Gandhi's economic ideas were part of his general crusade against poverty, exploitation against socio-economic injustice, and deteriorating moral standards. Gandhi was an economist of the masses. His approach was rooted in human dignity. His economic philosophy is a result of innumerable experiments which he conducted in the course of his life. His pragmatic approach gave a new direction to the existing socio-economic problems in the process of protecting human dignity.
The fluid international conditions fraught with ideological tensions in the economic domain demanded a fresh approach to economic philosophy, with emphasis on the ideals of human rights like democracy, economic freedom, and social justice. Gandhism as a socioeconomic philosophy suits not only to accomplish the higher ideals of democratic freedom and socialism but it was also thoroughly developed to meet the challenge of national and international forces of communism and capitalism.
The core of Gandhian economic thought is the protection of the dignity of human person and not mere material prosperity. He aimed at the development, upliftment, and enrichment of human life rather than a higher standard of living with scant respect for human and social values. Fundamental ethical values dominated his economic ideas. He wanted to liberate the modern economic philosophy from the quagmire of materialism and bring it to a higher spiritual plane. Human actions were motivated by social objectives of the protection of human rights.
Gandhi's efforts towards "spiritualizing economics" are truly reflected in his concept of trusteeship. He based his doctrine of trusteeship on the first sloka of Isopanisad, according to which one is asked to dedicate everything to God and then use it only to the required extent. The principal condition laid down in it is that one must not covet what belongs to others. In other words, in the first instance, everything must be surrendered to God and then out of it one may use only that which is necessary for the service of God's creation, according to one's strict needs. This makes it clear beyond doubt that it is not in industrial and business sectors only that the doctrine of trusteeship is to be made applicable. The spirit of this doctrine is detachment and service. Unless these two virtues are inculcated, it is impossible to obey the command "covet not anybody's riches." Therefore Gandhi's idea of trusteeship arose from his faith in the law of non-possession. It was founded on his religious belief that everything belonged to God and was from God. Therefore the bounties of the world were for His people, as a whole, not for any particular individual. When an individual had more than his respective portion, he became a trustee of that portion for God's people. God who is all-powerful has no need to store. He creates things afresh everyday. Therefore man should also live his life from day to day without trying to store things for the future. If this principle was imbibed by people in general, it would have become legalised and trusteeship would have become a legalised institution. Gandhi wished it became a gift from India to the world (Harijan, 23 February 1947).
Basically Gandhi suggested this doctrine as an answer to the economic inequalities of ownership and income―a kind of nonviolent way of resolving all social and economic conflicts which grew out of inequalities and privileges of the present social order. Gandhi never ceased to believe in trusteeship in theory from the beginning or, at any rate, towards the later part of life, though the method was proving ineffective. He believed in the indispensability of nonviolence, nonco-operation and Satyagraha in converting the privileged classes into trustees. He even advocated violence as a last resort to dispossess property-owners of their wealth.
Therefore man's dignity, and not his material prosperity, is the centre of Gandhian economics. Gandhian economics aims at a distribution of material prosperity keeping only human dignity in view. Thus it is dominated more by moral values than by economic ideas. According to Gandhi, trusteeship is the only ground on which he can work out an ideal combination of economics and morals. In concrete form, the trusteeship formula reads as follows:
(i) Trusteeship provides a means of transforming the present capitalist order of society into an egalitarian one. It gives no quarter to capitalism, but gives the present owning class a chance to reform itself. It is based on the faith that human nature is never beyond redemption.
(ii) It does not recognise any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare.
(iii) It does not exclude legislation of the ownership and use of wealth.
(iv) Thus under state regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction in disregard to the interests of society.
(v) Just as it is proposed to give a decent minimum living wage, a limit should be fixed for the maximum income that would be allowed to any person in society. The difference between such minimum and maximum incomes should be reasonable and equitable and variable from time to time, so much so that the tenancy would be towards the obliteration of the difference.
(vi) Under the Gandhian economic order, the character of production will be determined by social necessity and not by personal greed.
The theory of trusteeship applies equally to both tangible and intangible property, "such as the muscular energy of the labourers and the talents of a Helen Keller" (K. G. Mashurwala, Gandhi and Marx, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, 1951, p. 79). According to Gandhi, all property belongs to God and in his concept of trusteeship the trustees have no right to destroy that property deliberately and wantonly. Besides, trusteeship aims at the rising of the morale of the people by giving them a sense of security in the hands of the trustees. The trustees, in their turn, are beholden to creating an urge among the masses for a higher standard of life.
As man advances from a narrow sphere of personal satisfaction to the nobler concept of the welfare of all, he marches closer towards self-realization. The whole idea of possessing wealth only to guard it from being misused and to distribute it equitably aims at protecting human dignity. If it is possessed for any other objective, it is objectionable on moral grounds. Gandhi enjoins this moral obligation on the part of the trustees as he is fully aware of the ills of capitalism which widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
The Gandhian theory of trusteeship departs significantly from Marxian economic philosophy too. If Marxism is the child of the Industrial Revolution, Gandhian theory can be understood only in the context of certain basic spiritual values of the Indian tradition. Marxian socialism aims at the destruction of the class called capitalists, whereas the Gandhian approach is not to destroy the institution, but to reform it. Gandhian socialism, being ethical, is different from Marxian socialism. Man, to him, is an ethical being first and a social being later.
The most significant difference between Marxian socialism and Gandhian socialism lies in the method they recommend to achieve it. Whereas Marxian socialism harps on violence, Gandhian socialism aims at a change of heart on the part of the rich. There is no place for violence, but only trust. The common man trusts his trustee and the latter plays the role of a custodian. Thus Gandhian socialism radically departs from both capitalism and socialism; it is trusteeship socialism. Though this kind of socialism is difficult to achieve, Gandhi advocated it as he believed in the basic strength of the goodness of man and the value of morals. All other "isms" address the problem superficially, whereas trusteeship strikes it at the root.
Gandhi wanted Zamindars to act as trustees of their lands and allow them to be used by tenants. This idea was based mainly upon the fact that India is an agricultural country where more than 80 percent of the population lives in villages. By providing them trust land, Gandhi was solving one of the major economic problems of an independent India to be. In the socialist collective agricultural system, we find the same idea implemented. The success of this system in certain countries shows that the concept is not impracticable at all. The failure of this system is often attributed to the will of the people. But a more sound reason seems to be the force that was being applied while putting this system into practice.
At the centre of this concept is the urge to protect human dignity. They are, broadly speaking, the demands or desires of the modern man. The revolutions that are raised from time to time in different countries are motivated by the same objectives of human dignity, justice, and equity. It is very clear that the idea is relevant today as it aims at the social, economic, and political changes in the world. One of the first steps to achieve this human dignity, justice, and equity is to eliminate the ever-present troublesome element of class struggle in the society. Though the Gandhian concept of trusteeship does not seek to destroy any particular class, it provides us with an idea of how to narrow the class gap. The practice of all the democratic nations has been to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor to a minimum. In India we find this motive behind our cooperative policies, the community development projects, and the taxation policy that heavily taxes the upper class and gives some relief to the lower strata of society. We find the manifestations of the Gandhian concept of trusteeship in these policies.