Thursday, January 15, 2015
Paraphrased Plea for the Poor Chapter 2
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.