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Mr. Ruskin that the existing economic processes which apportion wealth are void of moral sanction, and that the pressure of need therefore does not in general imply moral infirmity, we may very well regard such charity as an informal mode of redressing certain noxious inequalities of our economic arrangements.
So far as loans to the needy are concerned, this attitude has undoubtedly a strong moral support. But in times when most capital is employed, not for such purposes, but for business investments of a directly productive character, it is not possible to rely upon these moral motives for a general denial of the validity of taking interest. Mr. Ruskin, in common with many assailants of the theory of interest, appears to forget the vital difference between the “ money-lender” and the “investor." Where money is invested there is no warrant for supposing that the borrower cannot at least hold his own; and since such investments are evidently a source of profit to their employment, no reason can be shown why that profit should be taken by the manufacturer or the trading company to whom the 6 loan” is made rather than by the investor.
Indeed, the practical good sense of ancient communities, where “interest” was formally forbidden, generally made exception of cases where the loan was made to a person of substance, or was otherwise designed for profitable employment in business.
The belief that all business conducted for the sake of private profit is wrong, and prejudicial to the interests of society, is sometimes adduced as implying a condemnation of interest. But the argument is entirely beside the point. If all industry could be organised by society,
and conducted for the common good, no special profit need be asked as the reward of social saving ; but so long as individual saving is required for the maintenance of individual business, such portion of that saving as involves personal sacrifice has the same natural and moral claim to compensation as any other order of industrial sacrifice. Other times, other morals! Organise industry upon a social basis, then individual interest will be unnecessary and illicit, but not till then.
But, however wrong Mr. Ruskin may have been in his theory of interest, his exposure of the folly of those who taxed him with inconsistency in consenting to take interest for investments, after discovering interest was wrong, is exemplary. “I hold bank stock simply because I suppose it to be safer than any other stock, and I take the interest of it because, though taking interest is, in the abstract, as wrong as war, the entire fabric of society is at present so connected with both usury and war that it is not possible violently to withdraw, nor wisely to set example of withdrawing, from either evil.”i There is no more convincing testimony of the inherent incapacity for reasoning in the average sensual man than the charge of “ inconsistency” brought against a Socialist on the ground that he does not attempt to cure a social evil by an individual remedy.
The chief harm done by Mr. Ruskin's economic errors is that they have furnished really vulnerable points upon which hostile critics have concentrated all their fire. The social teaching of a man who denies the productiveness of exchange, and who challenges the validity of interest, it is urged, may be safely dis
1 Fors, Letter xxi. (i. 419).
regarded by all sane-minded and practical persons. So perverse is most men’s judgment of criticism involving an unsettlement of convenient opinions, that they gladly seize upon some salient single weakness as a pretext for ignoring the deepest and most vital truths. Mr. Ruskin has remorselessly and accurately exposed the injustice inherent in all bargaining, and the existence of oppression in all forms of buying and selling, including the selling of the use of capital. But because he has found some special and separate fault in this last class of bargains which is not always there, his more fundamental criticism, which is valid, has been utterly disregarded by the great majority of cultured persons who yet pretend to think that Mr. Ruskin is a wise and wholesome teacher. “They read the words, and say they are pretty, and go on in their own ways.
Well might such obdurate irrationality drive a man of Mr. Ruskin's temperament to madness, as he declares it did. 2
Here was a man of wide experience and of the keenest penetration into life, coining his very soul into passionate eloquence and searching analysis, in order to convince the intellect and stir the heart of his countrymen to see the deadly injustice and inutility of the existing social order, and the necessity of labouring energetically towards reform; and his words are — not unlistened to, and not unread, that were hard enough but eagerly heard and willingly read, and yet impotent for conviction and for the guidance of conduct. That people should gush over his beautiful writing about Art and Literature, should “sympathise” with much that
1 Fors, Letter lviii. (iii. 176).
he has to say about the ugliness of industrial towns, the miseries of the poor, the dangers of luxury, the need of social solidarity, and should go their own way in comfortable self-complacency, giving their usual subscriptions to “ charities," and deprecating any radical change in this best of all possible worlds for the well-to-do — this surely is a more scathing indictment of his age and country than any that Mr. Ruskin himself uttered in his most impassioned moments.
THE TRUE SOCIAL ORDER.
$ 1. Statement of the practical problem of reform. § 2. The first
provision, good birth. $ 3. The second provision, good education. § 4. “La carrière ouverte aux talens." § 5. The utility of class distinctions for industrial and social life. $ 6. The problem of base mechanical work. $ 7. The regulation of skilled industries by guilds. 98. The agricultural order— Feudalism plus direct State control. 8 9. Trade cooperation or State action ? § 10. The functions of Mr. Ruskin's "aristocracy.” § 11. The scheme of government — Bishops and their work. $ 12. The ideal and the practical in Mr. Ruskin's social order.
§ 1. What is the right ordering of human activities in a true commonwealth ? is the great practical question as it presented itself to Mr. Ruskin. In “ Time and Tide” and “Fors Clavigera” he gives his answer, describing those changes necessary to establish a sound society upon right industrial and political principles. Certain axioms of social justice relating to work and property underlie his proposals. Every man must do the work which he can do best, and in the best way, for the common good and not for individual profit, receiving in return property consisting of good things which he has honestly got, and can skilfully use. 1 These general laws are applied to the circumstances of his age and country, so as to yield a body of definite proposals for social reform.
1 Fors, Letter lxx. (iii. 411).