The Nov. 7 edition of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the official newspaper of the North and South Georgia Conferences, quotes a recent United Methodist News Service column by J. Richard Peck titled, “John Wesley’s Advice on the Economy.”
John Wesley believed that most of the economic problems of the day were caused by a growing disparity between the rich and the poor.
Wesley felt the cure was to repress “luxury, either by example, by laws, or both.” He asked legislators to establish laws that would prohibit the distillation of alcohol.
While he lamented high taxes upon the poor and middle class, he called for additional taxes on luxury items such as horses and carriages.
He also expressed concern about future generations and called for a reduction of the national debt. In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products.
The excerpt appears to give “theological cover” (from the founder of the Methodist movement himself!) to those in the current political climate who advocate stepped-up redistribution of wealth from high-income members of society to people with lower incomes.
However, the larger context of Mr. Wesley’s letter gives quite a different impression.
From the actual letter (PDF):
Why have [so many in England] nothing to eat? Because they have nothing to do. They have no meat, because they have no work. But why have they no work?… Because the person who used to employ them cannot afford to do it any longer.
Many, who employed fifty men, now scarce employ ten. Those, who employed twenty, now employ one, or none at all. They cannot, as they have no vent for their goods; food now bearing so high a price, that the generality of people are hardly able to buy anything else.
A major reason for high food prices, Mr. Wesley argued, was that immense quantities of “breadcorn” are “consumed by distilling” alcoholic beverages.
He noted that the abundance of land being used to grow wheat for distillation reduced the acreage available for other crops, while also driving up prices for other wheat-based products.
Mr. Wesley decried the government’s unwillingness — for financial reasons — to discourage the consumption of alcohol. Sales of that “deadly poison-poison” were bringing in “large [tax] revenue to the king,” he noted.
Indeed, the government’s overweening desire for tax revenue was having perverse effects throughout the economy, he observed.
[W]hy is it, that not only provisions and land, but well-nigh everything else is so dear [i.e., expensive]? Because of the enormous taxes which are laid on almost everything that can be named.
Not only abundant taxes raised from earth, and fire, and water; but, in England, the ingenious statesmen have found a way to tax the very light!
In a series of suggestions for improving the economic health of the nation, Mr. Wesley hinged his argument on the need to drive down agricultural-commodity prices. Lower food costs, he argued, would increase discretionary income and stimulate appropriate consumption of other consumer goods, thus creating economic growth and increasing employment.
The key to driving down food prices was “prohibiting for ever that bane of health, that destroyer of strength, of life, and of virtue, distilling. Perhaps this alone will answer the whole design,” Mr. Wesley wrote. (In another part of the letter, he argued that more family farms and fewer farm “monopolies” would help drive down food costs, as well.)
In general, John Wesley urged eventual tax reductions — conceding, however, that servicing the nation’s large national debt made the continuation of certain taxes a necessity.
As for tax increases, he suggested that the government could make up revenue lost from prohibiting distilling with an additional tariff (of 10 pounds) on “every horse exported to France” and a hike in the property tax on horses in England used to draw “gentlemen’s carriages.” (He also believed these particular taxes would reduce the number of horses being raised, thus driving down the cost of oats.)
While Mr. Wesley did decry “the amazing waste” of food by some wealthy people (which contributed to food scarcity problems for others), there is nothing in his letter that suggest, as asserted by Mr. Peck, that Wesley believed “most of the economic problems of the day were caused by a growing disparity between the rich and the poor.”
Indeed, the assertion seems to put the cause and effect backward. Income disparity was a result of a problem-laden economy, not the cause. Improve the economy, John Wesley argued in his 1772 letter to the Lloyd’s Evening Post, and the lot of the poor would improve along with it.