Back | Next

THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. III - The Basic Works > UNTO THIS LAST > The Roots of Truth


The Roots of Truth

The answer which would be made by any ordinary economist to the statement in the preceding paper, is in a few words as follows:

"It is true that certain advantages of a general nature may be obtained by the development of social affections. But economists never take such advantages into consideration. Our science is simply the science of getting rich. So far from being fallacious, it is found by experience to be practically effective. Persons who follow its precepts do become rich, and persons who disobey them become poor. Every capitalist of Europe has acquired his fortune by following the laws of our science. It is vain to bring forward tricks of logic against the force of accomplished facts. Every man of business knows by experience how money is made and how it is lost."

Pardon me. Men of business do indeed make money, but they do not know if they make it by fair means or if their money-making contributes to national welfare. They rarely know the meaning of the word 'rich'. At least if they know, they do not allow for the fact that it is a relative word, implying its opposite 'poor' as positively as the word 'north' implies its opposite 'south'. Men write as if it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that of electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need he has for it, and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.

I wish the reader clearly to understand the difference between the two economies, to which the terms, 'political' and 'mercantile' might be attached.

Political economy 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 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 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 signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal 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.

The idea of riches among active men in civilized nations generally refers to such commercial wealth; and in estimating their possessions, they rather calculate the value of their horses and fields by the number of guineas they could get for them, than the value of their guineas by the number of horses and fields they could buy with them.

Real property is of little use to its owner, unless together with it he has commercial power over labour. Thus suppose a man has a large estate of fruitful land with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle; houses, and gardens and storehouses; 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.

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. 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. So that the art of becoming 'rich' in the common sense is not only 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'.

The rash and absurd assumption that such inequalities are necessarily advantageous lies at the root of most of the popular fallacies on the subject of economics. For the beneficialness of the inequality depends first, on the methods by which it was accomplished and secondly, on the purposes to which it is applied. Inequalities of wealth, unjustly established, have assuredly injured the nation in which they exist during their establishment; and unjustly directed, injure it yet more during their existence. But inequalities of wealth, justly established, benefit the nation in the course of their establishment; and nobly used, aid it yet more by their existence.

Thus the circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise; and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life; and another which will pass into putrefaction.

Again even as diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic.

Suppose two sailors cast away on an uninhabited coast and obliged to maintain themselves there by their own labour for a series of years.

If they both kept their health, and worked steadily and in amity with each other, they might build themselves a house and in time to come possess some cultivated land together with various stores laid up for future use. All these things would be real riches or property; and supposing the men both to have worked equally hard, they would each have right to equal share or use of it. Their political economy would consist merely in the careful preservation and just division of these possessions.

Perhaps however after some time one or other might be dissatisfied with the results of their common farming; and they might in consequence agree to divide the land into equal shares, so that each might thenceforward work in his own field and live by it. Suppose that after this arrangement had been made, one of them were to fall ill, and be unable to work on his land at a critical time—say of sowing or harvest. He would naturally ask the other to sow or reap for him.

Then his companion might say, with perfect justice, 'I will do this additional work for you; but if I do it, you must promise to do as much for me at another time. I will count how many hours I spend on your ground, and you shall give me a written promise to work for the same number of hours on mine, whenever I need your help, and you are able to give it.'

Suppose the disabled man's sickness to continue, and that under various circumstances, for several years, requiring the help of the other, he on each occasion gave a written pledge to work, as soon as he was able, at his companion's orders, for the same number of hours as the other had given up to him.

What will the positions of the two men be when the invalid is able to resume work?

Considered as a 'polis' or state, they will be poorer than they would have been otherwise; poorer by the withdrawal of what the sick man's labour would have produced in the interval. His friend may perhaps have toiled with an energy quickened by the enlarged need but in the end his own land must have suffered by the withdrawal of so much of his time from it; and the united property of the two men will be less than it would have been if both had remained in health and activity.

But the relations in which they stand to each other are also widely altered. The sick man has not only pledged his labour for some years, but will have exhausted his share of the stores, and will be in consequence for some time dependent on the other for food, for which he can only 'pay' him by yet more deeply pledging his own labour.

Supposing the written promises to be held entirely valid, the person who had hitherto worked for both might now, if he chose, rest altogether, and pass his time in idleness, not only forcing his companion to redeem all his previous pledges but exacting from him pledges for further labour, to an arbitrary amount, for what food he had to advance to him.

There might not be the least illegality (in the ordinary sense of the word) in the arrangement; but if a stranger arrived on the coast at this advanced stage of their political economy, he would find one man commercially Rich; the other commercially Poor. He would see, with no small surprise, one passing his days in idleness; the other labouring for both and living sparely, in the hope of recovering his independence at some distant period.

What I want the reader to note especially is the fact that the establishment of the mercantile wealth which consists in a claim upon labour signifies a political diminution of the real wealth which consists in substantial possessions.

Take another example, more consistent with the ordinary course of affairs of trade. Suppose that three men, instead of two, formed the little isolated republic, and were obliged to separate, in order to farm different pieces of land at some distance from each other: each estate furnishing a distinct kind of produce and each in need of the material raised on the other. Suppose that the third man, in order to save the time of all three, simply superintends the transference of commodities from one farm to the other, on condition of receiving a share of every parcel of goods conveyed.

If this carrier always brings to each estate, from the other, what is chiefly wanted, at the right time, the operations of the two farmers will prosper, and the largest possible result in produce or wealth will be attained by the little community. But suppose no intercourse between the landowners is possible, except through the travelling agent; and that after a time, this agent keeps back the articles with which he has been entrusted until there comes a period of extreme necessity for them, on one side or other, and then exacts in exchange for them all that the distressed farmer can share of other kinds of produce; it is easy to see that by ingeniously watching his opportunities, he might possess himself of the greater part of the surplus produce of the two estates, and at last, in a year of scarcity, purchase both for himself and maintain the former proprietors thenceforward as his labourers or servants.

This would be a case of commercial wealth acquired on the exactest principles of modern political economy. But it is clear in this instance also that the wealth of the State or of the three men considered as a society, is collectively less than it would have been if the merchant had been content with juster profit. The operations of the two farmers have been cramped to the utmost; the limitations of the supply of things they wanted at critical times, together with the failure of courage consequent on the prolongation of a struggle for mere existence, must have diminished the effective results of their labour; and the stores accumulated by the merchant will not be of equivalent value to those which, had he been honest, would have filled the granaries of the farmers and his own.

The question, therefore, respecting not only the advantage but even the quantity of national wealth, resolves itself finally into one of abstract justice. The - real value of acquired wealth depends on the moral sign attached to it, just, as sternly as that of a mathematical quantity depends on the algebraical sign attached to it. Any given accumulation of commercial wealth, may be indicative, on the one hand, of faithful industries, progressive energies and productive ingenuities; or on the other hand, it may be indicative of mortal luxury, merciless tyranny, ruinous chicanery.

And these are not merely moral attributes of riches, which the seeker of riches may, if he chooses, despise; the, are literally material attributes of riches, depreci­ating or exalting the monetary signification of the sum in question. One mass of money is the outcome of action which has created,—another, of action which has anni­hilated,—ten times as much in the gathering of it.

Therefore the idea that directions can be given for the gaining of wealth, irrespectively of the consideration of its moral sources is perhaps the most insolently futile of all that ever beguiled men through their vices. So far as I know, there is not in history record of anything, so disgraceful to the human intellect as the modern idea that the commercial text 'Buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest' represents an available principle of national economy. Buy in the cheapest market?—yes; but what made your market cheap ? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after a fire and bricks may be cheap in your streets after an earthquake; but fire and earthquake may not therefore be national benefits. Sell in the dearest?—yes, truly; but what made your market dear ? You sold your bread well today; was it to a dying man who gave his last coin for it and will never need bread more; or to a rich man who tomorrow will buy your farm over your head; or to a soldier on his way to pillage the bank in which you have put your fortune?

None of these things you can know. One thing only you can know; namely whether this dealing of yours is a just and faithful one, which is all you need concern yourself about respecting it; sure thus to have done your part in bringing about ultimately in the world a state of things which will not issue in pillage or in death.

It has been shown that the chief value of money consists in its having power over human beings; that without this power large material possessions are useless, and to a person possessing such power, comparatively unnecessary. But power over human beings is attainable by other means than by money.

In this moral power there is a monetary value as real as that represented by more ponderous currencies. A man's hand may be full of invisible gold, and the wave of it or the grasp shall do more than another's with a shower of bullion.

But farther. Since the essence of wealth consists in its authority over men, if the apparent wealth fail in this power, it ceases to be wealth at all. It does not appear lately in England that our authority over men is absolute.

Finally since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and the more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth? Perhaps it may even appear after some consideration that the persons themselves are the wealth; not gold and silver. The true veins of wealth are purple—and not in Rock but in Flesh. The final consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible full-breathed, bright-eyed and happy-hearted human beings. In some far-away and yet undreamt-of hour I can even imagine that instead of adorning the turbans of her slaves with diamonds from Golkonda and thus showing off her material wealth, England, as a Christian mother, may at last attain to the virtues and the treasures of a non-Christian one and be able to lead forth her Sons, saying,

"These are MY Jewels."