Some Gems on wealth and ownership

October 16, 2016

Unto this Last, John Ruskin:

Political economy (the economy of a State, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well-tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlour, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice: are all political economists in the true and final sense; adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.

But mercantile economy, the economy of “merces” or of “pay,” signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal, or moral claim upon, or power over, the labour of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.

There is, however, another reason for this habit of mind; namely, that 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.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. 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 (always imperfect and doubtful, as we shall see presently, even when most authoritative) 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.”


Kholstomer – The Story of a Horse, by Leo Tolstoy:

I was quite in the dark as to what they meant by the words “his colt,” from which I perceived that people considered that there was some connexion between me and the head groom. What the connexion was I could not at all understand then. Only much later when they separated me from the other horses did I learn what it meant. At that time I could not at all understand what they meant by speaking of *me* as being a man’s property. The words “my horse” applied to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say “my land,” “my air,” or “my water.”

But those words had an enormous effect on me. I thought of them constantly and only after long and varied relations with men did I at last understand the meaning they attach to these strange words, which indicate that men are guided in life not by deeds but by words. They like not so much to do or abstain from doing anything, as to be able to apply conventional words to different objects. Such words, considered very important among them, are my and mine, which they apply to various things, creatures or objects: even to land, people, and horses. They have agreed that of any given thing only one person may use the word *mine*, and he who in this game of theirs may use that conventional word about the greatest number of things is considered the happiest. Why this is so I do not know, but it is so. For a long time I tried to explain it by some direct advantage they derive from it, but this proved wrong.

For instance, many of those who called me their horse did not ride me, quite other people rode me; nor did they feed me – quite other people did that. Again it was not those who called me *their* horse who treated me kindly, but coachmen, veterinaries, and in general quite other people. Later on, having widened my field of observation, I became convinced that not only as applied to us horses, but in regard to other things, the idea of mine has no other basis than a low, mercenary instinct in men, which they call the feeling or right of property. A man who never lives in it says “my house” but only concerns himself with its building and maintenance; and a tradesman talks of “my cloth business” but has none of his clothes made of the best cloth that is in his shop.

There are people who call land theirs, though they have never seen that land and never walked on it. There are people who call other people theirs but have never seen those others, and the whole relationship of the owners to the owned is that they do them harm.
There are men who call women their women or their wives; yet these women live with other men. And men strive in life not to do what they think right but to call as many things as possible *their own*.

I am now convinced that in this lies the essential difference between men and us. Therefore, not to speak of other things in which we are superior to men, on this ground alone we may boldly say that in the scale of living creatures we stand higher than man. The activity of men, at any rate of those I have had to do with, is guided by words, while ours is guided by deeds.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

The fourth planet belonged to a businessman. This man was so much occupied that he did not even raise his head at the little prince’s arrival.

“Good morning,” the little prince said to him. “Your cigarette has gone out.”
“Three and two make five. Five and seven make twelve. Twelve and three make fifteen.

Good morning. FIfteen and seven make twenty-two. Twenty-two and six make twenty-eight. I haven’t time to light it again. Twenty-six and five make thirty-one. Phew! Then that makes five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred- twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince.
“Eh? Are you still there? Five-hundred-and-one million–I can’t stop . . . I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don’t amuse myself with balderdash. Two and five make seven . . .”
“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.
The businessman raised his head.
“During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times. The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where. He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition. The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism. I don’t get enough exercise. I have no time for loafing. The third time–well, this is it! I was saying, then, five-hundred-and-one millions– “
“Millions of what?”
The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question.
“Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.” “Flies?”
”Oh, no. Little glittering objects.”


“Oh, no. Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming. As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence. There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.”
“Ah! You mean the stars?”
“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”
“And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”
“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one. I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”
“And what do you do with these stars?” “What do I do with them?”


“Nothing. I own them.”
“You own the stars?”


“But I have already seen a king who–”

“Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”

“This man,” the little prince said to himself, “reasons a little like my poor tippler . . .”
Nevertheless, he still had some more questions. 
”How is it possible for one to own the stars?”

“To whom do they belong?” the businessman retorted, peevishly.

“I don’t know. To nobody.”

“Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.”

“Is that all that is necessary?”

“Certainly. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”
“Yes, that is true,” said the little prince. “And what do you do with them?”
“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”
The little prince was still not satisfied.
“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven . . .”
“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”
“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”
“And that is all?”
“That is enough,” said the businessman.
“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince. “It is rather poetic. But it is of no great consequence.”
On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown- ups.
“I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman, “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars . . .”
The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer. And the little prince went away.
“The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary,” he said simply, talking to himself as he continued on his journey.