Volume 1, Number 26
20 October 2001

Is Life Sacred?

Dear Friends,

When Henry V of England besieged Rouen in 1418-19, the starving French inhabitants pushed the noncombatants out of the gates, thinking the English would let them by. But Henry was adamant. He watched women, howling children, and elderly men slowly die of sickness, cold, and starvation in the moat.

In 1572, on St. Bartholomew's day, Charles IX of France ordered the massacre of all Huguenots in France — 3,000 in Paris alone, many thousands killed by mobs elsewhere.

Terrorism abounded in Europe in the Middle Ages. Ships and passengers were massacred by pirates, villages attacked and inhabitants murdered, roads to towns were destroyed and harbors silted to divert commerce from another city to one's own.

Five centuries ago our ancestors dealt with terror daily. So how did it come about that by the end of the twentieth century we trusted our fellow Americans not to terrorize? Haven't we always assumed that competitors would not send us anthrax? (Wasn't Timothy McVeigh an exception?)

But we have learned this year that to many people life is not sacred. However, we suspect such people are not mainly from Western Europe or America. Why?

I believe the sanctity of life comes in degrees. Some find it not sacred at all; they kill for robbery or for hate. At the other extreme is the Buddhist who will not kill any sentient being. In between are most Americans, who would kill to win World War II but who abhor murder. Farther up the scale are Quakers (not all of us) who oppose any use of violence.

How did it come about, that for some people life is more sacred than for others? I think I have some ideas, which are byproducts of quite a different quest. After teaching economic development for thirteen years, in 1970 I cast aside my economic theory (without forgetting it) and delved into history to seek an answer to why a small portion of the world is rich and a much larger portion poor. Only fifteen years later, after extensive reading, did I sense a reason, and for the next seven years I wrote the book (and five supporting books).

Along the way, I deduced that trust is the essential element in both economic wealth and the sanctity of life. People who trust each other work together for mutual prosperity. They do not kill each other. After undertaking professional assignments in 35 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and after reading widely in history, I have concluded that both trust and prosperity are greater in the Western World and Japan than they are in the less developed areas. I believe this is part of the explanation why so many in the world hate us when we do not hate them. How did Europe evolve from the St. Bartholomew massacre to the European Union? Here is how I believe it happened.

First, power was gradually — over centuries — taken away from rulers (kings, emperors, church, shogun, nobility) and made to rest in "lower" classes (merchants, traders, farmers, manufacturers), who seized the opportunity to invent and innovate, and to save and raise capital. The rulers tried to confiscate their product and their capital, but they did not usually succeed. Keeping the profits for the producer was a prime incentive.

Second, power diffusion occurred because the elite classes were in conflict with each other, and the lower classes could swing the balance one way or another, always demanding a share of power in return. If their side lost, they would bide their time until the next occasion. I found many, many such instances in northwestern Europe and Japan, and very few in the rest of the world.

Third, the innovators of northwestern Europe traded widely. They negotiated the rules of trade, debt repayment, and property ownership among themselves, not allowing the ruler to impose them. By practicing these rules, they developed trust for each other.

Fourth, except for Japan, this power diffusion did not occur in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and eastern and southern Europe. It did not occur in Islamic countries. Power is still concentrated in the elites of these regions, who not only treat their people brutally but suppress innovation by workers, teachers, and farmers. They are afraid innovators would take power from them. Social classes are hierarchical and do not trust each other up and down the ladder.

This is a brief summary, from which I have omitted many qualifications. I do not encourage you to read my book, Centuries of Economic Endeavor (Michigan 1992), which contains more history than most of you want to know. I only ask you to understand that my beliefs spring from historical research and experience.

Did we become rich through imperialism?

The greatest imperialists of the last twenty centuries were Rome, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Ottoman Turkey, Mongolia, the Incas, the Aztecs, and Islam. Africa and the Middle East employed slave labor as far back as history goes. None of these areas became wealthy. On the contrary, it was the Europeans who ended official slavery in Africa (though it continues today in Mauritania and Sudan.)

Europeans were imperialists, but that is not how they gained their wealth. In the now-more-developed countries, wealth accumulation correlates far more closely with inventiveness, innovation, saving, and capital building than it does with imperialism. They did not get rich by stealing from the poor. Northwestern Europe was well on its way to economic success long before Africa was colonized. (Some historians put the beginnings of European ascendancy as far back as 1000 CE).

If not for plunder, why did northern Europeans colonize? Mainly because Asia and Africa did not live by European rules — piracy abounded, contracts were not honored, property was seized, and so on. (It was different for Spain and Portugal: they did plunder the Americas). But northern Europeans wanted to trade, and only part of the world lived by their principles. The French colonized Algeria in 1830 to get rid of the Barbary pirates; they did not foresee the bloodshed of the next century. The British colonized India for trade, and Kenya to secure their trade routes to India. (How do I know? I have read the works of historians who examined the documents of the time.)

ITTSL — innovation, trade, trust, and the sanctity of life — go together. They are the principal elements common to more developed countries. They are not found significantly in the less developed. ITTSL are also associated with increasing equality in income distribution, increasing acceptance of other ethnic groups, increasing attention to the environment, increasing compassion for the less-well-off, and increasing desire for peace. From this, I conclude that ITTSL are the forces to be concentrated on, if we wish also to promote the higher incomes, fairness in their distribution, and protection of the earth.

What can Quakers do?

The rest of the country is raising flags and repeating the war cries. I am patriotic, but I will not raise a flag or sing about bombs bursting in air. What is the Quaker counterpart of all this?

Quakers must understand that our country is not evil (compared to the rest of the world), that we did not gain our wealth by exploitation but mainly by inventiveness, that our wealth is more evenly distributed than in the less developed countries, and that our freedoms, including the freedom to trade, are associated with both our wealth and our trust for each other. I do not say we never plundered (our record with Native Americans is abysmal), only that we are far from the worst in world history and our wealth did not come from colonialism.

After the September 11 tragedy, we must also understand that — except in wartime — the sanctity of life is more highly valued in the West than in the less developed world. I will gladly come and talk with any group that wishes to question these points. (This month I will discuss them at Swarthmore College, probably Pendle Hill, and at World Learning in Vermont.)

We must understand that other parts of the world are not as wealthy as we are and cannot afford our luxuries. We must drop our extraterritorial demands (see TQE #25) by which we demand that others live by "American" standards. We must be patient while they gradually think up work rules, rights for women, environmental protections, and other ways of life that are practiced by the rich. We must teach our fellow citizens to be humble about our wealth, to be willing to sacrifice so that jobs may be created in other parts of the world, and to trade with other nations, to create international trust. Above all, we must value the sanctity of life.

Let us criticize our country freely, remembering that most of the world would risk torture and death for criticizing theirs. But where our country does not deserve criticism, let us not invent it. Quakers must overcome our need for guilt.

In peace,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

On an African development mailing list, yakub2222@hotmail.com writes "..most of the upper class in Africa do not know how to reach out to the poor. Both the poor and their rich patrons soon find out that the reward system relies largely on connections and restricts the lower class' social mobility and entrepreneurial success, even after having been equipped with education and technical skills."

It was once that way in Europe as well. What is different about Africa? I think this question is answered well enough by Jack Powelson's book Centuries of Economic Endeavor. In northwestern Europe and Japan, for geographic reasons the rich and poor could not escape each other, so they had to cooperate.

In Africa, and Asia, the population was more mobile, and the poor could simply walk away from trouble. They didn't need the elites, and the elites didn't need them. The power-sharing opportunities didn't occur, and so no middle class has arisen.

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

I have just acquired the book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg. There is no question in my mind that all the reviews and advanced info are entirely correct. This has to be the most important book written on the subject in many years. It is deserving of much more detailed study than I am capable of doing. But even a cursory skimming is enough to dispel so many of the untruths and half-truths which have become, as Lomborg himself calls it, the "Litany" of environmentalism.

The major question in my mind is how to convey the essence of this book to our Quaker Friends and others who for so long have been repeating the "Litany" as if it were the Truth, which it is not.

— Dick Bellin, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

This is indeed an important book, whether you agree with it or not. In the near future, I plan to write more than one TQE Letter about it. — Jack

It is always good to hear your thoughts on issues of the day.

— David Edinger, Quaker Hill Conference Center, Richmond, Indiana.

It is unclear exactly how diffused power was in these [early] societies, but the October issue of National Geographic repeated an indicative fact I'd heard previously: the tax rate on "peasants" during the Han Dynasty was only 3%. This is not surprising from an elite whose Taoist motto roughly translates to "rule as unobstructively as possible". Such a policy seems to put more economic power in the hands of the lowest classes than any nation in "the west" ever did.

— Patrick Koppula, Golden Gate Lutheran Church in San Francisco, graduate of Moorestown (MJ) Friends School.

It is my understanding that "peasants" during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) lived under the strict authority of the central government. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the Han adopted a Confucian ideology that emphasized moderation and virtue and thereby masked the authoritarian policies of the regime." When one responds to an authoritarian ruler, the nominal tax rate does not matter. — Jack

I read your memos with interest and, generally, approval. I would appreciate your comments on the so-called stimulus package provisions to prove that Keynes was not so dumb after all. What kills me is the politicians' caving in to lobbyists for the big companies on first, the bail-out nonsense (free enterprise implies risk), but most egregious, the retroactive repeal of the corporate minimum tax. Talk about patriotism as a gown over greed! Regards,

— Dick Wolf (college classmate of Jack's; we studied economics together).

I oppose bailouts, even of the airlines, and agree with you that free enterprise means risk. I favor the tax cut because money is better spent by private enterprise than by government. The tax cut will do little or nothing to speed up the economy, however. The economy will have recovered by itself before the tax cut becomes effective. — Jack


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

Editorial Board

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Northampton, MA.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Merlyn Holmes, Unitarian, Boulder, Colorado.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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