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Lessons for today from 200 years ago

There is much we can learn today from reading Gisborne’s “Duties of Men”, written more than 200 years ago, says LSCA President Malcolm Bacchus.

Malcolm Bacchus

January 2018

I was in Manchester recently and visited Chetham’s Library, the oldest surviving public library in England, established in 1653, and housed in a building some 200 years older than that.

I sat in an alcove there where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked together in the summer of 1845 and read a book that they also read there: ‘An Enquiry into the Duties of Men’ written by Thomas Gisborne in 1795.

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Now, Thomas Gisborne was a cleric and a man of his time and I do not subscribe either to the communist views of Marx and Engels, nor the religious values that underpin Gisborne’s works. There is much that he wrote in his chapter on the ‘Duties of Persons Engaged in Trade and Business’, however, which should echo with us today, 200 years later.

The leading purposes, he says, of trade is to “promote the cultivation of the earth; to call forth into use its hidden treasures; to excite and sharpen the inventive industry of man; to unite the whole human race in bonds of fraternal connection… to open a way for the progress of civilisation… and to increase the sum of general happiness”.

Gisborne’s instructions to those in business are forthright: “Let his competition be open, fair and amicable; not tricking, ungenerous and malevolent. Let it be displayed, not in depreciating the skill, or in vilifying the character, of a rival; but in the laudable efforts to gain an honest pre-eminence.”

Successful business, he says, should be achieved “by superior attention, knowledge, diligence and activity… in conjecturing the probable consumption, in calculating risks, in taking fit precautions against accidents and bad debts, and in meeting the wishes and suiting the convenience of consumers and employers”.

He writes at length about undercutting, price fixing, monopolies, fraudulent trading and how to avoid the evils thereof. His assumptions on the underlying religious footing to morality hardly pass muster today, but one sees in his book the foundations of the ideas that make the professions today and regret, perhaps, that there are still those engaged in trade and business today who have not taken the lessons to heart.

I will finish with one last thought from the book: “Among the moral virtues peculiarly to be cultivated by persons occupied in business or commerce, probity stands foremost.”

Let us hope it remains true.

Malcolm Bacchus is President of the London Society of Chartered Accountants

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