Building a Moral Economy from the Ground Up

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Whether entailing the use of money or other resources, economic transactions allow us the means of subsistence just as they tempt us to excess. It would do us well to remember that the etymological origins of the word “economy” are from the Greek meaning of “managing the household.” A moral economy would be one that manages the “household” of our planet to emphasize mutual care, community health, and a society of sufficiency and sustainability.

Whenever we buy a product or choose not to do so, we are making a statement. We are essentially “voting” for (or abstaining from voting for) the chain of social, environmental, and economic relationships that have created the product. Sometimes we are aware of those relationships and sometimes not, but our choice expresses our judgment in either case. Economic resources are not neutral – they represent energy that we actively or passively direct. Because everything is connected, we should examine all our actions to determine whether we approve of their consequences.

The Quaker minister Edward Hicks illustrated a traditional Quaker ideal of a moral economy in his paintings of “The Peaceable Kingdom” in the mid-1800s. He produced 62 versions of this image, and they all depict a place where complementary relationships between living creatures allow them to thrive together in peace, without crowding out the needs of others. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6) This image has roots in many Biblical passages that invite us to turn away from selfish behaviors that cause discord and lead to conflict. (Isaiah 2: 2-4, 11: 6-9, 65:25; Hosea 2: 18-19; Matthew 5: 43-48)

A moral economy is also expressed through the practices of many faith traditions. It is found, for example, in the observance of the Sabbatical and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13); the annual alms-giving (zakāt) found in the Qur’an and hadiths; the cultivation of generosity through dāna among Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains; and in the personal moral code of the individual Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy).

Unlike these examples of moral economy, the political economy of our time invites us to engage economically without thinking much about consequences. The structure of capitalism lends itself to acquisition of capital by those controlling production, distribution to those capable of purchasing, and consumption by the individual. Desire for goods and services, the concept of exclusive private ownership, and the ability of society to control resources (even by force of arms) can lead to inequality, want, and conflict over the means of satisfying basic needs. These practices stand in stark contrast to a moral economy that fosters the stewardship of common resources to meet basic needs, promote community health, and favor simplicity, equality, sufficiency, and sustainability.

One point of entry into the creation of a moral economy is to consider how we regard possessions. New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice (1985) poses these four queries under the heading of “Stewardship”:

  • Do you revere all life and the splendor of God’s continuing creation?
  • Do you try to protect the natural environment and its creatures against abuse and harmful exploitation?
  • Do you regard your possessions as given to you in trust, and do you part with them freely to meet the needs of others?
  • Are you frugal in your personal life and committed to the just distribution of the world’s resources?

These queries remind us of the interrelationships between the demands we place upon the earth’s resources – individually and collectively – and our responsibility to nurture all of creation as best we can. They remind us that caring for possessions should be secondary to caring for life, and that our possessions are linked to what we, and others, need to survive.

Another source of inspiration, instruction, and challenge for creating a moral economy lies in Friends’ history. Friends have long engaged with moral economic choices, often flying in the face of conventional values and behavior. Three historic situations, among many others, stand as good examples:      

Slavery – Quakers held slaves and struggled for a long time before agreeing that chattel slavery is immoral. Once reaching that point, Friends actively worked to help free enslaved people in the U.S., including support for the Underground Railroad, and the creation of schools for newly emancipated citizens. The challenge for Friends today is to help the descendants of slaves become free from economic bondage.

Domination of First Nations – Quaker missionaries served as educators in government boarding schools in an era when native peoples were dispossessed of their lands and resources.  The official U.S. policy of assimilation – both cultural and economic – appeared to many at the time to be a reasonable goal, and Friends attempted to serve that purpose in good faith. Today, Friends face the challenge of supporting native communities as they navigate between the economic demands of the dominant society and the preservation of their intrinsic values and traditional identities. Friend Pat Kutzner, for example, has been working for over ten years with the Na Neel Zhiin (Torreon/Star Lake) Chapter of Eastern Navaho to support their community economic development efforts.

Irish Famine – When crop failure and English laissez-faire economic policy converged in the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1846), taking a million people by starvation and disease and another million through emigration, Friend James Ellis retired from a successful business in England to respond to the crisis. He purchased 1,000 acres in Letterfrack, County Galway, Ireland; he reclaimed the bog land and cultivated it; and he founded a school, a dispensary, and production facilities for the benefit of local people. Marybeth Webster and other Friends in southeastern Arizona today have followed Ellis’s example, and have founded Dougla Prieta Works, a bi-national, neighborhood-scale economic development project in Agua Prieta, Sonora, in response to conditions of persistent structural poverty there.

Friends are increasingly recognizing a multitude of ways that individuals engage in economic decision-making, consequently, a multitude of ways for individuals to contribute to a moral economy. As producers, we bear responsibility for the human, natural, and physical components in the production process, both as employers and suppliers. As consumers, we are responsible for determining the origins of products we might buy, identifying the social conditions of production, auditing our buying choices, and observing simplicity in our consumption. As stewards, we should consider the impact of our buying choices on the natural environment in a world where there is much unanswered need. As investors, we are obliged to screen out those investments that do harm; but we also have an opportunity to embrace those investments that do good and to seek the “triple bottom line” of financial, social, and environmental benefit. As philanthropists, we need to distinguish between “help that helps and help that doesn’t” through careful charity selection, to consider what amount of our income should support good works, and to be alert for non-monetary ways to contribute to social change. Finally, as advocates, we can engage in raising collective consciousness, building partnerships, and becoming personal examples of moral economic behavior.  ~~~

David Henkel is a member of Santa Fe Monthly Meeting (IMYM) and is currently clerk of New Mexico Regional Meeting. He came to Friends as a member of Honolulu Meeting in 1971, while serving as staff of the AFSC program in Hawai’i. He is also an emeritus professor of Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico.