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We've had 300 years in which we've learned little from Wesley's wisdom

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 20 June 2003


The Bible has a great deal to say about the importance of wealth and how it should be handled. This month we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's birth. He lived at the time of the British Industrial Revolution and he saw the great expansion in personal wealth being generated by the invention of factories and the transformation of production techniques.

It was necessary to address the issue of the responsible use of money. He gave three pieces of advice:

  1. Gain all you can: develop yourself and the resources entrusted to you to the greatest possible extent; make the most of your opportunities. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay (if you are an employee), and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work (if you are an employer).
  2. Save all you can: live modestly so that you do not consume all that you produce, and so you can create a surplus which can be used for further development and provide for your family and your old age.
  3. Give all you can: give to the poor and the disadvantaged, the sick, the old, all those in need. It is only by carrying out (a) and (b) that (c) can be achieved.
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Wesley's values underpinned the Industrial Revolution. They made the UK the "workshop of the world" and the greatest trading country on earth. They encouraged a very high regard for quality - in order to "gain all you can", you need to produce the best. "As safe as the Bank of England" was the indication of the high quality of the City's reputation for the banking and insurance industry.

The Wesley challenge remains relevant today. "Give all you can" was not then - and still is not today - the type of advice which eager, greedy people want to hear. Additionally, modern economics is based on the idea of "spend as much as you can" - even if you do not have it. Indeed, as the modern "Seven Dwarfs" might sing: "I owe, I owe, it's off to work I go".

If Wesley's advice had been followed in the 1890s, 1920s and 1980s, then there would not have been the depressions that followed all those excessive booms. Eighty per cent of Australia's overseas debt in the 1980s was due to the private sector - not to the borrowings of government. The debt was due to speculative investment that had little long-term benefit for the country. There is a fresh round of concern over the current high level of domestic debt.

There is nothing new in economics. There is a pattern of periods of increased concentration of wealth and banks becoming more ambitious in their lending. The wealthy can borrow from the banks because of their assets and so a speculative fever is generated as the rich borrow heavily to acquire still more assets so as not to miss out. The banks are happy to lend.

Meanwhile, the increased concentration of wealth means that other people have to borrow just to survive. Again the banks oblige. Suddenly the bubble bursts. A depression sets in and the remaining wealth is redistributed via bankruptcy arrangements.

Then a new part of the cycle begins. The banks vow never to be so heavily exposed again and dispose of their senior personnel who are held responsible for the crash - until the next time. Governments promise to introduce tougher regulations - which last until the next fashion for "deregulation".

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The 20th Century's Roaring 20s were followed by the Great Depression and then the US New Deal. The "Greed is Good" 80s were followed by a recession. Now a fresh bubble is being generated, not least over real estate speculation.

Financial advisers and consumers could learn a great deal from John Wesley's wisdom from the 18th Century.

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Article edited by John Carrigan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published as Keith Suter Comments and broadcast on 2GB.



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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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