Jun 072009

Back to the Deep Thoughts Series.

The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes of it. –John Ruskin

John Ruskin lived from 1819 to 1900. He was a British art critic and social philosopher who had a great deal of influence in the Victorian and Edwardian ages.

He had some interesting ideas about the how the economy should be regulated, and maybe we should listen to him today. According to Wikipedia:Cannery operation in the Ruskin Cooperative, 1896

Ruskin’s pioneering of ideas that helped lead to the Arts and Crafts movement was related to the growth of Christian socialism, an outlook that he helped formulate in his book Unto This Last, in which he attacked laissez faire economics because it failed to acknowledge complexities of human desires and motivations. Ruskin believed that jobs should be paid at a fixed rate, so that the best workmen got employed, instead of those that offered to do the job at a lower price:

“Nay, but I choose my physician and my clergyman, thus indicating my sense of the quality of their work. By all means, also, choose your bricklayer; that is the proper reward of the good workman, to be “chosen.” The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed. The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.”

He argued that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of such higher values. These ideas were closely related to those of Thomas Carlyle, but whereas Carlyle emphasised the need for strong leadership, Ruskin emphasised what later evolved into the concept of “social economy” – networks of charitable, co-operative and other non-governmental organisations.

I think his idea of paying a set rate for services so the best workmen could be chosen is probably reflected in his quote above. Not that one becomes the most or least paid, but that you strive to do the best you can at whatever one does. Ruskin also wrote, “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.” Again, placing the importance of good quality work over most other considerations.

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