Volume 2, Number 60
14 December 2002

Three Stories and a Conclusion

Dear Friends,

Here's the first, in Paris 1948. I was living with a French family, and I also called square dances at the Quaker Center. One day my French "mother" asked me to bring a group of dancers to entertain a party of friends. "Of course," I said.

On the morning of the party, she asked for the names of the dancers. I rattled them off, but when I came to Gisele Gerholdt, her face frowned up. "Is she German?" she snapped. "Yes," I replied. "Then she may not set foot in this house! Replace her with someone else."

That was understandable, since Germans had occupied Paris only three years earlier. But I would not replace Gisele, who was part of the team. "Then tell her to tell the guests she is English, and her name is Mary Jones." When I would not do that, my French "mother" suggested, "Have Gisele tell the guests she is Dutch." But we were at the end of the rope. We called off the performance.

Fifty years later, Robin and I were visiting Frankfurt, with a German friend whom I had also met in 1948. Klaus was telling us how the young people today spend week-ends in Paris. "No problem?" I asked. "None," Klaus said. "They sit in the bars with French young people, and dance with them."

How times had changed, in fifty years! Why, I wondered? Of course, a new generation had grown up, and they may have forgotten about the war. But in 1914, the French had not forgotten about 1871. Why would they forget now?

Maybe because of the European Union. Now they traveled freely across borders, knew their neighbors, bought from them and sold to them, took jobs in the other country, and invested there. Ah yes, I thought! Trade engenders trust.

The second story took place also in France, seven centuries earlier. The Province of Champagne lies half way between London and Northern Italy. Traders from England would bring their cloth to Champagne, to trade with Italians who brought fine clothing, and perfumes and spices from the Orient. When a trader stayed at the inn, he entrusted his money (bag of gold) to the innkeeper, who wrote the trader's name on it, then tossed it into the bureau drawer of his bedroom. No one doubted that the money would be intact when the trader returned.

Why? Because the innkeeper valued his reputation. If he allowed the bag to be stolen (or stole it himself), who would come to stay at his inn?

Of course, disputes arose. So how would the Count of Champagne handle them? He set up "piepowder courts," so named because traders would enter pied with dust (poudre) on their bare feet. The piepowder judges were sworn to mete out equal justice, no matter whether the trader was from London, Milan or Paris. Remember, this was an era in which the people of one town would destroy the roads to another — or would silt harbors in the Netherlands — so traders would come through their town first. So, how could we expect equal justice in Champagne? Because if the judges did otherwise, traders would find other fairs to stop at instead of Champagne. In fact, other fairs did set up piepowder courts for the same reason, and the idea of impartial justice was spread. Once more, trade engendered trust.

The third story is more recent. The New York Times last year ran two articles on trade between Taiwan and China. They pointed out that Taiwanese were investing so heavily in China, and vice-versa, and trade was so fervent, that war between the two would be very costly. Would it not be a delightful conclusion to hostile thinking if trade and investment brought peace across the Taiwanese straits? People who trade and invest in each other are less likely to go to war.

I know, we went to war with Japan and Germany, with whom we had traded. I deem these exceptional circumstances, because sovereignty was imperiled. But we don't fight Mexico or Canada. Who believes war is now likely among countries in the European Union? (They still argue a lot in Brussels, but war? No). Once again, in a period of fifty years trade and investment have engendered trust.

Conclusion from the above

The conclusion comes from a quotation from Thomas Haskell, economic historian who wrote in The American Historical Review (90:2 and 90:5) in 1985: "In the long history of human morality there is no landmark more significant than the appearance of the man who can be trusted to keep his promises... [Although] conscience and promise-keeping emerged in human history ... long before capitalism ... it was not until the eighteenth century, in Western Europe, England, and North America, that societies first appeared whose economic systems depended on the expectation that most people, most of the time, were sufficiently conscience-ridden (and certain of retribution) that they could be trusted to keep their promises." Of course, cheating happens, and we have our Enrons. But our Congress, courts, and total society are predicated on the assumption that promises will be kept and fiduciary arrangements honored. If not, delinquents are punished, and corporations fail.

Carol Conzelman, one of my board members, challenged this conclusion. "Haskell makes an ethnocentric generalization in saying that Europe was first. The Aymara in Bolivia, for example, developed the ayllu system, predicated on mutual respect and interdependency, rotating authority, distribution of food and goods to whole communities, and a justice system. Capitalism is not the only economic system that develops bonds of trust."

Carol, an anthropologist, knows much more about the Aymara than I do, so I have no reason to doubt her. Nevertheless, Haskell was referring to trust among people who did not know each other, or may have lived on the other side of the globe. He was certainly correct in this. A recent article in Forbes ("A Virtuous Cycle," by James Surowiecki, 12/23/02) emphasizes the role of Quakers in establishing this trust.

Fifty years ago, when I was resource person for high school institutes sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, the rallying cry was often, "One World! Let us be friends with those across the globe, trade with them, and spread mutual trust." These were the themes permeating the lectures and discussions of the day. Does this fundamental goal govern discussions on globalization today, or do we live in a world of fear and mistrust? Let the world of tomorrow be based on trust, trade, negotiations, and promise-keeping.

Your friend,


* The two sources frequently cited here are "A Virtuous Cycle," by James Surowiecki in Forbes, 12/23/02, and Philippe Legrain, Open World (Abacus, 2002). Their findings generally support what I had earlier learned from the literature of authors who set aside their ideologies as they undertake their studies. These authors start with no foregone conclusion but search whether a hypothesis is true.

Quakers? Surowiecki builds his case around the truth and honesty of early Quakers, and how these qualities spread to the rest of the population when they were discovered to be profitable.

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.

It is good to be reminded that those whose integrity exceeds that of the common herd are often rewarded with success beyond the common. The trouble is that too often, when the success of integrity makes being honest and fair the expected, somebody finds out that shaving a little off the top, so to speak, can lead to quicker success, and who's to know if you're cute about it? Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from bad business experiences, say I, and all too often that's not enough.

— Allen Treadway, Decatur (IL) Meeting.

A friend of mine remarked that capitalism is an effort to harness human greed for the benefit of all. Many think that greed is running amok right now, but I wonder if it isn't really power that is running amok. The system of countervailing interests that has been built up over centuries which is what makes democracy work, as argued by Jack, Gene Sharp, and others, doesn't seem to be working so well right now. Why? Do we need a system for trading power equivalent to our system for trading capital? Is the problem that so much power is suddenly available to individuals and nations? Without our modern technological army, G.W. Bush would be a joke. Without efficient world-wide communications, Enron would have been a wet fizzle.

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Meeting.

Perhaps the British replanted the teakwood because of the particular uses that this wood would have to a maritime nation like themselves? Teak is, I understand, one of the best woods to use for ship decking. If so, this would underscore the economic reasons for this behavior.

— Bill Jefferys, Austin (TX) Meeting.

Betsy Radali's suggestion to tax bad things and not tax good things does seem eminently reasonable on the surface. She asks if there are pitfalls. I can think of two: First, taxing only bads would make the government dependent on the continuation of the bad things. Second, selecting things to tax would require a consensus on things that are bad, an evasive consensus at best. I apologize for criticizing others' solutions when I have none of my own, but we turn so many good-sounding solutions into bad law.

— Bob Sheffield, Boulder (CO) Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

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

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • 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.

Thanks to Merlyn Holmes, who has resigned from the board because of an over-crowded schedule. Her contributions to past issues have been critical and well stated, and they have affected my ideas.

Copyright © 2002 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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