Thursday, 21 April 2016

There *is* a better way

Someone recently unleashed more than eleven million documents on the world. These came from the Panamanian legal firm Mossack Fonseca. Many of these documents give insights into how people with a lot of money and power hide it away from the taxman and the lawman. Over the last few years, there have been many moves to try to remove banking secrecy and “offshore” tax havens, and this new leak of information from Panama will help reduce both unfairness and dishonest practice. And yet the bulk of mankind do not have spare money to hide away. Indeed many people simply do not have enough money for their basic needs. How can the huge differences in wealth be fair? How do we move away from the situation where some people are so rich, while others seemed destined to stay so poor?

Part of the underlying response must be in the way that we see other human beings. If we thought of mankind as one family, and every person needing help as one of our relations, we might behave differently. Elimination of the extremes of poverty and of wealth is one of the underlying Bahá’í principles. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “The Law of God requires that there should be neither excessive wealth nor excessive poverty.”

Another part of the solution is to devolve more initiative to the local level. Justice for the disadvantaged is impossible if we rely on formulae – sorry, formulas – cooked up centrally. Every individual’s circumstances are unique, with a myriad factors coming into play. The government comes up with ever more complicated attempts to help people from a distance, when what they actually need is help to be close at hand. Bahá’ís envisage the introduction of a new system referred to as the local “storehouse”. Starting at the village level, a proportion of the income generated locally is set aside each year. From this storehouse, farmers and others would have their incomes topped up during bad years, and families whose income falls short of their necessary expenditure would have their money made up from the storehouse. Crucially, the trustees of the storehouse would be local people, and would be in a position to understand the situation each family finds itself in, and would be able to direct all kinds of help.

A similar system would be operated in each town, possibly with trustees at a more local level, rather than centrally for the whole town. In this way, the entire community is involved in the same one exercise of balancing individual incomes: those paying money in, those taking money out and those overseeing the process. There would also, of course, have to be storehouses at regional or national level, which would receive money from areas in surplus and help out areas in real need. And clearly, although the initiative to act would be at the local level, there would be a place for some co-ordination at the global level.

In the Bahá’í view, every adult should be involved in an occupation of some sort – spending one’s life in idleness does not encourage personal growth. There is therefore the responsibility on every individual to look for some sort of honest employment. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, said, “It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like… Waste not your time in idleness and sloth…” At the same time, it is the responsibility of the local authorities to ensure that there is some sort of work for every individual: “It is the duty of those who are in charge of the organisation of society to give every individual the opportunity of acquiring the necessary talent … and also the means of utilising such a talent…”

But the wages of every person employed by others should also be fair. Justice therefore needs to be one of the watchwords of society, and the principle of the oneness of mankind should allow no room for the exploitation of others. All of the above principles need to be established worldwide, because while some parts of the world have such an advantage over others, large numbers of people will continue to see the need to migrate elsewhere, in the hope of a better life. One of the methods that Bahá’ís believe should be used to produce a better balance in personal incomes is that of profit-sharing. Employees in any company should be entitled to a share in the profits as a right, which should be established by law: “reasonable rights of both … parties will be legally fixed … by just and impartial laws.”

No one single measure introduced by itself will produce a total reshaping of the world’s economy, but adopting the goal of mankind becoming one family; adopting the elimination of poverty as a goal; the increase in local responsibility; profit-sharing and a consciousness of justice will together point to a better way.