities is, finally, a demand for labor, a demand for the right kind of labor, the labor which provides a decent life, which develops the powers of the worker, and which enables him in turn to participate in true wealth – a noble soul owning the material things which in their turn help him to act virtuously. His labor then enables him to purchase the commodities he needs to live well. Therefore, it is the manner and result of consumption which are the real tests of production. Hence, according to Ruskin,

Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable; and the question for the nation is not how much labor it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.

And what is life? He says that life is virtue, and the more there is virtue throughout the nation the more there is life, the more successful the country. He calls his view,

a strange political economy; the only one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be: all political economy founded on self-interest being but the fulfillment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of Angels, and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.

I hope my presentation of Ruskin’s essays is faithful to his thought, while knowing at the same time it lacks the pungency of his language, the beauty of his prose, and the literary references that engage the mind. What interested me, however, when I first read him is that it makes good sense. I think, also, that he resurrects in our time the wisdom of the ancients, the wisdom of the Scriptures, and their relevance to our current economics. Would it not, after all, be disconcerting to think that our Western Civilization, based as it is upon reason and revelation, the wisdom of the Greeks and Catholicism, the civilization which Newman calls “civilization itself”, should have nothing to teach us about economics, that progress should demand a denial of the principles that made it? Ruskin shows us this error from the inside, and leads us to reflect anew on the ancient teachings as they bear upon economics. There are many examples, so I will take a few of the most important.

Socrates, when speaking of the genesis of the city in the second book of the Republic, contrasts the city concerned with the essentials of life — food, clothing, shelter, — the healthy city, with the luxurious city concerned with ornaments and trinkets, “gorged”, as he puts it, “with a bulky mass of things, which are not in cities because of necessity….” This city, to follow Socrates, is an unhealthy city, and because of its excesses, it is never self-sufficient- which means that it will finally become grasping and warlike. It is then the city of death, not life. Ruskin echoes this when he tells us that wealth is the possession of things which enhance our nature as possessed by the rectified soul, as well as in his excoriation of those who surround themselves with frivolous things which are of no use to them or anyone else.

Aristotle, in his Politics, speaks about wealth-getting, and concludes that it should be undertaken for the sake of managing the family. He also claims that there is a natural wealth getting, necessary for the good of the family, and another kind of wealth getting which looks as if it were the same, but which he characterizes as unnatural; it is intrinsically evil because it has no natural end. This reminds us of Ruskin’s claim that the plow is for the furrow, not more plows; and the seed is for the fruit, not more seed. Capital is for the sake of life, and not for more capital. Aristotle also claims that the family is the first society, the basis of every other. Likewise Ruskin holds that the worst labor is warfare – death; but that the best labor is the raising of the young in a family — life.

Ruskin’s scorn of “enlightened self-interest”, a philosophical key that opens the door to modern economics, is compatible with Aristotle’s doctrine of the common good, that good which is not ordered to us, but to which we are ordered, and in which we find our perfection as political animals. Ruskin holds that a common good is achieved in the measure in which wealth is diffused, and that those who are more intelligent, more able, more prompted by the accidents of birth and fortune, must be concerned with the lives and fortunes of those they otherwise control. This is reminiscent, with the usual reservations, of Aristotle’s theory of the natural slave. The natural slave, he says, is one who cannot live according to his own reason, but must yet as a man, live according to reason. He therefore lives according to the reason of his master, and without that subjection he could in no way perfect his soul. While there are no natural slaves, there are inequalities within nature, and those who are superior have an obligation to be concerned with those whose livelihood depends upon them. This is contrary to the contention of the capitalists, who love egalitarian democracy because it tells them that all men are after all the same, that each man can take care of himself, that no one man should concern himself in economics with the lives of others, and that in fact such concern does not increase, but diminishes the wealth of all.

There are further connections with the ancients. In the Aristotelian corpus, there is a treatise on economics. It was not written or dictated by Aristotle, but the first book is obviously Aristotelian. Here we learn that

In regard to property the first care is that which comes naturally. Now in the course of nature the art of agriculture is prior, and next comes those large efforts which extract the products of the earth, mining and the like. Agriculture ranks first because of its justice; for it does not take anything away from men, either with their consent, as do retail trading in the mercenary arts, or against their will, as do the warlike arts. Further, agriculture is natural; for by nature all derive their sustenance from their mother, and so men derive it from the earth. In addition to this it also conduces greatly to bravery; for it does not make men’s bodies unserviceable, as do the illiberal arts, but it renders them able to lead an open air life and work hard; furthermore it makes them adventurous against the foe, for husbandmen are the only citizens whose property lies outside the fortifications.

This rather cryptic assessment takes us back to Xenophon, who in his Oeconomicus elaborates on those same points. There we find that Cyrus, the Persian king, thought that the art of husbandry (which includes the flower garden), the cultivation of the land and the development and use of animals, was desirable not only for sustenance, the first well-being of the family, but also necessary for the beautification of lands and parks — all conducive to the well-being of his empire. Cyrus also thought that husbandmen had to learn various arts and skills, and that this was a better development of their faculties than the repetition of a single task. He also thought that such men were far more able to be warriors when the Empire needed them. Therefore Cyrus spoke of the nobility of farming, and of the noble character of the accomplished husbandman. This being so, it mattered first of all that there be good families, good wives of good husbands; that they worked the land, that the wives managed the home and that they together educated their young.

If Ruskin is correct when he contends that those of more wealth should use it to enhance the lives and develop the character of those who must work for them, it means that those with superior wealth and power, rather than increasing them through industrialization and the factory system which eliminates the husbandman and sentences workers to repetitious jobs and meaningless lives in our huge cities, should encourage the return of the agrarian life, smaller communities and local technology. Then, more of those same workers might own their own property, and become self-sufficient; not slaves, but free men.

These are just a few of the connections one is led to make between Ruskin and the Ancients.  He, as they, saw politics, and hence economics, as ordered to the perfection of the soul. There is here, as in so many other areas, the battle between the ancients and the moderns. Why is it that Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, to name but a few, have lost traction for modernity? How did it happen? There are many reasons, and it may be impossible to clarify the whole story. One thing, however, is certain: the Catholic Fathers and Doctors, the scholastic theologians and their disciples, all accepted the ancient understanding of economics, as before all else the discipline ordered to the management of a family, the first of all associations, upon which all others depend if they are to bring health and vitality to the souls of men. .

The Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century — Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Diderot, the French Encyclopedists — held themselves together in a loosely conceived association because, despite their differences, they were as one in detesting Christianity—the great myth which for the previous thousand years had destroyed, corrupted and impeded the flowering of human nature. Everything connected with it had to be rethought; while there might be a learned nod in the direction of ancient thought, its integration into the teaching of the Church had to be overthrown. The result was a new politics (Locke); a new economics (Smith); a new basis of morality (Kant); a new science of nature (Newton). We Catholics, along with everyone else in our times, are still in the midst of the great revolution which aims to substitute, for the civilization based on God, a new civilization based upon man — and we are losing the battle; not the war, but the battle.

Ruskin maintains that the rectification of the evils he opposes demands not just men acting, but acting as honest men because they are honest. He is clear that it cannot come about through government alone There is no return to a healthy economy without curing the diseased soul — justice rather than greed. This rectification, he thinks, demands for its guidelines a serious acceptance of Revelation as it teaches about economics, which explains his references to Proverbs, and his allusions to the Gospel.

Even more than all this however, our author has in four essays resurrected from oblivion the conviction that our economics cannot be understood without the notion of the good. The scientific revolution did not refute but conveniently buried Aristotle’s doctrine of final causality, an obstacle to the emancipation of the mind for what was conceived to be the shackles a religiously imposed philosophical orthodoxy. This led to a new orthodoxy, not discovered by reason, but accepted by faith and still with us, that no one knows what is good for man. While Socrates labored in many of the dialogs to separate the real from the apparent good, we now know that it was all a waste of time; the same is true when Aristotle labors to discover the nature of happiness, that real good to which we should direct our actions. While no one this side of insanity denies that men act with purpose, it is commonly accepted that no one can know that one good is better than another. We are latter-day discoverers that Protagoras has been right all along; each man is the measure of his own actions. We are now attempting with our latest brand of secularization, to establish something as yet unknown to the human race — a society based on mores completely divorced from morality, and especially divorced from any opening to religion. The lineaments of such a society become clearer all the time. The popular culture scorns, ridicules and opposes with all its might any position about practical matters which involves a measure other than the individual will. Any reference to morality is immediately characterized as religious, the product of a faith which along with other faiths (excepting this newest) is irrational and therefore menacing were it to become public.,

Through it all, however, men cannot help but desire happiness, which most men think consists primarily in the possession and enjoyment of material goods. Since nothing is natural to man, there can be no distinction between natural and unnatural wealth getting, no distinction between responsible acquisition and greed. The rich are in fact the happy. The poor have no moral case against injustice. Their avenue to more wealth depends upon revolution or political power through the ballot box and the lobby. So much is this true that words like social justice, just price, and just wage, are remnants of the misconceptions we are content to have long-ago buried. While there are relatively few convinced atheists among us, our culture celebrates a practical atheism which knows no limits.

There was a time, for example, when Christian believers thought there was some connection between their lives on earth and the disposition of their souls after death. Now, thanks to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, it doesn’t matter how we live so long as we believe that Jesus is our personal savior. And after all it might be true that everyone goes to heaven anyhow. We no longer think that a just social order depends upon an explicit recognition of the existence of an all-knowing and all provident God and the immortality of the human soul, that soul which will be most solemnly judged after its separation from the body. If those doctrines are not taken seriously, why should we be surprised at the condition of our society? Why should we be surprised that economics is concerned solely with the material riches? All our labors to bring about a reasonable social order congruent with the nature of man have no chance of success as long as the current mentality prevails. That mentality is now the intellectual custom which has permeated almost every part of our lives, and it will not go away by treating symptoms and ignoring the disease..

Ruskin, for all his virtues, and they are many, is silent about that one thing needed. He is, in fact, a kind of rough and ready theologian, and what he needs as a proximate cause of his revolution backwards is the kind of theology one finds in the IIA IIAE of the Summa, wherein the revelation from above is made more intelligible through the philosophical wisdom of the ancients.  But while moral theology can stand as a proximate cause, it alone is in no way sufficient to bring about the change. The only thing that can save us in a world gone mad is the One who has already saved us by his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection. He saves us, however, through his church, and so it is impossible for us to rise from our miseries unless the church be publicly accepted and recognized as the mystical body of Christ, wherein are contained not only the truth without which we perish but the sacraments, the ordinary means of sanctification. Only in the public acceptance of the church as a society superior to any temporal order, which looks to a happiness beyond this world, a church which brings us the councils, creeds, dogmas, fathers and doctors, the Saints, theologians, poets, artists, can there be any hope. The social doctrine of the Church is but a part of sacred theology, and we need the restoration of the whole of that theology. Only there will we find, in full measure, faith seeking understanding, and at the same time the elevation and completion of the natural wisdom of the ages. If this were to come about, we would then see that the social doctrine is concerned primarily with the good of the family, the antidote of the industrialism which continues his warfare against the real wealth of which Ruskin speaks. Without the resurgence of the Catholic faith, there is no possibility of a general return to the “honesty” Ruskin demands. It is only the church which can maintain, “in season and out of season” the principles of any sane economics. An ecumenical Christianity based upon a number of common denominators is next to useless. What we need is the authoritative Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Real Presence without which Ruskin’s honesty can never take hold… This is, of course, contrary to all we see around us, to that liberal democracy which reduces religion to a purely private concern, and which destroys any connection between the citizen and the Lord and Savior of nations.

Solzhenitsyn has his own way of putting it. He said, “John Paul simply said that the third totalitarianism is coming, the absolute power of money, ‘the inhuman love of the accumulation of capital for capital’s sake,’ … I would summarize as follows: untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” He went on to say that neither system, “can tolerate Christian commandments; they do not concern themselves with the spiritual sphere; they reject the spiritual sphere.”

To bring the spiritual sphere to bear upon political economics, more and more of us would have to study the social doctrine of the Church, be aware of the problems and the general solution to them, and be willing and able to stay the course. Then, if through the prayers and sufferings of the faithful the Church returns to a place of honor, there might be a chance. Failing all this we shall simply stagger from one crisis to another, and disintegrate more and more in the name of liberty and progress.