Unto this Last sets out to do two things: to define wealth and to demonstrate that certain moral conditions are essential to its attainment. It is not an attempt to outline a new economic theory or to propose specific policies, though inevitably the latter are touched upon. It is first and foremost a critique of current beliefs and ideas.
At the outset, Ruskin's objections to the classical theory are focused by a particular hypothesis. This is an abstract individual known as 'economic man', defined in an early essay of Mill's as a being who
'invariably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained in the existing state of knowledge'. 'On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to it' (1836).
He was, in other words, motivated by nothing but the desire for material gain. Mill did not imagine that such an individual existed. He merely argued that it was necessary to isolate the object of one's investigation,
'because this is the mode in which science must necessarily proceed'.
His aim was to discover how the laws of the market enabled interested persons to gain wealth, and economic man provided him with a model.
For Ruskin, this was precisely the way science ought not to proceed. If such an individual did not exist, how could he be used as a model for understanding real human actions? Moreover, in cases of human nature, how was it possible to divide the understanding of an action from moral judgement of it? What Mill's theory appeared to propose — even if this was in no way his intention — was that society as a whole benefited from the greed and materialism of selfish individuals. It seemed to follow that Mill was recommending such behaviour. Many politicians and industrialists certainly understood him in this way and acted upon what they took to be his advice, a fact which to Ruskin was sufficient proof of the method's irresponsibility.
Man, as Ruskin depicts him, is fundamentally moral. To make such a statement is not to deny that man is capable of greed and lust and every species of heartlessness and immorality. It is simply to assert that we cannot understand humanity, cannot even understand the nature of wealth or greed, if we do not recognize that man is also capable of selflessness, honour, justice, love. What the abstracting scientific method appears to have discovered in him will not only be false (and therefore useless) but will go some way towards discouraging these virtues in the interest of, in this case, economic progress. And the individual, divided (as always) between higher and baser motives, will learn that the baser ones are beneficial to society and will therefore feel justified in the choice of selfishness.
The first essay of Unto this Last, 'The Roots of Honour', begins with Ruskin's attack on the notion of economic man. He argues that in most branches of human affairs — he cites the great professions — it is normal to regard personal gain as secondary to the disinterested service of one's fellows. The same should apply in industry and commerce: the job of the manufacturer and merchant should be to provide for the community. The second essay, 'The Veins of Wealth', anticipates the charge of sentimentality. With the help of some simple fables, Ruskin shows that honour in commercial affairs is not only desirable but essential to true prosperity. The Political Economists miss this point because they isolate the individual from society. Ruskin's model of the state is the family, in which survival and prosperity are grounded in interdependence. This leads naturally to a consideration of the fair reward for labour in 'Qui Judicatis Terram'. Here Ruskin argues that behind all human transactions is the concept of abstract justice. The concept is innate, and when it is violated the sufferer feels himself the victim of a crime. An unjust wage is therefore a form of theft. 'Ad Valorem', the last essay, begins with some redefinitions of key terms, misused — as Ruskin sees it — by Mill and Ricardo. The climax of the essay and of the book is a definition of 'value'. As in the case of 'justice', Ruskin finds it necessary to define this word in absolute terms. Adam Smith's distinction between value in use and value in exchange is relative and ultimately meaningless. The value of an object is its power to support life. It is thus intrinsic.
The argument, it now becomes clear, is an extension of Ruskin's view of art, for works of art, superficially useless, can only be justified by this conception of value. The book's final message, that 'There is no Wealth but Life', is the logical outcome, in social terms, of Ruskin's insistence on the morality of taste. The message of Modern Painters had been that
'All great art is the expression of man's delight in God's work, not in his own'.
The target of Ruskin's attacks, aesthetic and economic, is the arrogance of the post-Renaissance intellect. Neo-classical theory had represented the artist as an improver of nature, and the result had been conventionalism — the artist imitating art, not humbly recording instances of nature. The economists saw wealth as the accumulation of money — not recognizing that money, too, is conventional, and that wealth is a quality anterior to the operation of markets. Just as neo-classical art missed reality by delighting in man's work, so economic theory flattered itself by contemplating its own hypotheses. As Ruskin's youthful fairy tale, The King of the Golden River, had suggested, the source of value is not gold — that is a token— but light and water, the sources of life itself.