A faith and practice for a moral economy


See also, A catastrophic climate change faith and practice

a proposed sermon on climate change


“I wake up in the morning, hold my head and pray for rain.
I have a head full of ideas that are driving me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
” – Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”

When I started attending Providence (RI) Meeting people could make neither heads nor tails of what I was about. Ann Clement once asked me, “What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?” “Pray for rain,” I answered.

Bad feelings are among the most powerful things in Quakerism. George Fox, a sensitive soul, wasn’t satisfied with any of the answers that he heard from anyone. John Woolman idly threw a rock at a bird, managed to kill the bird and felt terrible about killing it. Later, Woolman had bad dreams about holding people in slavery. Eventually he found that he couldn’t write out a bill of sale for a slave.

“I’ve had bad dreams too many times / To think that they don’t mean much anymore”. -- Eric Kaz and Libby Titus, “Love Has No Pride”

If something is true for you then perhaps it’s equally true for all of us. Woolman changed his profession from storekeeper to tailor so that he could spend the rest of his life traveling and convincing other Friends that slavery was wrong. After slavery was wrong for all Friends, they started talking to everyone else about abolishing the capture and importation of new people to be slaves, and then about abolishing slavery.

Marnie Miller-Gutsell, pastor of Smithfield (RI) Meeting, preached one day on her unwillingness to shop at Wal-Mart. She felt that everyone might want to boycott Wal-Mart. While I’m no longer sure of Marnie’s specific list of reasons, I can name several fair reasons for a boycott:

From this list we can generalize about what we want in a moral economy.

Monopoly markets are less healthy than competitive marketplaces

We want no monopolistic business tactics.

We want some competition. Squeezing out competitors is bad for a market economy.

For that matter, we don’t want people to have to risk all they own to go up against some giant. Business competition should be an occupation that people enter in order to feed their families. When business competition turns into tiny ants fighting a deep-pocketed giant, our society has gone down a dead-end path.

People have rights

A moral economy doesn’t threaten any gender, race, color, creed, sexual preference or other class of people with mass unemployment (or worse). All people of good conscience should have the basic right to eat healthy food, to sleep indoors without freezing to death and to perform meaningful work within a community.

Corporations shouldn’t have special criminal law rights

When people in limited liability corporations conspire to break felony laws, the company’s limited liability status shouldn’t function as a legal shield. Our society has the right to assume that everyone responsible will pay for their criminal activities.

Corporations have societal responsibilities

Corporations should by and large act in consumers’ best long-term interests. There’s no excuse whatsoever for the widespread shortening of people’s lives, particularly not in the name of maximizing investor profits. Good citizen corporations equally take on the job of successfully restoring the earth’s climate. In general, good citizen corporations listen to their customers and to their communities.

Corporations should sell honest products

A locally answerable supply chain is better for feedback

People learn early that you can’t defraud your close friends, or else they’re no longer your friends. When a company makes products in one nation and sells them in another nation, the company feels freer to employ near-slaves in the first nation and to misrepresent their products to the customers in the other nation. When the people who make products live in the same neighborhood as the people who use these same products, when they go to the same markets and to the same churches, it’s harder to commit fraud.

Politics should be above personal profits.

Corporations should not resort early and often to politics in order to maximize their own profits.

A social entrepreneurship economy would differ from a pure market economy. People would shop at the merchants who have no taint of defrauding customers, and at the merchants who properly act on the community’s behalf. Consumers would judge their community’s needs and their world’s needs to be at least equal to their own needs. Integrity was and is a Quaker business practice.

Be honest, be transparent

The issue of corruption bothered early Friends. Friends held most hireling ministers in low esteem, and they wouldn’t take off their hats to their betters (gentry, judges). Neither God nor government is a good reason to defraud ordinary people. Now the question arises, how do we write rules so that people in responsible positions aren’t tempted to defraud everyone else. This is a formidable question. It haunted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Different types of decisions

Communities need to make at least three different types of decisions.

1. Friends are completely familiar with seeking wisdom.

2. When decisions involve a great deal of money and political power, some type of corruption-resistant decision must be made. It's possible to have different camps of Friends trying to outlast each other in a marathon consensus process meeting, each toiling in an attempt to keep the other side from winning.

3. Finally, innovative thought tends not to thrive under consensus process. Early Quaker businesses were never run by consensus; they were always sole proprieterships or partnerships.

Start now

You are surrounded by unnecessary closings of public libraries. Poor people walk by your car window at red lights and beg, perhaps in the end because there are far too many people and far too few jobs to go around. Is this anti-economy moral?

Meanwhile, you see rapacious corporations kicking money back to Congress. You can barely remember a time when the United States wasn’t fighting an undeclared foreign war. Your world’s climate is going crazy. If you put the task of a moral economy off, year after year, decade after decade, will you start to have bad dreams at night?

Integrity has a portion of boldness built into it, tempered with caution of course. It’s a personal mistake to run the other way like Jonah when God says go. It’s a mistake not to seek each day, even if only in tiny ways, to do better.

I’ve found that when I build a prototype of an invention, I discover new problems that I hadn’t imagined before. With social entrepreneurship the communes and the utopian cities such as Philadelphia are often huge-scale, and they often flirt with banruptcy. If there’s any way to conduct social entrepreneurship experiment in a small, fairly safe way rather than with vast amounts of working capital, say, with a classroom of students for a few hours, we should do it.

And so, I ask that we seek a moral economy, through working through our bad dreams, through defining through planning for something better, through refining plans and through a series of small simulation games in classrooms, then through small experiments, leading when successful to larger scale-up experiments.


So, how Amish do we want to be? I’d answer that the correct balance will feel right to us.

The U.S. income tax code is just plain awful.

Our court system is a nightmare. The fairly simple one-day court system seen in old westerns is gone. Today if you represent yourself in court then you have a fool for a lawyer.

Assuming that we have a community, we need fairness. We should start with a simple understanding that any process that takes too long and that takes too much of our human energy is not simple enough for us. Better at some point for the system to be a bit unfair than to be far too complex.

One essential component of science is simplicity of rules. We like it when a few laws on Newtonian physics can explain almost the entire physical world that we see.

Peace and social justice

If you’re willing to participate minimally and with some integrity in the community’s goals, then you should have a right to eat, to live indoors, to get medical care, and to work a job.

You may not have a perfect right to any job in the place, but you should be afforded a reasonable amount of free will to try.

The Meyers-Briggs Test says that people look at the world and come to conclusions in different ways. Furthermore, the people who disagree with us are absolutely necessary to our coming to a better group conclusion.

We must listen to each other. We must tolerate people speaking their ideas out loud. We must encourage them to speak in small anchor groups. Certain types of people think best about what they’ve said, in the 60 seconds after they have spoken. For this reason especially, we must be silent after someone has spoken. Also, people must practice speaking in public so that they learn to get skilled in speaking.

As with everything, the community may have its limits listening to various people who love to hear themselves talk. Too much listening could overly exhaust the community’s energy.

We need an understanding of people that are different. We might start with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in our midst. If the minds of some of us are wired differently from what the rest of us expect them to be, usually the different people can still build houses and they can still read books to the kids.

We equally need an understanding of various disabilities that people have. They want to participate in our blessed work, play and community as much as the rest of us do, except some are in wheelchairs, some have occasional seizures, some are depressed and some are dyslexic.

We need to provide basic life support to the indigo people in our midst. Albert Einstein was told in school that he’d never amount to anything. George Fox was a strange, people-shunning man who couldn’t put his finger on what bothered him. John Woolman was a sensitive child. These people struggled through dark times when the world didn’t understand them. In the far future we will deeply value our artists, inventors, freelance reporters and auditors, all well-trained ahead of time, all paid a proper wage to circulate like white blood cells within the body of the community, pointing our eyes toward the bad and toward the better.

After the dreamers we also need idea champions; the ones who help good ideas go viral. Next, we need curmudgeons who find ten reasons why some new idea won’t work, and other people who find ways around these same roadblocks.

We need fearful people too. We need to train reserve firefighters for the big fires that rarely come. Perhaps not to the same extent as the Mormons, we might want rotating food and resource reserves laid up for our own community’s hurricanes and other food disruptions.

Finally we need peacemakers. We need all community members to understand that losing an argument is often better than fighting to the bitter end of a major breakup.


To work is to live. We grieve when people are left permanently unemployed. To name one grief, too many such people attempt suicide.

Social entrepreneurship has Quaker roots. Moses Brown financed the original thread mill in Pawtucket because of his concern for local unemployment and poverty. Numbers of Quaker entrepreneurs worried about the welfare of their workers. Philadelphia was conceived as a city with broad avenues to prevent massive city-destroying fires, with a sanitary water supply drawn from a nearby river. Friends meetings in England and in the colonies would set their members up in businesses one by one, where the meeting would guarantee the debts of each member. Levi Coffin, after working for many years with the Underground Railroad, opened a fair trade cotton goods store in Cincinnati. Many moral economy experiments that we might like to try have illuminating precedents in Quaker history.

Taking a long view of community success

The rule is, if in the long run your work hurts one or more people and if you so damage your community, your own retirement fund is someday reduced. If in the long run you have been a blessing to your community, you should get more funds and your influence should grow. And so, each person is called to have personal vision, to take a long view of where the community should go. A fairly broad-based adjudication committee needs to decide these things fairly.

Planting in rows

Weeds strive against each other and choke each other, but plants bear more fruit when planted in rows and in grids. At some point a free market competition is neither useful to the wider community nor fair to the group of business competitors. If people have rights against being strangled in their own businesses, tempered with responsibilities assigned to them not to utterly shade and strangle competitors, our society will find a bit more social happiness.

"You must not covet your neighbor's house. You must not covet your neighbor's wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor." -- Exodus 20:17

Having faith that the blessed community will exist

Even when no such blessed community exists, I believe that I should act today as if such a community will exist in 10 or 20 years. Therefore, perhaps the blessed community already exists right now, if only in our hearts, and I should obey my community’s will, which is to do right by the community in the long run.


The nature of group bullying is to pick on individuals or on groups, in the hope that the community at large will stay on the sidelines. If there’s anyone in the community who can honestly say that they’re a member of a particular group suffering discrimination, then it behooves the community to put out extra energy to right the wrong. The community may not have infinite time and energy for everything on earth, but it should make a good faith effort at things.

Parent-teenager conflicts in our tiny communities aside, we need somehow to respect the complete transitional path of kids into adults.

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This particular Faith and Practice is an artistic search into the realm of the possible. Comments and suggested revisions will be edited into this document.
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