Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Quakers and accumulation

In her biography, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism, Isabel Ross traces an 1826 Quaker advice on Keeping Clear Accounts back to the frugality of Fell and her daughters: 

“It is the duty of all to arrange their expenditure with due regard to their income; and clear and correct account-keeping is a means of avoiding reckless expenditure on the one hand or unjustifiable accumulation of wealth on the other.” (my italics)

When I wondered, did we as a larger society in the United States and the West lose sight of the idea that too great an accumulation of wealth is unethical? We certainly know these days that it is a severe problem.

Often the idea that we should limit wealth is ridiculed on the basis of it being impossible to determine where the "line" should be drawn. Do we condemn someone who feels they need three cars instead of two? How do we decide what "unjustifiable accumulation" is? 

These questions, in my experience, are raised to shut down conversation. They are rhetorical: implicitly the only answer is we must not engage in the question because we can't answer it. We have no choice but to leave the decision up to the individual, even if that person shows every sign of an uncontrolled money addiction.

But what if we took the 1826 query, which has its roots in early Quakerism, seriously? What if we tried to decided how much is too much: at least as a guideline? At what point can we no longer justify our accumulation? At what point do we start dispensing our material wealth outward? At what point do we internalize the dispersal of our wealth, so that it would seem as twisted and unnatural to hoard it when others were in need as it would to own a slave or watch someone in an arena torn apart by wild animals? What constitutes reckless expenditure?

These are questions to ponder, not to dismiss. What is a reasonable guideline? When we have our bills under control and a year's income in the bank (or two) do we then give away our excess savings? Are there other guidelines to use? If we have large sums of money do we hold on to the principal but give away the interest income? Clearly these guidelines would be meant to be just that and not clubs with which to beat people who don't adhere entirely to our ideas of reasonable expenditure and savings.

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