Chuck Fager, an American Friend who is probably known at least in terms of his publications to many readers of this blog, is currently undertaking research in a little-known branch of American Friends called Progressive Friends. You can find out more about this research in Chuck’s book: Angels of Progress: https://www.createspace.com/4704260.
He recently published an interesting snipped of his findings on his Facebook page. He had come across a report from a committee (of the Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania Progressive Quakers), which was “appointed to consider whether any, and if any, what Limitations ought to be put to the Accumulation of Property in the hands of individuals, as well as corporations, and to suggest laws and other expedients, by which the enormous inequalities among the children of men may be gradually lessened, and hereafter prevented.” (The quote would appear to be from the minutes of the Yearly Meeting in 1856).
Pennsylvania Progressive Friends did what any present day Yearly Meeting might do in the face of such a report: they came up with some queries (which incidentally they called ‘interrogatories’). The original version, reproduced in italics retains the original spelling and grammar.
Here, I will try to rephrase these 14 interrogatories into 21st century language and context because I think each and every one of them is still relevant and still demands of us to think hard about where we stand on Justice.
- All the children of men being endowed by their Creator with a right to life, have they not, therefore, a right to a fair share of the common inheritance—the material elements, upon which the maintenance of life depends? Have they not an inalienable right to a fair share of the earth’s surface, not less than of water, air, light, heat?
If we believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, is it justice for some to own vast amounts of land and others none? Can the private ownership of land be defended at all?
- Are not the sunlight, air, water and soil, with the materials in and upon them, and all spontaneous growths, the bountiful gifts of the Creator, to which all men have equal rights? Can they, then, be legitimately the subjects of property? Can capital be justly predicated upon them?
If we believe that essential commodities such as sunlight, air, water and soil, are not man-made but part of the natural environment which all those living on this planet share and should share, is it justice if essential commodities of life (air, water, energy) and growing food (air, water, soil, energy) are in private ownership and used for private profit?
- Is not legitimate property something produced by the labor, or invention, of man, operating upon material elements, or in the regions of thought? And are not such productions the only just basis of capital?
Is capital gain based on anything other than work and invention justified in a society striving for equality?
- The chief end of man is not the accumulation of wealth. Ought, then, the chief end of government to be (as it has been declared by an eminent statesman to be) the protection of property? Ought it not rather to be the improvement of the conditions and characters of all men?
We are not put on this earth to accumulate wealth. Is it then reasonable for governments to see as one of their primary functions the protection of private property? Should governments not focus primarily on the increase of equality, health, welfare and education of all citizens to further social and economic justice?
- Should not our laws encourage agriculture more than foreign commerce; because, in the first place, the cultivation of the common heritage, and the gathering of its productions, secures to those who labor for these results a more general enjoyment of the comforts of life; and because, in the second place, foreign commerce cannot be carried on, and great cities be built up to sustain it, without deteriorating the large classes of men, women, and children, on whom the hardships of navigation, and the hand-labor in our cities, devolve?
Our economy is focused on trade, and in particular trade with other countries. This is the basis of globalization and of much of the focus of our governments. Would an emphasis on domestic production and consumption, more localized economies contribute more to equality and the wellbeing of citizens because it would support local labour (work for those who need and want to work here) and less use of scarce resources for unnecessary transportation of goods? Would this be more sustainable and better for our environment and our health, too? Would such an approach bring about more economic and social justice?
- Is not the Tariff policy, and every expedient that embarrasses needful commerce with foreign nations, —is it not a policy that only a patriot, and not a philanthropist, would commend?
There will be some areas of the economy that need to rely on international trade; are tariff barriers nationalist policies, which go against the idea of international economic justice?
- Cannot, and should not, some changes he made in the laws of inheritance, and of the transmission of property, so that the whole of the succeeding generation may be benefited, and wealth not be accumulated in the hands of a few, where it is comparatively useless, if not pernicious, both to the possessors and the community?
We live in a society in which there is an assumption that one generation should be able to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children and grandchildren; inheritance tax is seen as something to be avoided if at all possible. Is it justice if more and more wealth is accumulated in the hands of fewer and fewer people many of whom have not had to work for any of the wealth they ‘own’? Should a greater proportion of inherited wealth be redirected to the common good? How could Friends take a stand on this and set an example?
- Ought not a stringent law to be passed, by which corporations, that have caused any work to be done, shall be holden to pay those who have done the work, if their agents—the contractors, or sub-contractors—fail to pay them?
Our economy depends more and more on the principle of sub-contracting rather than employment. This can often lead to those who ultimately do the work not being paid (or not being paid on time) because a sub-contractor can go out of business and the main contractor does not take responsibility for such debts. Are the legal remedies available to people who have suffered in this way adequate and just? Should there be laws that work effectively against the off-loading of risk at the expense of the weakest links in the economic chain?
Today, another form of off-loading risk onto the weakest links in the economic chain is zero hour contracts. Should there be a law to restrict their use to exceptional circumstances?
- Laws are now enacted in order to limit the usury of money. Should not laws also be enacted to regulate the rents of houses and lands?
Are the laws available to limit the usury of money adequate? Should there be laws to limit absolutely the level of interest that can be charged on any loan? And what level of interest would be just?
Housing, or the shortage of housing has been a serious problem for many decades and it has become more serious in recent years. Would a reintroduction of rent control be an appropriate policy to bring some justice back into the housing market, especially for younger people and people who have not been able to enter the housing market so far?
- Ought not all lands and buildings used for demoralizing purposes, brothels, dram shops, gambling places, bull baitings, cock fights, horse races, etc., to be forfeited to the community, which they are doing so much to damage, and converted to purposes of education and public enlightenment?
(As an aside in relation to this query, there are of course arguments for the thrust of this but it would be very difficult to argue the expropriation of business premises used for purposes, which we may find immoral but which are completely legal. My re-write therefore suggests and buildings used for illegal purposes only.)
Would justice be served if any land and buildings is used for illegal activities such as people trafficking, modern-day slavery, drug dealing, money-laundering, illegal exploitation of people (especially children), illegal animal fighting (the list is not exhaustive), be confiscated as part of any legal proceedings against the perpetrators of such illegal activities and against the owners of the land and buildings?
- Ought not the necessary expenditures of government to be provided for by direct taxation, so that the people may realize what it costs them to be governed, and know why, and for what, so much is expended?
Would justice be served better if the balance of taxation moved back to more direct and less indirect taxation in order for people to have a clearer awareness of the amount of taxes they pay?
- Should not taxes be levied upon a rising scale, so that the millionaire shall pay more for the support of government than a million of men who have not a dollar that they can spare without real discomfort to themselves and families?
Would justice be served if taxes were more progressive than they are now?
- Should not the exact amount of properties, owned by corporations or individuals, be faithfully registered, and ought not every kind of property that is withheld, or intentionally undervalued, to be wholly forfeited?
Would justice be served if there were more transparent disclosure of all personal and business assets? And should assets deliberately hidden for whatever reason be taken away and used for the common good?
- Should not society provide for all its members a thorough education and good business opportunities, so that the children of the poor, as well as the rich, shall be placed on something like an equality in the start of life?
After a long period of time during which universal free education was expanded to include all, at least in some countries, our education system is again being privatised and made subject to fees, which are unaffordable to some. Should we stand against this trend to further justice? And what action may be required of Friends, given our association with Quaker Schools?
We see a generation of younger people forced into unpaid internships in order to gain work-experience and a chance to enter the workplace with a proper, paid job? This unjustly favours young people whose families can support them through periods of unpaid work. Should we stand against this trend to further justice? Are there any Quaker employers who hire unpaid interns – whatever they might call them? Are there companies with whom we do business who use unpaid interns? Should we challenge them?