Because people of every era deal with most of the same problems, most of what ought to be said about anything important has been said better by others before. Reading old works of political economy is therefore dispiriting, because even long-forgotten figures have expressed my thoughts far better than I am capable of. Such is the case with John Ruskin, whose 1860 work Unto This Last offers a criticism of mainstream economics more pithy and potent than almost any of those that emerged post-2008. Ruskin precisely diagnosed the way that the soulless premises of economics lead to irrelevant, inhuman results:
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 re-insertion 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.
Ruskin also has a lovely passage expressing the way the existence of wealth is necessarily dependent on inequality:
An accumulation of real property is of little use to its owner, unless, together with it, he has commercial power over labour. Thus, suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel, countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants? In order that he may be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor, and in want 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, plough 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 labour 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 garden, in the midst of a desert of waste land, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”… What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). And this power of wealth of course is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised, and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited. If the musician is poor, he will sing for small pay, as long as there is only one person who can pay him; but if there be two or three, he will sing for the one who offers him most. And thus the power of the riches of the patron… depends first on the poverty of the artist, and then on the limitation of the number of equally wealthy persons, who also wants seats at the concert. So that, as above stated, the art of becoming “rich,” in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is “the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.”
There is a common strain of argument among free-market types that inequality doesn’t matter so long as everyone’s wealth is growing. I think Ruskin shows beautifully why this argument fails; one’s riches have no power unless they carry the ability to make one’s fellow human beings subordinate and compel their labor. Because wealth is one’s relative power, a single person’s wealth cannot be examined in isolation from its relationship to that of others.