Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Value and Wealth in John Ruskin’s economic thought

Carvalho Luís Francisco, Iscte - University Institute of Lisbon

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a very influential Victorian intellectual, whose interests crossed multiple domains. He is today best remembered as an art critic and historian, but he also devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to a critical scrutiny of the economy and society of his time, which necessarily involved an appraisal of the profound transformations linked with the rise and consolidation of industrial capitalism. Ruskin sensed, furthermore, that the core elements of these transformations were inspired and/or legitimised by the emergent science of political economy. In contrast with other so-called ‘romantic’ critics of political economy, such as the ‘Lake Poets’ (Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth) or Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin did not limit himself to uncompromising criticism, but also tried to advance with actual proposals for the constitution of what he termed a ‘true’ political economy. Central to those efforts is Ruskin’s (re-)discussion of two key concepts in economic discourse: value and wealth. In this paper, we will try to systematize Ruskin’s views on these topics, stressing his notions of intrinsic value, acceptant capacity, effectual value, and the rejection of the materialist and market-centered conception of wealth that he identified with ‘classical’ political economy in favour of a human (and humane) standard for the definition of wealth. Ruskin often mentioned Ancient Greek philosophers as the main source and inspiration for his economic ideas, so, accordingly, in this paper two possible influences are explored: Xenophon and Aristotle. The novelties and continuations of Ruskin’s views on value and wealth will be also assessed in the light of more canonical contmpoaray approaches to these issues – namely by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and William Stanley Jevons.


Keywords: Value, Wealth, Ruskin