1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
2. Do what you say, say what you think, think what is true.
3. Subtract superfluities from your life, speech, desires and thoughts.
4. Don't initiate aggression against the persons or property of others, nor support people who do, including the people who "constitute" the government.
5. Respect life and natural law.
6. All people are endowed by their Creator with equal and inalienable rights to the earth and to the fruits of their own labor, and a "Citizen's Dividend" funded by a "Single Tax" on the unimproved value of land and other natural resources would be the fairest way to protect these rights.

For supporting materials, see the Archive and the Recommended Reading and Videos section at the bottom of this page.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

John Woolman's Plea for the Poor

In a subsequent post I will try to make the case that the political philosophy historically known as Georgism recommends itself to Quakers as the one most consistent with the Quaker social testimonies of Peace, Equality, Community, Simplicity and Integrity. Georgism takes its name from Henry George (1839-1897), who as the author of the eloquently-written and best-selling Progress and Poverty (1879) was and is the philosophy's most famous and influential proponent. But the principle behind the philosophy was not invented by George and predates him, and is more universal than the thoughts of any one man. The principle is simply this: everyone owns what they create, but everything supplied by nature, most importantly land, belongs equally to all humanity. (The "single-tax" on the unimproved value of land was the specific policy proposal George advocated as necessarily following from this principle.) Therefore, many modern day Georgists have taken to calling themselves geoists or geolibertarians instead, with "geo" still honoring George's historically-important contribution, but also referring to the earth, and thus more descriptively reflecting the philosophy's concern with ownership of land and other natural resources. [I have provided links to Progress and Poverty and information about geolibertarianism, Henry George, and the "single-tax" at the bottom of this page in the Recommended Reading section.]

By my lights, the geoist philosophy, in its simplicity, universality, and evident truth, is worthy of endorsement and advocacy by Friends (and other religious societies) in the same way we now collectively advocate and testify against war and other social injustices, because if the geoist principle is indeed true and a natural law, then the pervasive violation of that natural law in today's society is working a grave injustice, and is a likely cause of much of the poverty and gross inequalities we see around us. The geoist philosophy is not an obscure anachronism from a bygone era, but a timeless truth. Relative to geoism, the Catholic Social Teaching [also linked below], while espousing many good things, appears as a rather complex mix of exhortations and proposals, as evidently man-made, and as incomplete in crucial respects [see, e.g., Henry George's Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII, linked below]. Geoism should be our "Quaker Social Teaching," or rather a significant element of it, as a corollary of our Quaker Testimonies!

There is good and solid precedent for such a Quaker attitude towards geoism / Georgism. As I understand it, Georgism was disproportionately influential among Quakers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the board game Monopoly (in an earlier version called The Landlord's Game) was invented and designed by a Quaker woman named Elizabeth Magie Phillips to teach the principles of Georgism, and originally was played and developed and became popular in Quaker Georgist social circles. I have come across a couple other references which suggest the widespread influence of Georgism among Quakers during that period of history, but I would be very grateful if any Friends might be aware of and able to point me in the direction of any information which further illuminates historical connections between Quakerism and Georgism.

As mentioned above, geoist principles predate Henry George. Thomas Paine in his essay Agrarian Justice [linked below] famously proposed a plan that would fund lump-sum payments to every person turning age 21 and an early version of social security through a system of inheritance taxes on land, which he explicitly and eloquently justified on geoist grounds. But even before Thomas Paine and before Henry George there was John Woolman. According to the Introduction to The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, edited by Phillips P. Moulton, "Woolman's economic views, expressed chiefly in A Plea for the Poor, have inspired many individuals to live simply and without luxury. Some of his ideas -- e.g., that each man has an inalienable right to land and other necessary material goods -- were expressed by Thomas Paine and (a century later) by Henry George, but no direct influence is evident." Woolman's A Plea for the Poor therefore itself constitutes an important historical linkage between Quakerism and geoism, as well as, by its salutary influence on the predispositions of Quakers, a likely contributing factor to the later historical connections alluded to above.

I have been unable to find on-line A Plea for the Poor, except for Chapter 10. Therefore, as a service to the internet, and to help make the case that geoism follows naturally from our Quaker Testimonies, the remainder of this post will be a transcription of Chapter 13 in its entirety, where Woolman expressed his geoist ideas:

While our minds are prepossessed in favour of customs distinguishable from perfect purity, we are in danger of not attending with singleness to that Light which opens to our view the nature of universal righteousness.

In the affairs of a thick-settled country are variety of useful employments besides tilling the earth: that for some men to have no more land than is necessary to build on and to answer the occasions relative to the family may consist with brotherhood; and from the various gifts which God hath bestowed on those employed in husbandry, for some to possess and occupy much more than others may likewise. But where any on the strength of their possessions demands such rent or interest as necessitates those who hire of them to a closer application to business than our merciful Father designed for us, this puts the wheels of perfect brotherhood out of order and leads to employments the promoting of which belongs not to the family of Christ, whose example in all parts being a pattern of wisdom, so the plainness and simplicity of his outward appearance may well make us ashamed to adorn our bodies in costly array or treasure up wealth by the least degree of oppression.

The soil yields us support and is profitable for man; and though some possessing a larger share of these profits than others may consist with the harmony of true brotherhood, yet that the poorest people who are honest, so long as they remain inhabitants of the earth, are entitled to a certain portion of these profits, in as clear and absolute a sense as those who inherit much, I believe will be agreed to by those whose hearts are enlarged with universal love.

The first people who inhabited the earth were the first who had possession of the soil. The gracious Creator, and owner of it, gave the fruits thereof for their use. And as one generation passed away, another came and took possession; and thus through many ages, innumerable multitudes of people have been supplied by the fruits of the earth. But our gracious Creator is as absolutely the owner of it as he was when he first formed it out of nothing, before man had possession of it. And though by claims grounded on prior possession great inequality appears amongst men, yet the instructions of the great proprietor of the earth is necessary to be attended to in all our proceedings as possessors or claimers of the profits of the soil.

"The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord" [Ps. 37:23], and those who are thus guided, whose hearts are enlarged in his love, give directions concerning their possessions agreeable thereto; and that claim which stands on universal righteousness is a good right, but the continuance of that right depends on properly applying the profits thereof.

The word right is commonly used relative to our possessions. We say a right of propriety to such a dividend of a province or a clear, indisputable right to the land within such certain bounds. Thus this word is continued as a remembrancer of the original intent of dividing the land by boundaries, and implies that it was designed to be equitably or rightly divided, to be divided according to righteousness. In this -- that is, in equity and righteousness -- consists the strength of our claims. If we trace an unrighteous claim and find gifts or grants to be proved by sufficient seals and witnesses, this gives not the claimant a right, for that which is opposite to righteousness is wrong, and the nature of it must be changed before it can be right.

Suppose twenty free men, professed followers of Christ, discovered an island unknown to all other people, and that they with their wives, independent of all others, took possession of it, and dividing it equitably, made improvements and multiplied. Suppose these first possessors, being generally influenced by true love, did with paternal regard look over the increasing condition of the inhabitants, and near the end of their lives gave such directions concerning their respective possessions as best suited the convenience of the whole and tended to preserve love and harmony, and that their successors in the continued increase of people generally followed their pious examples and pursued means the most effectual to keep oppression out of their island. But [suppose] that one of these first settlers, from a fond attachment to one of his numerous sons, no more deserving than the rest, gives the chief of his lands to him, and by an instrument sufficiently witnessed strongly expresses his mind and will. Suppose this son, being landlord to his brethren and nephews, demands such a portion of the fruits of the earth as may supply him and his family and some others; and that these others, thus supplied out of his store, are employed in adorning his building with curious engravings and paintings, preparing carriages to ride in, vessels for his house, delicious meats, fine-wrought apparel, and furniture, all suiting that distinction lately arisen between him and the other inhabitants; and that having this absolute disposal of these numerous improvements, his power so increaseth that in all conferences relative to the public affairs of the island, those plain, honest men who are zealous for equitable establishments find great difficulty in proceeding agreeable to their righteous inclinations while he stands in opposition to them. Suppose he, from a fondness for one of his sons, joined with a desire to continue this grandeur under his own name, confirms chief of his possessions to him, and thus for many ages, on near a twentieth part of this island there is one great landlord and the rest generally poor oppressed people; to some of whom from the manner of their education, joined with a notion of the greatness of their predecessors, labour is disagreeable; who therefore by artful applications to the weakness, unguardedness, and corruption of others, in striving to get a living out of them increase the difficulties amongst them; while the inhabitants of the other parts who guard against oppression and with one consent train up their children in plainness, frugality, and useful labour live more harmonious.

If we trace the claim of the ninth or tenth of these great landlords down to the first possessor and find the claim supported throughout by instruments strongly drawn and witnessed, after all we could not admit a belief into our hearts that he had a right to so great a portion of land, after such a numerous increase of inhabitants.

The first possessor of that twentieth part held no more we suppose than an equitable portion; but when the Lord, who first gave these twenty men possession of this island unknown to all others, gave being to numerous people who inhabited this twentieth part, whose natures required the fruits thereof for their sustenance, this great claimer of the soil could not have a right to the whole, to dispose of it in gratifying his irregular desires; but they, as creatures of the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth, had a right to part of what this great claimer held, though they had no instruments to confirm their right.

Thus oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive: that to labour for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world.