Friends in Business

Good evening, endangered species," I began my talk at the October dinner of Philadelphia Friends in Business. I had been invited by Thom Jeavons, General Secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, who explained: "This group has been gathering for several years for fellowship and to explore common interests. It does not seek to stand apart from other Friends, but enjoys these opportunities to reflect on the intersections between their faith and their professional lives."

I was thinking of Mark Cary’s analysis of Quaker attitudes toward business. In his research, Mark had found that unprogrammed Friends have negative attitudes toward business and capitalism. So, how does it feel to be a Quaker businessperson, I asked my audience?

Here we are, they said, the class that produces the goods and services that we all need and enjoy, yet our class is disparaged. Many economists and business Friends have left their meetings (I know several) because they did not feel at home with the political attitudes of fellow worshipers. How many more have failed to join for that same reason we can only imagine.

Unprogrammed Friends are turning themselves into political caucuses for the Democratic and Green parties, and politics now supersedes religion. At one point I asked my own meeting (Boulder, Colorado) how many in an audience of about 50 were Republicans. Not a hand went up. (Among the Philadelphia Friends in business I was talking to, several were Republicans, several Democrats, and only one "tended" toward the Greens.)

Cannot persons of any political persuasion have that of God within them? May they not worship in a silent meeting and believe in business decisions by the sense of the meeting? Many persons of integrity do not hold the political positions of unprogrammed Friends today. But I believe our emphasis on Democratic ("liberal") or Green sentiments causes business Friends and economists not to feel at home with us.

One business Friend asked how my economic beliefs differ from those of most unprogrammed Friends. Here are several ways. I believe :

  1. that globalization and multinational corporations (MNCs) will be the main agents lifting the poor out of their poverty. Globalization brings jobs to the poorest of the poor and allows them to trade in a world from which they are now excluded. MNCs bring capital, technical knowledge, and jobs to poor countries. Everywhere in the world, they pay their workers more and treat them better than other employers in the same country.
  2. that debts should be repaid. Many Friends want to forgive the debts of corrupt despots who have squandered or pocketed their borrowings. When a debt cannot be repaid, proper bankruptcy procedures should be applied. The poor do not borrow, except in small amounts, so they are not the ones subject to debt forgiveness.
  3. that boycotting sweatshops is cruel. It puts women on the streets as prostitutes or sends children abroad as slave beggars. Usually women and children do not have alternative opportunities.
  4. that increasing the minimum wage causes unemployment, especially among blacks, teenagers, and women. The higher wage causes employers to substitute machinery for workers, and the ones against whom they are prejudiced are not hired or are let go. The minimum wage is therefore gender- and race-biased.
  5. that profit is the engine causing computers (and other new things) to be invented and the economy to produce what is needed (food, shelter, drugs, etc.). It also helps keep firms efficient. Many that are not efficient, and therefore not profitable, go out of business.
  6. that the environment should be preserved by the creation of incentives, not by punishing those who offend it.

Is that enough? There are more.

In graduate school over 50 years ago, a friend and I debated a world of doers versus one of teachers. "If I can teach two students to do what I would do if I were a doer," I said, "then the world is twice as well off because I am a teacher." "Yes," she replied, "but if we were all teachers, there would be no doers." We laughed as we agreed that the world needs both doers and teachers. Yet unprogrammed Friends these days look down on the doers of business as we become more heavily teachers and professionals whose spiritual values, we arrogantly think, are superior to those of profit-seeking business people.

The Friends in business discussed putting their Quaker values into practice in business. They agreed that integrity is a virtue no matter what we do. Produce quality goods and services, pay going wages, and treat workers, customers, and suppliers as we would family. Seventeenth-century Friends did just that. But in those days, businesspeople as a class were not stereotyped negatively as they are today.

They wanted to know how unprogrammed Friends had evolved into a political group that made their fellow business Friends and classical economists unwelcome among us. I suggested it was largely the Vietnam War, in which social rebels were attracted toward Quakers because we were pacifist. Most of us are pacifist, but tying pacifism to certain political beliefs damages our credibility and our religion. These newcomers took over our Religious Society and now represent the dominant thought.

The Friends in business agreed, but they also thought a new generation is coming forth, one that understands how the business world functions, and feels more at home in it. Many of our younger people see capitalism as a positive economic system.
© 2003 Jack Powelson

Jack Powelson

Jack Powelson, after writing the article "Why I Am Leaving Quakers" (FJ April 2002), has decided to return and is still a member of Boulder (Colo.) Meeting. He is editor of "The Quaker Economist," an online economics letter for Friends. Mark Cary's analysis of Friends' attitudes toward business appears as No. 40 in this series. See