The Argument About Dues
In today’s broke economy with many people out of work or underemployed, who wants to talk about raising the cost of anything? I know I am stretched pretty thin as it is, so any increase in anything extracurricular would probably affect me. As it stand now, the things many of us have to use every day like gas, insurance, electricity, and general household items have gone through the roof in the past few years. So why start the debate on the cost of dues now?
There is no question that dues have not increased with inflation. There is no question that dues are merely a fraction of what they used to be at one time compared to the cost of living. My Blue Lodge dues, 60 bucks a year, aren’t necessarily high, but they are higher than they were just a few years ago when we voted raise them from $50 when I was Master in 2012.
With such low cost of dues most of us can afford membership today, but still we have guys on the non-payment list in April when dues were due in January. I got to thinking, is that because people really can’t pay? Is it because people just don’t care? Then I think, perhaps they just aren’t high enough to be taken serious.
Full disclosure here, I too, sometimes fall into the category of men who will pay a little late more times than I’d like. This is not because I don’t have the money, but many times simply because I know I will be going to the lodge soon and think, “Well, I’ll just take them in when I go.” After all, I am pretty active, I enjoy lodge, and I am pretty sure the Secretary knows I am going to pay up. Does that make being late with dues ok? No, not at all. But, Eh’ sorry. Sue me.
There could be a million reasons why the average Joe is late paying dues, but I think a major reason is that for much of the early history of Freemasonry the average Joe was never intended to be a member. This is partly because he couldn’t afford to be a member. This was an elite group of men gaining elite men. (notice I said elite, not elitist) This was a network in many ways, if course, but it also was very selective. Does that mean that all men who COULD afford high dues were the best candidates? Hardly. Does that mean that all men who COULDN’T afford membership were not otherwise great candidates for Freemasonry? Again, hardly.
In just one example using a well-known man, I did the math. According to existing records from Fredericksburg lodge, when Washington was initiated, a fee of 2 pounds, 3 shillings was paid. By today’s standards £2 roughly equals $3.27. Three shillings is about 72 cents. Because the exchange rates could vary slightly I am just going to round and call it $4.00. Converting back to pounds, $4.00 is roughly £2.45. Using an inflation calculator online we can see that £2.45 in 1752 is roughly equivalent to about £385.80 today. Converting this to dollars and we can see that about $630.78 was paid for Washington’s initiation.
(2/23/14: FOR AN UPDATE ON THESE NUMBERS SEE THE END OF THIS BLOG)
Let’s call that 600 dollars. Right there, I think, is a major factor in the free-for-all we have going on. Any man who wants to join can, and does, without making it a serious life decision. I don’t know how it works in many of your houses, but 600 dollars is not something I can just float willy-nilly on a club that I may or may not want to be actively involved with.
Lodge dues currently can vary wildly. I have seen dues at 40 dollars and I have seen dues well over 100 dollars. It is very rare that you see dues at 600 dollars, although they are out there. Does that mean that I think that we should just jack dues to unbelievably high amounts? Not necessarily.
For many men, Freemasonry is used as it was intended or at least the closest to it as it can be. We have been given tools to use, and we put them to work. For other men, they are given the tools to use, go out and buy a ring and a bumper sticker, and contribute very little to Freemasonry other than their 60 dollars a year.
Speaking as a po-boy who loves Freemasonry, here is where I am torn. I, like many other people, do not fall into that upper category of wage earners. If I told my wife I wanted to spend 600 dollars to be initiated into a fraternity I would most likely have pieces of me removed in my sleep. In short, I probably would not be a Freemason if dues and initiation were to skyrocket. I do think there is an answer though.
Incentive programs and chances to earn Freemasonry can take a dedicated man, at any level of income, and open the doors to him. I think that having dues at the level of $500 or more can serve as an instant deterrent for many guys who just want to slap a square and compass sticker on their bumper. They would have to make the choice; “Do I care enough about this whole Mason thing to spend 500 dollars a year on it?” or; “Do I care enough about this whole Mason thing to work down the cost of dues and initiation?” The men who truly want to join at this point will join. The card carriers would most likely work themselves out of the system over the course of a few years. There will still be a few well off non-contributors who will continue to treat it as a good old boys club, but I can argue that those fellas are here now.
If I knew that I could earn back a portion of my initiation and dues each year by performing certain tasks such as reading and writing reviews on books, presenting programs, and otherwise earning Freemasonry perhaps I wouldn’t mind the high cost of dues. I would know going into it that there is a cost involved, but also that there is a way to lighten that burden.
One of our greatest problems, in my opinion, is not enough men joining, but rather, too many under-qualified men running the system without knowing what the system is. A system of forced education, or incentive based education, would ensure that the men who join, would, by default, learn something and use the Craft.
Over time, the Craft could go from an organization of card carriers back to the benevolent society it once was. This could, in turn, create that desire for men to join for the correct reasons and reduce the desire for men to join just to get the title.
What about the guys who are financially stable who are generally not involved? Sad as it may be, there will still be the glory hounds who are better off and who can afford to just sneeze away 600 bucks. Let them. With a growing fraternity of qualified and educated men, the system should improve overtime. The interviewers should become more selective as they become better educated.
I can also see incentives to serve as lodge officers with perhaps very good incentives to serve as Master for a year or more. If dues are reduced based on your accomplishments, and perhaps even eliminated upon becoming a Past Master, then the goal for many would be to naturally become a Past Master.
Perhaps it is the capitalist in me, but I see a free market system so to speak. The desire to become a Past Master may be increased creating actual competition for the chair. Anytime that competition is introduced into a system the best usually prevail.
If said competition exists, I can see it most likely spilling over to other areas. With a back log of qualified men working to be viewed as the most capable for the job, simply being certified in the degree work may not be enough to be elected Master anymore. Would we then see other areas of the lodge start to increase productivity? I think so. I see men who know the ritual and floor work who are taking on other positions such as education, mentoring, programs and other aspects of the lodge that many times fall by the wayside.
Some men may have no desire to be Master. These men can earn back some of the cost by researching a specified topic and presenting to lodge. A system of incentives for performance could chip away at dues cost.
Over the years, no doubt, people grow tired of keeping up. Even the most dedicated of Masons get burned out from time to time and take a hiatus from lodge. For this, I see the dues coming down more and more as you reach milestones. Currently we celebrate members who reach their 25, 50, and 60 year milestones with pins in Pennsylvania. In my lodge, we forgive dues for 50 year members. Perhaps even more reduction in dues can happen as you reach the other lower milestones. I see dues forgiveness happening much earlier than that with incentives for education and understanding of the craft.
There is an argument of, “Well, we are all supposed to be equal and on the level. How can one person have lower dues than another?” For this, I have to say, go back and study what the level actually means. To be on the level means that we all have the same opportunity for advancement and to gain the rights and privileges in the lodge. With that said, any member who strives to chip away or defer the cost of his dues would have the exact opportunity that others would have.
To recap, high cost of dues would act as an immediate deterrent for fly-by-night men who think they will just join on a whim. Men could work their dues cost down. Working their dues cost down would, by default, leave the fraternity with educated men. Educated men, over time, would secure the West gate. With a secure West gate, our fraternity could work back to restoring the status and purpose it is intended for.
Maybe I am completely off base here. What do you think?
(2/23/14: It was brought to my attention that my calculations on Washington’s initiation fee were not exactly accurate. Facebook follower Glenda Ray told me it actually would be about the equivalent of $826 today (1£=12 oz sterling silver in those days) and given that the average American earned less than £30 a year, £3 was more than a month’s wage. I simply used conversion charts that told me today’s pounds to dollars, then used another site that gave me supposed historical inflation rates. Regardless, the point I make is still accurate. We can all agree, the amount paid back in the day was considerably substantial compared to our almost non-existent dues amounts today. Thanks Glenda Ray for the clarification)
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