Thursday, January 15, 2015
The Creator of the earth is the owner of it. He created us with it and we live by its bounty. As he is kind and merciful, we as his children, while live answerable to the design of our creation, can only approximate his kindness and so far have been dragged far from it, substituting our own inadequate form of justice. Through agreements and contracts and force of our fathers and predecessors, and by our own devices, some claim a much greater share of the world than others, and while they are faithfully managed for the good of the whole, it consists with equity. But he who with a view to self-exaltation, profiting from the oppression and immoderate labour of others to further his own luxury, acts contrary to the gracious design of him who is the true owner of the earth; nor can any possessions, either acquired or derived from ancestors, justify such conduct. Goodness is goodness. All are obligated to follow God's wisdom. Our laws and customs have no meaning if they are not based on his universal righteousness. We can offer the poor aid in one form or another. If they owe us, or are under contract, we can make exceptions for them. But if our aim in doing so is to profit later, or to fulfill some legal requirement that doesn't have God's love at the foundation, then we invade their rights as inhabitants of same world that we temporarily inhabit; that is our obligation living under our good and gracious landlord, God. If all superfluous, vain, and grandiose endeavors were set aside, and the right use of material universally minded, so many people would be employed usefully that all would have more leisure. With the blessing of heaven, all needs would be accounted for and the proper affairs of civil society would get their proper attention. ********** Woolman is making a curious economic argument that reveals how much thinking has changed since the 1760s. He seems to go out of his way to make clear that he doesn't object to inequality but vanity. He seems to be arguing that the best way to address poverty is to restrict the vanities of the upper class so that 'useful' work got its proper value and more time and money were spent on that. Vanity seems to be a trap that drains wealth away and makes people poor, and simultaneously creates a surplus of demand that causes people to overwork to meet that demand. In the days before the industrial revolution, and speaking to an audience of what today we would call upper middle class Quakers, that makes sense as a cautionary tale and as a lesson to largely self sufficient local economies, but it doesn't resonate as well in economies of scale and global markets.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
A Plea for the Poor is one of John Woolman's more influential tracts, originally published in 1793. It has been republished by various political sects over the years because of its racial economic implications. I'm using Pendle Hill Pamphlet #357, and as a new years resolution to myself, I'm attempting to restate, in my own words, Woolman's essay chapter by chapter every week, hopefully adding some of my thoughts and explanations of why I've departed from the original. A Plea for the Poor or A Word of Remembrance and Caution for the Rich Wealth desired for its own sake obstructs the increase of virtue. Large possessions in the hands of a few selfish people are engineered to oppress, for they employ too few to do useful things, instead leaving the majority to scramble to feed themselves by working for enterprises that appeal only to vanity and depend on vain minds for their income. Rents are often so high that people who have limited opportunity suffer, and those that can escape do so by labouring and scrimping more than was intended by our gracious Creator. People are often seen working so hard that their eyes and the emotion of their bodies broadcast loud and clear that they are oppressed. When they work in multiple shifts, fear of harsh discipline by their supervisors is all that keeps them going through the day. Often reasonable accommodation is denied and schedules are jerked around owing to the demands of business, blind to the needs of their employees. These things are common for a healthy enterprise, but they soon lose the value that the employees bring, losing capital through poor training, and losing qualified staff. This can be quite a weight on a failing business, so they rely more on existing staff, cutting back new hires even if they're sorely needed. So a poor single mother, attending her kids, providing for her family, and helping her extended community, does two or three times the work that should be required of her and her family life suffers. The money that rich folks receive from the labours of poor folks is often paid to other enterprises that aren't necessarily related to their business and are foreign to the true use of things. People who have large possessions and live in the spirit of charity, who look after and care for those who work for them, and who are unaffected by the customs of the times, but who treat everyone with universal love- these who are righteous on principle, do good to the poor without placing it as an act of bounty. Their example tends to incite others to moderation. Their goodness in not taking advantage of their workers, even if it is legal, moderates labour trouble and discourages the industries that are not founded in true wisdom. To be busy catering to vanity, and serving fickle tastes necessarily strengthens those who promote and sell vanity, and is a snare that many ordinary working people are entangled in. To be employed in things connected to virtue is most agreeable to the character and inclination of an honest man. Industrious frugal people who are borne down with poverty and oppressed can be helped in a way that doesn't promote pride and vanity, but only by those who can truly sympathise with their difficulties. ...................................................................................... I've departed a bit from the original here, and I think it will be a theme. John Woolman lived in a much different time economically, but the workings of Capital are very familiar, so I didn't feel too disingenuous in switching a passage about treatment of animals into a treatment of part time wage workers especially since there has developed in the last few decades the horrifying language of 'human capital. He also places more emphasis on the works of proprietors which doesn't resonate fully in our more corporate economy, but in a way, this makes his points more poignant. It is less possible for a corporate entity to exude a sense of universal love certainly, but that is what is necessary, or else a different system must be built. He'll get to that in a bit.