In this issue

Volume 7, Number 152
4 January 2007

A World Without Authority

by Jack Powelson

Dear Friends,

My reading on our cruise to Hawaii has been Roger Osborne's Civilization. It was reviewed in the New York Times in glowing terms, and I also recommend it strongly. The author declared, early on, that there was no such thing as cultural "progress" — we all respond to our respective environments. He showed, for example, many similarities between American culture and the culture of the Roman Empire. Likewise, no "people," he said, is superior to any other. We all act according to the world around us.

No one can rule long unless he or she agrees with the preponderance of the country's culture, Osborne writes. In Roman times, e.g., citizens revered power and fighting. Vici Oshiro, in response to TQE 151, said that the US showed in the November elections that it did not agree with its president. If that is so, either the president or the nation will not survive long.

However, we have become a divided country. I have met on the ship many citizens who mainly agree with our president, while I do not. But to be a nation for long, our citizens must agree on many points. Almost all agree on new elections from time to time. We all sang Auld Lang Syne at the final dinner. We spoke English mainly with American accents. Most agreed that the American flag should not touch the ground, a symbol of humiliation. After the voyage Saddam Hussein was hanged. I believe the difference between British and Iraqi opinions reflects cultures. (Iraqi Shiites cursed Saddam has he stood on the gallows. The British were disgusted.)

Most respondents to TQE 151 were American Quakers whom I considered personal friends. Like my cruise companions, they latched on to problems of the moment, like schools, social security, etc. Neither they (except maybe J.D.) nor my cruise companions thought about how their "solutions" to present problems would affect the world 500 years from now. Yet — I aver — they do.

I learned something about ideology, both from my fellow passengers and from my reading of Osborne. Ideology today is like the Roman gods. If something unexpected occurred, the Romans thought a god had arranged it. They did not experiment to see how it had truly happened. When an unexpected event occurs in present society, it is explained by ideology. "Bush did it," or "big business needs to profit in order to survive." No one, it seems, experiments or reads history to discover why.

About 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote that heavier articles fell faster than lighter ones, in proportion to their weight. Almost everyone believed him for 19 centuries until Galileo performed his famous experiments. Likewise today, many events are explained by our ideologies when instead we should experiment and read histories more.

J.D. von Pischke suggests that "the next TQE might consist of Jack's piece [and replies]." Well, here it is. As I said above, most who wrote in are personal friends of mine. Vici Oshiro was a Young Friend when I lived in Washington in the 1940s (yes, I was young once too); Ann Dixon is a computer expert whom I met in our local Meeting but who now lives in Philadelphia. Signe Wilkinson is a cartoonist for the Philadelphia News, whose drawings I often see in the Sunday New York Times. Chuck Fager heads the Quaker House near the Ft. Bragg army base in North Carolina, while J.D. Von Pischke is an old acquaintance from Washington D.C.

Most of these Friends live only "in the present" and are trying to solve problems of the present. There's nothing wrong with that, except that I believe we should also take account of the future and guess where our present policies, once put into effect, might lead us. Most Friends try to resolve problems (e.g., war in Iraq, health care, etc.) by passing laws; those who disobey would be punished. Instead, I would like to create individuals who rely not on the government but on themselves to handle similar, but not identical, problems five hundred years from now.

Like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, we seek an "ideal world," but my ideal is not the same as most Quakers. Most Quakers do not agree with Plato — their "Republic" is different. But mine is even more different, it is one in which citizens create their own jobs, their own health care, their own schools, and the like.

Some say we have that now. But like Milton Friedman, I value choice. Why George School or Westtown instead of public schools? Signe commented that because of culture changes she may lose her job (as newspapers are dying) and no longer afford Quaker schools for her children. Quite likely true, buy why are not Quaker school doors open to all African children instead of mainly Americans with a few minority samples?

Chuck asks: what about changes that move Jack's culture backward? Why are there so many poor children in South Carolina today? Chuck should look back 500 years, to see how children lived in London at that time. While poverty now is heinous by today's standards, the poor are better off now than their English counterparts were then.

So, will we live better by passing laws to punish dishonesty, or should we try to create honesty and self reliance in people even if the results are not seen for centuries? Osborne writes about the mid-1640s that "Quakers advocated abolition of authority for all and equality for women" [p. 294]. Three and a half centuries later we still want equality for women, but we crave the authority to demand it by law. When I propose creating individuals who behave positively without being required to do so, most of my Quaker friends believe I prefer the present ways, perhaps either to enrich myself or because I am prejudiced against minorities. They just don't comprehend a world without authority.

Yours in friendship,

Jack Powelson


Roger Osborne, Civilization: A New History of the Western World. New York: Pegasus Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1933648194.

A History of Wealth & Poverty

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First, early Friends did not advocate equality for women — the openings made for women within the Society in those years were quite limited, and still decreed their subordination in most areas. Advocacy of equality for women came much later among Friends (200 years or so), and was highly controversial within the RSoF when it did.

Second, there are rather mixed reports on how much "authority" early Friends wanted to abolish. As I read the record, they sharply distinguished themselves from other groups (the Ranters, for example) who did advocate something like antinomian anarchy. Although it seems clear that the earliest Friends were occasionally pretty anti-authoritarian, that period did not last long.

More substantively, referring to those who commented on his last essay, Jack wrote, "Most of these Friends live only 'in the present' and are trying to solve problems of the present. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that I believe we should also look to the future and guess where our present policies, once put into effect, might lead us..." Others can speak for themselves about this "in the present" description, but for myself, I vigorously disclaim it.

While I do work from day to day to oppose present wars (and pay the bills), I have also given much thought to how long-term work in this area of witness can be constructed and sustained. As an example, I refer Jack and Friends to my essay, "A Quaker Declaration of War." The centerpiece of this presentation is an outline of "The Hundred-Year Lamb's War," which attempts to think about peace witness in a century-long context. Whatever the piece's shortcomings, I submit it does not fall into the "in the present" error.

Jack asks, "So, will we live better by passing laws to punish dishonesty, or should we try to create honesty and self reliance in people even if the results are not seen for centuries?" Personally, I do not believe this is an either/or proposition; laws seem to me necessary as does virtue. But there are undoubtedly bad laws as well as good. Thus a task of citizens and especially legislators would seem to be to avoid or repeal the former, and enact the latter.

As for keeping laws in general to a minimum, I agree with the principle, but consider it hopelessly inapt for the technological society in which we are enmeshed. For instance, the volumes of maritime law and shipping regulations applicable to Jack's recent cruise would, if set beside each other, likely be as long as the vessel itself. Whether this is good or bad (and I hope they are mostly good, as that would tend to ensure the safety of Jack's passage), I submit we are stuck with a high volume of law and regulation, at least until cruises are scaled back to be conducted in homemade, hand-powered canoes along local streams and coastal inlets.

Moreover, let the record show that there were no proposals for new laws in the comments I offered on the previous essay. And my outline for "The Hundred-Year Lamb's War" does not depend on the passing of laws either; more likely learning to resist and survive many of them.

— Chuck Fager, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.

Concerning choice and rationality:

Herbert Simon, a economics Nobelist, pointed out that we have what he called "bounded rationality." Life is too complicated for us to be rational in all out choices.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won a Nobel Prize in economics for his experiments that show that people differ from rationality in systematic ways. He is the founder of "behavioral economics", the latest big thing in economics.

We must construct a new economics based not on simple axioms or postulates of rationality, but on the true facts of how people differ from rationality in various systems of economic inquiry. If people make choices based on irrational behavior, then rather that valuing choice, we must systematically make choices for them that are rational and in their interest, rather than the irrational choices they will make on their own.

A good example of this is time preference and saving for retirement. A second factor is the time and effort we must put into making choices in an increasingly complicated world. This is particularly a factor for old people like me who were born too soon to take naturally to the revolution in information technology. I would welcome less choice, and less time spent in trying to educate myself to make a rational choice, or to find someone who is competent to make the choice for me. Unlike Jack, I welcome authority that makes rational choices for me and saves me my valuable time and money. I prefer government Medicare, which makes almost no demands on my time, to my private sector Mutual of Omaha health insurance, which infuriates me periodically and makes irritating demands on my time to correct their mistakes.

To Jack, and others who think like him, I recommend the Becker-Posner blog, by Gary Becker, a conservative Nobelist in economics at the University of Chicago, and Richard Posner, the polymath Federal Appeals Court Judge who helped found the Law and Economics movement.

— Bill Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.

Our older daughter Judy told us we should read Mohammad Yunus' Nobel Prize lecture, and I am in the middle of it. I have believed for a long time that microcredit is the most promising social movement we have, particularly because it empowers women. Yunus confirms that, saying that loans to women are more effective than similar loans to men. Do read it (text, video). It would appear that it is most effective (not needing continual donor money) if it functions as a bank, receiving deposits, and that may require enabling laws in some countries.

As for laws, it amazes me that Friends are so skeptical of the government when it comes to military affairs, and so credulous when it comes to domestic affairs. However, it is possible to be equally credulous about the market, and I think Bill Rhoads' comment on health care goes right to the point. Health care has a number of aspects, including inelasticity of demand, that make market mechanisms not work well. Unless you get well right away and easily, no one is satisfied with health care.

The question which we seem to be failing to examine is, "When and under what conditions does what tool work best?" I agree with Jack that ideology is most unhelpful in discerning answers to that question.

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Friends Meeting (NEYM).

A world without authority is both utopian and the only worthy goal of any person who considers himself a peacemaker. Authority, ultimately, reserves for itself the use of oppressive measures, if not violence, to enforce its policies. Whether someone refuses to pay taxes for a war or for a school, they will eventually be met by representatives of the authorities who will either force them to pay (with the threat of violence) or imprison them.

It is our task, as Quakers, to appeal to the Inner Light in others rather than to seek power through the law.

— Ken Schroeder, Portalegre, Portugal.

Jack Powelson got it exactly right.

We all want some kind of change, and there are two ways for that change to come about: bottom-up (changing the cultural ideology, which in turn changes policy) or top-down (changing the policy, which then changes ideology).

Both right and left generally seek to use a top-down method nowadays. The reasons are pretty obvious: you get a faster result. Of course, at the same time you tend to create unintended consequences since policy tends to be a blunt instrument. In addition to the pure utilitarian problems, you also have the deeper ethical issue of whether it's right to use the threat of punishment to force people to violate their consciences. (It seems to me that the traditional Quaker answer is "absolutely not!" — which means I'm mystified by just how few Quaker libertarians I've encountered...)

On the other hand, the bottom-up method seems to be far more attractive. In a democratic nation, a government that disagrees with the prevailing political ideology will not last long. Plus, on many levels, a firmly convinced population will make up for policy deficiencies. Consider the pro-life stance, for example. Currently, the religious right is seeking to impose abortion bans. But this would be entirely unnecessary if the people were convinced that abortion is morally wrong. Similarly, universal health care could be achieved if a sufficiently large number of wealthy people could be convinced that this were a worthwhile moral goal to which they should give voluntarily. All that is really necessary to achieve these goals is that government policy not interfere with people following their consciences.

Ultimately, we have a choice: do we want to live in a society where people do the right thing because not doing so results in imprisonment, fines, etc? Or do we want to live in a society where people do what is right because they are convinced that it is right? Or, said differently, do we want to live in a society ruled by power or a society ruled by conscience?

Sadly, there seems to be nearly universal consensus on all sides of the political spectrum that we want the former.

— Lucas M. Engelhardt, Orange Road Evangelical Friends Church, Ohio (EFC-ER).

Thanks as always, Jack. I am inclined to agree with your analysis, that present trends in the activity of many Friends, particularly from unprogrammed meetings, is to create regulations with highly targeted behaviors in mind. These regulations are supported on the grounds that they will achieve improved safety, more equal living conditions and many other desirable ends. However, I find that these beliefs, or ideologies if you will, are in fact based on authority. The common thread is looking within, however such an activity is done, to find clarity in the calling of the Spirit. Most of us hope that the Inner Light is our authority, and at times I think some among us may achieve this. Seeking the Word of God is at the essence of our commonality and our Quaker community. That we do not always find the same things to be clear as we look within says much of the complexity both of Faith and of people.

The Light leads me to believe that the issues facing our descendents in 500 years are unknowable. Perhaps our response to the calling of the Spirit today has no predictable bearing on the ability of people in the year 2510 to effectively meet their challenges. (I for one hope that there will be a better calendar for the world than one based on Catholic doctrine relating to the life of Jesus Christ, for example.) In terms of gender equality, I believe that the issues related to this concern from 1510 (500 years ago) are different from those of today in the US by orders of magnitude. This new thing that we call "health care," and that many Friends argue should be a "human right" did not really even exist in 1910, much less 500 years ago. We are so inventive, we humans. And life itself is persistent and accomplished. Just what one would expect of the works of God.

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake Monthly Meeting.

Found on the Web

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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

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