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Friday, May 05, 2006

Ruskin: An early post-autistic economist

From Unto This Last:

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. And if, in a state of infancy, they supposed indifferent things, such as excrescences of shell-fish, and pieces of blue and red stone, to be valuable, and spent large measures of the labour 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 excresrences of 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 fulness; she who has said, "I will cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE; and I will FILL their treasures."

Unhappily for the progress of the science of Political Economy, the plus quantities, or, -- if I may be allowed to coin an awkward plural -- the pluses, make a very positive and venerable appearance in the world, so that every one is eager to learn the science which produces results so magnificent; whereas the minuses have, on the other hand, a tendency to retire into back streets, and other places of shade, -- or even to get themselves wholly and finally put out of sight in graves: which renders the algebra of this science peculiar, and difficultly legible; a large number of its negative signs being written by the account-keeper in a kind of red ink, which starvation thins, and makes strangely pale, or even quite invisible ink, for the present.

In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed: in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity: watching at the same time for all ways of gaining, or teaching, powers of simple pleasure, and of showing "οσον εν ασφοδελω μεγ ονειαρ" -- the sum of enjoyment depending not on the quantity of things tasted, but on the vivacity and patience of taste.

(The Greek is from Hesiod, and means 'how great blessing lies in mallow and asphodel', i.e., in simple things which even the poor can enjoy.)

For contemporary post-autistic economics you can read this review.


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