Ruskin’s ideas on the political economy of his time are very significant. Though they were condemned as windy hysterics, intolerable twaddle and the like, but their significance in views of the growing menace of materialism cannot be undervalued.Ruskin was deeply fed up with the growing materialism and its consequent evils. He was convinced that a nation loses its glory when it adds nothing to the beauty of the world and when it jumps headlong into material mire. Other vices were also pointed out against the orthodox views on that subject. Ruskin criticized such orthodox economists as Ricardo, Malthus and M’culloch. In the words of
In Unto This Last, Ruskin speaks voluminously of his views on political economy. The opening , sentence of the book makes a ridicule of the orthodox economy : “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 credible in the modern soi distant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affections.” The basis of Ruskin’s political economy is human welfare. He differentiates between Political Economy and Mercantile Economy as under :
“Political Economy (the economy of a 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 and the singer who rightly disciplines and never overstrains her vice 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. But merchantile economy signifies the accumulation in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon or power over the labour of others.”
Ruskin does not consider wealth as orthodox economists do. He defines wealth as “the possession of useful articles which we can use”. Likewise he states the purpose of political economy in the essay Ad Valorem : “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 labour for the things that lead to life and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction.”
Ruskin places human values above profit-making tendency. He asks : “Buy in the cheaptest market ? Yes, but what made your market cheap ? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after a fire and bricks may be cheap in your streets after an earth-quake, but fire and earthquake may not therefore be material benefits.” Therefore, like Gandhiji and Vinoba, he emphasises the cultivation of spiritual power in man. He says, “There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” All the philosophers of the world and all sincere democrats insist on life giving and life-generating forces. A life is to be enriched by powers of love, sympathy, brotherhood and cooperation. We do not need Shylocks in our midst, instead, we require Harshas and Karnas, as being the real benefactors of mankind.
Ruskin denounces the general belief of his age that national prosperity is best advanced by everyone doing the best for oneself. This doctrine is responsible for all exploitation and human sufferings. Regarding the labourers and conditions of labour, Ruskin remarks that they ought to be paid according to justice and not according to laws of competition under the present system, they are miserably and inadequately paid. Regarding their miserable working conditions, Ruskin writes in ‘Work’, “Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing : work is only done well when it is done with a will and no man has a thoroughly sound will unless he knows he is doing what he should and is in his place.”
Advising people to discard money and material pursuits, Ruskin writes in ‘Traffic’ : “But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life for all men as for yourselves—If you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths; which are peace.” He goes on to write : “You will know them, how to build, well enough you will build with stone well, but with flesh better; temples not made with hands but riveted of hearts ; and that kind of marble, crimson-veined is indeed eternal.”
The greatness of Ruskin as a political economist lies in the fact that most of his plans have been incorporated into Acts of Parliament. He was the pioneer of policies relating to wastelands, care of the aged poor, the working hours and conditions of labourers, the relation between labour and capital, problems of unemployment, reforms of educational systems and planning of cities, and so on. Some of these policies are still the guiding principles of the democratic countries. His idea that economic well-being is subordinate to the moral life, is on every politician’s lips. His notion that the use of wealth is more important than its accumulation, is the hobby-horse of all modern statesmen. The ideals of truth, beauty, justice, cheerful and self-sacrificing labour for the good of the community must reign in men’s hearts : the worship of Mammon must be abandoned. Then and only then will the prophetic vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” be fulfilled.