The financial crisis and recession have caused great suffering, some protest movements, and a lot of finger-pointing. Aside from decrying the rise of inequality and providing some support to the Occupy protesters, Quakers have been largely absent from the discussion of what to do. Nor has there been any perceivable action for reform from the Society as a body. Does this lack of response result from how few Friends are involved in business and finance? Is it an outcome of our tendency to demonize all capitalist endeavors? Or is it the result of ignorance about how the economy works? There should be greater Quaker involvement in business, a necessary and positive force in society. Through investment and business activity, Quakers can help make a difference.
Is Business Evil?
Business is fundamentally the exchange of goods, an ancient activity present in all cultures. Without trade, societies would have closed economies or seek to obtain another society’s goods by force or coercion. Trade requires, fosters, and flourishes with trust and the rule of law. Therefore, trade is conducive to the Quaker testimony of peace.
Money and banking are tools to facilitate trade and are essential elements of modern life. They are figments of our collective imagination, and their validity depends on our belief in the value of currency and accounting entries. The same holds true for the modern corporation; it is a convenient form, another tool to facilitate commerce. While these tools or forms can be used for good or bad purposes, none of them is intrinsically good or bad.
Business is in fact good. Commercial transactions underlie the creation of all the goods we use everyday. Without business, there would be no food to eat, clothes to wear, or places to sleep (barring a return to the hardships of a subsistence living, that is). Business provides work, and work provides income, identity, and the opportunity for self-fulfillment. Even livelihoods that are not directly involved with business—jobs in government, teaching, social work, and nonprofits—are dependent on the business activity that creates the tax base or donations that support them. As Mark Cary wrote in The Quaker Economist, business is the “sustaining class.”
Some would say that competition is the fundamental evil; it is hard to imagine that self-interest could ever, or should ever, be eliminated. It has ensured humanity’s survival and evolution. Ideally, the market uses the power of individuals’ self-interest to keep trade in just balance. While the effect of markets can be harsh, market mechanisms are, thus far in humanity’s development, the most creative and efficient means of resource allocation. They have provided for improvement in the well-being of more people than any other economic dynamic. Imperfect as it may be, the capitalist system is the best system now available.
The system has flaws, of course. Economic theory assumes perfect information, free and willing buyers and sellers, and readily interchangeable products. In reality, there are distortions caused by poor regulation, unequal access to the information and resources required to succeed, monopoly or unequal economic power, and illegal and fraudulent activities.There are also “externalities,” which are costs not borne by the party that receives the economic benefit. (For instance, when a polluter is not made to pay for having degraded the environment, the cost to society is an externality.)
To function well, the current system calls for good policy and enlightened regulation to even out the playing field. It has become evident, however, that money politics unduly influences legislation and regulation. As James Surowiecki wrote in 2002, the “money to be made from sketchy or dubious behavior is so immense that the discipline imposed by the market [has] vanished”. Paul Krugman and Robin Wells argue that inequality has so skewed the system, good economic policy can no longer be produced.
So the system is rigged, but saying that money or profit or capitalism is evil will not change that. Money and business can do good. Indeed, they are critically important to efforts to bring about societal good.
Our Quaker forebears show us how.
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quakers were extraordinarily successful in business: Cadburys, Frys, Rowntrees, Carrs, and Clarks were all Quaker in origin, as were Barclays and Lloyds. A mere 0.2 percent of England’s population in 1800, Quakers had outsized influence in the business world. In his book The Quakers—Money and Morals, James Walvin shows the competitive advantage provided by Quaker values, community, and reputation. Traveling in the ministry and visits to distant yearly meetings gave early Friends trustworthy networks of contacts in urban centers and the colonies, while the advice and scrutiny of their home meetings supported and supervised them. At a time when forgery and falsehood were endemic and the banking system not yet developed, the Quaker reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, and quality products had real economic value.
Economic success allowed Friends to lead reform. Business dealings provided not only the funding for reform initiatives but also the experience and confidence to challenge accepted standards, articulate issues, and create effective programmatic responses. Their personal wealth and accompanying social position gave them easier entrée to those in power and allowed the development of all of “the apparatus of an effective pressure group,” as Walvin aptly puts it.
Quaker business skill combined with ethical belief and action also brought significant social reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in slavery, prisons, working conditions, mental health, and poverty. Early Quakers provide proof that money and business success are not inherently bad; money can be used and business skills employed to do good. In fact, money and business experience are critically important to getting good work done.
Today there are far fewer businesspeople in our meetings than there were in past generations. Anti-business prejudice has alienated some Friends from their spiritual homes and likely has deterred potential members from joining. Having fewer Friends in the for-profit sector weakens governance of Friends institutions and organizations, the economic foundations of meetings and Friends causes, and Quaker influence in broader society.
What are we called to do?
Change will not be easy, and it won’t occur through protest alone. An educated, informed, engaged, and influential citizenry and leadership must have constructive proposals based on sound understanding and analysis. They must be persuasive and able to ensure that those in a position to effect change hear their perspective and are sufficiently motivated to act. There are many ways to prepare ourselves to take a more active, influential role.
Exhibiting thoughtful leadership in improving business ethics may also attract new members to our Society, which would lead to better governance and healthier finances in our institutions. Through the good work of business, we can demonstrate to a wider audience the relevance of Quaker beliefs to contemporary life. As William Penn declared, “True godliness doesn’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it.”