When calamity strikes, questions concerning the distribution of material resources often follow. The Great Depression gave birth to the New Deal, a series of sweeping government programs and reforms in the United States aimed at immediate economic relief for the “forgotten man.”1Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the “forgotten man” on the eve of his announcing the New Deal. Accessed online from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy (https://bit.ly/3f387Xy) on 9 June 2020. The world wars saw the expansion and consolidation of the modern welfare state via a wave of nationalizations and other measures designed to provide a “cradle-to-grave” safety net in areas like health, education, housing, and retirement benefits. For today’s generation, both the Great Recession of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 exposed great social and economic inequalities and reinvigorated debate as to the causes and consequences of the unequal distribution of economic resources and opportunities. Both crises spurred governments to levels of unprecedented social spending, hundreds of billions to prevent the failure of banks in 2008/9 and hundreds more billions—even trillions—to prevent the grave consequences of mass unemployment in 2020. Yet, notwithstanding renewed interest in the topic and bold government action, and despite the fact that humanity is currently enjoying unprecedented levels of material prosperity, the distribution of material resources—of wealth and income in particular—has grown ever more unequal. In fact, according to one social historian, inequality has, since the Stone Age, always been rising, and only four forces—the “Four Horsemen of Leveling”—have ever managed to lower it: pandemics, mass warfare, revolution, and state collapse. 2Scheidel, Walter, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018). Today, 20 percent of the global income is owned by the richest 1 percent of the world’s population whereas the poorest 50 percent own just 9 percent.3Based on administrative and other data from the World Inequality Database accessed at wid.world The choice thus appears to be either to come to terms with ever rising levels of inequality or hope for disaster. Must it really be so?
The Bahá’í teachings explain that the inordinate disparity between rich and poor is a “source of acute suffering” which “keeps the world in a state of instability.”4Universal House of Justice, letter of October 1985 to the peoples of the world, titled “The Promise of World Peace”. Available at www.bahai.org/r/267204466 Furthermore, the negative consequences of extreme inequality have been documented by scholars of various disciplines. They include social and political instability5Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti, “Income Distribution, Political Instability and Investment,” European Economic Review 40, no.6 (1996):1203-1228. as well as threats to environmental sustainability.6See, for example, the annual reports of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. At the individual level, inequality can lead to shorter, unhealthier, and unhappier lives, including increases in teenage pregnancy, violence, and obesity.7Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
Of course, it is one thing to agree that inequality—at least in its extreme forms—is bad. For a religious person, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of moralizing, on the basis of lofty spiritual principle, perceived or actual inequalities. The far more difficult task is to articulate a coherent conception of what sort of equality is good. This is a challenging question, one with a long philosophical tradition that focuses on such things as equality of opportunity, equality of outcomes, fair versus unfair inequality, and more. The purpose of this article is to stimulate reflection on these matters by setting out a number of principles contained in the Bahá’í teachings related to distributional issues and by connecting these principles to today’s economic conditions. The Bahá’í concept of social change envisions the transformation of human society to be the aggregate of two other interlocking transformations: that of the individual and that in the structures of society. The article, therefore, discusses principles intended to stimulate reflection on both the collective and individual levels and highlights, where possible, potential mechanisms—public policy and political participation, to name just two examples—through which these principles might find practical expression.
In attempting to correlate Bahá’í principles to current economic conditions, this article presents a number of facts concerning the global distribution of income, facts drawn from measures collected by leading academic economists. The interested reader is invited to consult the technical appendix for a more thorough description of what these data measure and the caveats associated with them.
How much is too much?
According to the Bahá’í teachings, the solution to many of the economic problems that afflict humanity appears rather simple: moderation. That is, while some degree of inequality is natural, the Bahá’í teachings unequivocally call for the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of the “equal opportunity of the means of existence” whereby “a rich man is able to live in his palace surrounded by luxury and the greatest comfort” just as a “poor man be able to have the necessaries of life.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/095377521 The “readjustment in the economic conditions of mankind” that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá envisions will be such that
in the future there will not be the abnormally rich nor the abject poor. The rich will enjoy the privilege of this new economic condition as well as the poor, for owing to certain provisions and restrictions they will not be able to accumulate so much as to be burdened by its management, while the poor will be relieved from the stress of want and misery.14‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/841208804
Though seemingly simple, striking the right balance in wealth distribution has proven immensely difficult. Table 1 provides one example of wealth distribution in the richest country of the world, the United States. The table shows how much wealth a family requires to belong to different percentiles of the wealth distribution. The top 1 percent of earners in America consists of just over 1.5 million families. To belong to this group, a family requires $3.9 million; the average wealth of all families in this group stands at $13.8 million. To be counted among the 16,070 families in the top 0.01 percent of the distribution requires a staggering $111 million of wealth. In contrast, there are nearly 145 million families in the bottom 90 percent of the distribution. These families each have, on average, $84,000 in wealth.15Though related, wealth and income are not the same. Wealth typically is more concentrated than income. As the authors of the paper from which the data was taken state: “The top 0.1% wealth share is about as large as the top 1% income share in 2012: by that metric, wealth is ten times more concentrated than income.” Saez, Emmanuel and Zucman, Gabriel. 2016. Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(2), pp.519-578.
To demonize wealth is not the point. Quite the contrary. The Bahá’í teachings not only prohibit asceticism but regard wealth as “praiseworthy in the highest degree” provided it is (a) acquired through honest means and (b) used to advance philanthropic purposes.16‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/753844522 Although the Teachings warn against luxury and excess, Bahá’u’lláh enjoins us to use our wealth as a means to achieve worthy ends. “The best of men,” He writes, “are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds.”17Bahá’u’lláh. The Hidden Words from the Persian No. 82. Available at www.bahai.org/r/002944255 Aside from the prohibition against asceticism, Bahá’ís are also discouraged from adopting austere lifestyles. In response to a letter received on the subject, Bahá’u’lláh writes the following:
Thou hast written that they have pledged themselves to observe maximum austerity in their lives with a view to forwarding the remainder of their income to His exalted presence. This matter was mentioned at His holy court. He said: Let them act with moderation and not impose hardship upon themselves. We would like them both to enjoy a life that is well-pleasing.18Bahá’u’lláh quoted in the compilation entitled Huqúqulláh — The Right of God Selection No. 19. Available at https://bit.ly/3fpYphM
Addressing inequality from the top and bottom
The issue, instead, appears to be one of economic justice based on our interconnectedness. One wonders, for example, to what extent extreme wealth causes, and indeed is a consequence of, extreme poverty and whether policies that allow for the hyper-concentration of wealth simultaneously make it easier for the disadvantaged to fall into destitution. “The welfare of any segment of humanity,” the Universal House of Justice writes, “is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbors.”19Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/934375828 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, moreover, explains that “[w]ealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/753844522
Given the interconnected nature of the human family, efforts to realize a more just distribution of economic resources must be addressed from both the top—by, for example, regulating and limiting the hyper-concentrated accumulation of wealth through taxation and other measures21In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks about the elimination of trusts, for example. Available at Available at www.bahai.org/r/196674493 —and the bottom—via transfers and strong social spending. Calls to unleash economic growth, on the assumption that it automatically translates into an equitable distribution of resources, are unfounded. This is made evident in Figure 2 which plots trends in the share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent of earners in the global income distribution.
The above figure demonstrates two facts: differences in (a) levels and (b) trends between top and bottom earners. With respect to levels, those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution earn, on average, about 10 percentage points more of national income than those in the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution (19 percent for the top 1 percent compared to 9 percent for the bottom 50 percent). In addition, top earners are trending at three times the rate. Between 1980 and 2016, those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution increased their share of national income by 4.4 percentage points, from 16 percent to 20.4 percent. For those in the bottom 50 percent, their share of national income increased by just 1.5 percentage points over the same time period. More than anything, the figure casts significant doubt on the assertion—often used as justification for tax cuts for the wealthy—that rises in income at the very top provide wealth, opportunity, and incentives for those at the bottom. While a rising tide may lift all boats, structuring the economy so as to allow wealth to funnel upwards does not. In brief, economic justice requires that the rules that regulate the economy are fair and not tilted to the benefit of a particular segment of society to reinforce its enrichment.
Collective Choice: The Power of Public Policy
‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts that “there is need of an equalization and apportionment by which all may possess the comforts and privileges of life is evident.” “The remedy,” He explains, “must be legislative readjustment of conditions.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904155405
The power of public policy to shape societies cannot be overstated. Indeed, the mechanism through which society expresses its values as regards to social order is public policy. Economies, however, unlike the natural universe, are not prone to description through a set of universal, immutable laws. They are social constructs. Who participates in them and what values these participants hold matter. This is made evident by three examples.
First, Figure 3 shows the same trends as in Figure 2 but disaggregated to two regions/countries: the United States and Western Europe. The trends are remarkable, as is the contrast between them. In Western Europe, those in the bottom 50 percent of the distribution have claimed, on average, 12 percentage points more of national income than those in the top 1 percent, a complete reversal of the global averages. What is more is that the trends have been relatively stable in the 35 years leading to 2016. In the United States, by contrast, the two series are trending at high rates and in the exact opposite direction. Whereas those in the top 1 percent have seen their share of national income increase from 10 to 20 percent from 1980 to 2016, those in the bottom 50 percent have seen theirs decline from 20 to 13 percent in the same time period. Given that Western Europe and the United States enjoy relatively similar levels of material prosperity, political stability, exposure to globalization, and technological advancement, the trends highlight the role that national policies, institutions, and voter preferences play in shaping the distribution of income.
Second, Figure A.1 in the Appendix shows the evolution of the top 10 percent in a sample of six countries around the world between 1980 and 2016. As shown, there is a steady increase in all countries, though the increases occur at different rates. In India, for example, those in the top 10 percent of the income distribution claimed 24 percentage points more of national income in 2016 (55 percent) as compared to 1980 (31 percent). In the USA and Canada, by contrast, the rise for those in the top 10 percent over the same time period was 13 percentage points; in Europe, the increase was just 4.4 percentage points. The different rates at which top earners accumulate across different countries again underscores the importance of national policies and institutions in shaping the distribution of income. Rising inequality, in other words, is not just an inevitable outcome of impersonal market forces at work.
Finally, Figure 4 provides another example of the strong impact public policy plays in shaping economic outcomes. It plots the changes, in percentage points, in the share of pre-tax national income accruing to the top 1 percent against the change (in percentage points) in the top marginal tax rate between 1960 and 2009 in a sample of 18 OECD countries. As shown, the countries with the steepest declines in top marginal tax rates have also experienced the steepest increases in the share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent. What is more, there “is no statistically significant relationship between the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the rate of productivity growth in the developed countries since 1980.”23Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. pp. 510 In other words, lowering the tax rate of the wealthiest segments of society has had a strong, positive effect on their earnings without stimulating growth and productivity in the wider economy.
Like the other examples in this section, Figure 4 highlights how public policy can shape the economy to achieve a certain social outcome. Different policies will invariably lead to different outcomes. The hyper-concentration of wealth is thus a choice, not an inevitability. “There is no justification,” the House of Justice explains, “for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.”24Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/934375828 Put simply, the moral dimension of the generation, distribution and utilization of material resources implies that policy be designed to serve the interests of all people. Finding novel ways to justify policies that serve the economic interests of the few at the expense of the many is a tendency of humanity’s collective childhood, not its coming of age.
Collective Choice: The Power of Participation
Ensuring that public policy reflects the interests of all people requires participation. “A key characteristic of democracy,” writes Robert Dahl, a prominent political theorist, “is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.”25Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971). One of the ways that governments respond to the preferences of its citizens is by paying attention to who votes. In recent decades, however, the share of people turning out to vote has decreased in many countries. And in many cases, the decline in voting is marked along class lines. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that those who vote are typically better educated, wealthier, and more informed politically than those who abstain, and these very characteristics have been shown to correlate strongly with certain preferences for redistribution, or the lack of it.26See, for example, Valentino Larcinese, “Voting over Redistribution and the Size of the Welfare State: The Role of Turnout,” Political Studies 55 (2007):568-585; Martin Gilens, “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” Public Opinion Quarterly 69, no. 5(2005): 778-796; Benjamen I. Page et al, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 1(2013): 51-73.
Falling rates of voter turnout, therefore, imply that the preferences of wealthy individuals are over-represented in relation to those of the population in general, which places less pressure on public policy for redistribution. In line with this thinking, academic scholarship has shown a rather robust relationship between the rate of voter turnout and the size of government spending on redistributive policies. These studies have found that higher turnout across countries leads, among other things, to higher top marginal tax rates,27Navid Sabet, “Turning Out for Redistribution: The Effect of Voter Turnout on Top Marginal Tax Rates,” Munich Discussion Paper no. 2016-13 (University of Munich, Department of Economics, 2016). Accessed 22 August 2020: https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/72625/ welfare expenditure and the political leaning of the party in power,28Alexander M. Hicks and Duane H. Swank, “Politics, Institutions, and Welfare Spending in Industrialised Democracies, 1960-1982,” American Political Science Review 86, no. 3 (1992): 658–674. and social spending in non-welfare categories such as education and health.29Peter H. Lindert, “What Limits Social Spending?” Explorations in Economic History 33 (1996):1–34. Within countries, various episodes of voter enfranchisement have been studied to show that governments systematically target resources to serve the economic interests of the newly enfranchised group. This appears to be true of African Americans,30Elizabeth U. Cascio and Ebonya L. Washington, “Valuing the Vote: The Redistribution of Voting Rights and State Funds Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 129, no.1(2914):379-433. women,31Grant Miller, “Women’s Suffrage, Political Responsiveness, and Child Survival in American History,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no.3 (2008):1287–1327. lesser educated citizens,32Thomas Fujiwara, “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil,” Econometrica 83, no. 2 (2015): 423–464. and undocumented migrants.33Navid Sabet and Christoph Winter, 2019. “Legal Status and Local Spending: The Distributional Consequences of the 1986 IRCA,” CESifo Working Paper Series No. 7611, CESifo. Accessed 22 August 2020: https://www.cesifo.org/DocDL/cesifo1_wp7611_0.pdf
Put plainly, if those with lower incomes participate less in political processes, then public economic policy is likely to be less responsive to their preferences. Measures to broaden participation in political processes can help ensure that markets are structured to serve the interests of all people. In this respect, it is interesting to note that less than 100 years ago, many industrialized nations had tax rates well over 70 percent. Germany, for example, experienced top marginal tax rates as high as 75 percent in the early 1950s and a 90 percent rate in the late 1940s. 34Piketty, Capital, 2014 The United Kingdom set top income tax rates as high as 98 percent in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, while the United States levied a 91 percent tax on top incomes in the 1950s and 1960s and then relaxed the rate to 70 percent or more throughout the 1970s.35Ibid Figure A.2 in the Appendix shows trends in voter turnout and top marginal tax rates in the countries that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As shown, higher turnout in the 70s corresponded with much higher top marginal tax rates. Since that time, both series have trended significantly downward.
Of course, the foregoing discussion highlights the important role of political participation—electoral participation in particular—in shaping economic outcomes. It goes without saying that this is but one form of participation that we may be interested in. Moreover, the empirical evidence cited demonstrates the correlation between rates of electoral participation and various economic outcomes. In addition to strengthening participation in this way, raising the quality of participation is another issue to consider. Perhaps one of the strongest measures to take in this regard is improving education and access to knowledge. In this respect, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that “[p]ublic opinion must be directed toward whatever is worthy of this day”. Accordingly, He explains: “It is therefore urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society” and these thoughts “should be published and spread throughout the nation, so that at least the leaders among the people should become, to some degree, awakened, and arise to exert themselves along those lines which will lead to their abiding honor”. “The publication of high thoughts” He moreover explains “is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world.”36‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/226587004
To the extent that ends ought to be consistent with means, achieving moderate social and economic outcomes must be achieved through moderate policy. In this respect, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls on the governments of the world to unite and form an assembly to deliberate on the distribution of resources and to enact regulations in such a way that “neither the capitalists suffer from enormous losses nor the laborers become needy. In the utmost moderation they should make the law.”37‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/052723345
It is preferable, then, that some measure of moderation be achieved, and by moderation is meant the enactment of such laws and regulations as would prevent the unwarranted concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and satisfy the essential needs of the many. For instance, the factory owners reap a fortune every day, but the wage the poor workers are paid cannot even meet their daily needs: This is most unfair, and assuredly no just man can accept it. Therefore, laws and regulations should be enacted which would grant the workers both a daily wage and a share in a fourth or fifth of the profits of the factory in accordance with its means, or which would have the workers equitably share in some other way in the profits with the owners. For the capital and the management come from the latter and the toil and labour from the former. The workers could either be granted a wage that adequately meets their daily needs, as well as a right to a share in the revenues of the factory when they are injured, incapacitated, or unable to work, or else a wage could be set that allows the workers to both satisfy their daily needs and save a little for times of weakness and incapacity.38‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Some Answered Questions, No. 78. Available at www.bahai.org/r/389724725
One potential measure outlined here is profit sharing—sharing between a fourth to a fifth of the profits of the factory “in accordance with its means”—as part of a nation’s “laws and regulations.” Another is setting wages according to need, not just market prices; a subtle but significant change from today’s practices.
Other proposals ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers include progressive taxation based on needs. He writes, for example, that
[e]ach person in the community whose income is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs, he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man’s capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation. If his production exceeds he will pay a tax; if his necessities exceed his production he shall receive an amount sufficient to equalize or adjust. Therefore, taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production and there will be no poor in the community.39‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 217. In other writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá provides examples where, depending on an individual’s surplus, they may be taxed anywhere between 25 and 50 percent. Available at www.bahai.org/r/828752876
Today, the majority of government revenues come from individual income taxes. Interestingly, in many countries, individuals have become richer while their governments have become poorer, as reflected in the net share of public and private capital held in each country (see, for example, Figure A.3 in the Appendix). To illustrate, consider the case of Germany. In 2015, the value of net public wealth (i.e., public capital) stood at 18 percent of national income. Private wealth, on the other hand, stood at over 420 percent of national income. By way of comparison, net public wealth in the United States in 2015 was -17 percent of national income, whereas private capital stood at over 500 percent.
This unequal ownership of capital—between private citizens and the state—may also explain rising inequality. In the 1980s, there were demonstrably large transfers of public to private wealth in nearly all countries. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries. Arguably this limits the ability of governments to tackle inequality. But more than that, it eats away at things like trust and social cohesion, so essential for a stable, prosperous society. When governments, that is, consistently take more from the poor than the rich, establishing and maintaining trust in public institutions becomes increasingly difficult.
The idea is not to punish wealth but to avoid the privatization—and hence polarization—of society, whereby only those with means can afford things like quality education and healthcare. The solution called for by a number of progressive economists includes a combination of policies aimed at, on the one hand, redistribution—for example, a steeply progressive tax not just on income but on wealth and effective corporate taxation strategies to curb tax avoidance—and, on the other, pre-distribution—that is, sufficient social spending to fund a modern, social welfare state with strong investments in education and healthcare to ensure everyone has an equal chance to succeed, as well as labor market regulations that do not allow for extreme wage dispersion.40For an example in the case of the United States, see Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019).
Aspiring as Individuals Towards a Just Economy
The market economy has, in some respects, led to wonders in human coordination. That products, the constituent parts of which may come from a variety of different countries, can be delivered to one’s doorstep within days of ordering speaks to humanity’s capacity to innovate, create, and manage higher and higher levels of complexity. Such systems, although not without serious shortcomings, merit praise, not condemnation.
At the same time, many societies are organized so as to place economic growth as the central, dominating process of human life, to the point where all other processes are subordinated to it. Organizing society to serve the needs of the economy has had significant consequences for the way we understand human nature and human relationships. Achieving a deeply just social order will thus require more than just a few cosmetic changes—as vital and essential as they may be—to the way taxes are set and who receives which transfers. It also requires a fundamental examination of the ways in which market-embedded societies have influenced our understanding of human nature and our relationships—to one another and to the market—and an effort to reconstruct those relationships in light of spiritual principle.
Consider the example of consumption. It is no secret that one of the deliberate goals of the global development effort of the 20th century was to push the developing nations of the world through a “set” of development “stages” culminating in the “age of high mass-consumption.”41Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). To sustain high levels of economic growth, great attention was given to ensuring that people turn to the market not just to satisfy needs but to fulfill wants. Influential economists, many of whom provided the intellectual support for major policy reform aimed at economic expansion, were explicit in their intentions to stimulate and expand people’s wants. The idea put forward at the time was that “wants are limited because the goods one knows about and can use are limited.”42Arthur Lewis, The Theory of Economic Growth (1955; Reprinted in 2003 by Routledge). Increase people’s wants, and their consumption—and hence demand for economic goods and services—will increase. Thus, the key for societies, therefore, lay in spreading knowledge of new goods among the populace since this was “the key to the expansion of wants.”43Ibid
For those concerned about a viable, sustainable future, the line of demarcation between needs and wants is a profound one, with serious implications for the economy. Satisfying the needs of an individual whose main purpose in life is to serve others in an effort to contribute to a more just society will call for a very different set of economic arrangements than those required to satisfy individuals who, influenced by sources of propaganda and advertisement, are led to discover new “needs” every day. The words of Bahá’u’lláh leave a penetrating influence:
O Son of Man! Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My knowledge, and that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine?44Bahá’u’lláh. The Hidden Words from the Arabic No. 56. Available at www.bahai.org/r/748392247
Of course, the discussion of needs and wants necessarily comes with a number of caveats. For one, there is no universal set of needs applicable to all people at all times: Different people have different needs and indeed the same person will likely have different needs at different points in his or her life. For another, needs can also be considered in terms of their quantity and degree. One may require a suit for his or her profession. But how many suits are needed? And does one need a suit with a designer brand when a suit of similar quality and look without the label would suffice just as well? Of course, this is not to say that only legitimate needs are good and that all forms of desire are bad. It is just that without reflection on our consumption habits, we may be prone to encourage the worst tendencies of the market while foregoing opportunities to refine our higher nature. More than anything, the issue appears to be one of awareness: How conscious are we of what we consume and why? Ultimately, the House of Justice explains, “Managing one’s financial affairs in accordance with spiritual principles is an indispensable dimension of a life lived coherently. It is a matter of conscience, a way in which commitment to the betterment of the world is translated into practice.”45Universal House of Justice, letter of 29 December 2015 to the Conference of the Continental Board of Counsellors. Available at www.bahai.org/r/521400059
Human compassion and love
Evaluating the worth of a person by his or her economic status is another tendency that a society focused on acquisition promotes, and a tendency we would need to do away with in an effort to build an economy based on spiritual principle. “To view the worth of an individual,” the House of Justice clearly writes, “chiefly in terms of how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others is wholly alien to Bahá’í thought.”46Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/476802933 This has implications for our attitude towards the poor. “No deed of man is greater before God,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “than helping the poor. Each one of you must have great consideration for the poor and render them assistance.”47‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/305820706 In addition to legal codes and regulations, then, those with means are called upon to be “merciful to the poor” and to contribute “from willing hearts to their needs without being forced or compelled to do so.”48Ibid. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904155405 Achieving this level of compassion requires love. He writes, for example:
Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.49Ibid. Available at www.bahai.org/r/978851230
Introducing such ideas into contemporary discourse may seem difficult. In trying, it is helpful to note that these ideals have received intellectual support for many years. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, Adam Smith draws on these elements of our nature in an effort to offer a sweeping account of moral philosophy that underpinned much of his economic thinking. For example, he writes that “[m]an naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.” Moreover, he explains:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.50Smith, Adam. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 2010 Penguin Classics edition.
These ideals are also supported by empirical evidence. One influential economic article notes, for example, that
[a]lmost all economic models assume that all people are exclusively pursuing their material self-interest and do not care about “social” goals per se. This may be true for some (maybe many) people, but it is certainly not true for everybody. By now we have substantial evidence suggesting that fairness motives affect the behavior of many people.51Ernest Fehr and Klaus M. Schmidt, “A Theory of Fairness, Competition and Cooperation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 114, no.3 (1999):817-868.
In recent decades, the economics of altruism have flourished, and there are many examples that show human beings to be more than the calculating, self-interested being that initial, primitive models suggest. There is evidence that demonstrates we are motivated as much by considerations of fairness and cooperation as we are by selfish ones. Being motivated by considerations of love and compassion will surely be added to the list.
As it relates to the distribution of economic resources, then, an economy based on the principles of justice and equity does not object to efforts to improve material conditions or to increase wealth and income. The objection is that such efforts have come at the expense of an expanded view of human nature that includes a spiritual dimension. Markets, this article has argued, are social constructs. The policies we choose matter. The candidates we elect matter. The goods and services we consume matter. The understanding we have of human nature and of the purpose of our existence matters. All these things have significant cumulative effects on the way that markets, and their outcomes, are structured. “Every choice a Bahá’í makes,” the House of Justice clearly explains, “leaves a trace, and the moral duty to lead a coherent life demands that one’s economic decisions be in accordance with lofty ideals.”52Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904550633 Through moderate yet bold legislative adjustment and a spiritually awakened populace, it is possible for material and spiritual prosperity to coexist.
It is often assumed that income inequality is caused by the operation of impersonal market forces, the like of which include wages, advances in technology, increased market competition, and the rising returns of individual investments in education. While there is little doubt about the pivotal role economic forces play in generating and distributing wealth, economic rationale alone cannot explain income disparities that are everywhere occurring as a result of the gross accumulation of wealth by those at the very top of the income distribution. Fostering economic justice requires a spirit of charity, to be sure, based on an understanding of our inherent interconnectedness as a human family. But it also requires strong institutional arrangements that prevent people from over-accumulating at the top and under-accumulating at the bottom.
Measuring Income and Wealth
This article has used three types of inequality rather interchangeably, namely, economic inequality, income inequality, and wealth inequality. Although the basic conclusions of the article are insensitive to which measure is used, the interested reader may be curious to know more precise definitions for each.
Economic inequality vs. income inequality
It is acknowledged that income inequality is but one of many inequalities that we may be concerned about, including non-economic ones. Even within the economic realm, economic inequality is a rather broad concept referring to non-income related inequalities. Amartya Sen makes an argument to distinguish between narrow forms of inequality based on income and broader forms of economic inequality. As he puts it:
The argument for shifting our attention from income inequality to economic inequality relates to the presence of causal influences on individual well-being and freedom that are economic in nature but that are not captured by the simple statistics of incomes and commodity holdings.53Amartya K. Sen, “From Income Inequality to Economic Inequality,” Southern Economic Journal 64, no. 2 (1997):383-401.
He lists influences such as environmental diversities, variations in social climate, personal heterogeneity (disabilities, illness etc.), and distributions within households as examples of how economic inequality is broader than simple measures of disparity in income. Although related, the facts and figures discussed in this article are more concerned with wealth and income inequality rather than broader measures of economic inequality.
Income and wealth: What is the difference?
Most of the facts and figures under discussion are related to income inequality, which includes the component parts of income from labor (i.e., wages), income derived from wealth (i.e., profits and capital gains), and inequality derived from expenditure on consumption. There are two issues to bear in mind with this measure. First, the income figures presented measure pre-taxincome. In some sense, then, the figures present inequality as generated by the market economy but do not reflect the efforts of states, via measures like taxes and transfers, to correct for inequalities. A second issue is that taxable income does not enjoy a uniform definition. Different nations count taxable income slightly differently—indeed, the same country may count it differently at different points in its development—and no adjustments are made to account for any potential discrepancies.
There is also the issue of wealth inequality, which typically refers to inequality in things like land-holdings and property, financial assets, capital stock, and so on. Wealth is harder to measure than income, and thus most discussions on inequality refer to income inequality. Nonetheless, wealth and income are highly correlated and wealth is usually much more concentrated than income. As Piketty explains:
There are important differences between income and wealth inequality dynamics, however. First, we stress that wealth concentration is always much higher than income concentration. The top decile wealth share typically falls in the 60 to 90% range, whereas the top decile income share is in the 30% to 50% range. Even more striking, the bottom 50% wealth share is always less than 5%, whereas the bottom 50% income share generally falls in the 20 to 30% range. The bottom half of the population hardly owns any wealth, but it does earn appreciable income: On average, members of the bottom half of the population (wealth-wise) own less than one-tenth of the average wealth, while members of the bottom half of the population (income-wise) earn about half the average income.
In sum, the concentration of capital ownership is always extreme, so that the very notion of capital is fairly abstract for large segments—if not the majority—of the population. The inequality of labor income can be high, but it is usually much less extreme. It is also less controversial, partly because it is viewed as more merit-based. Whether this is justified is a highly complex and debated issue to which we later return.54Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Inequality in the Long Run,” Science 34, no.6168 (2014): 838-843.
Measuring income and wealth
There are, by and large, two predominant methods to measure the distribution of income. The first relies on an index called the gini coefficient and is derived primarily through household survey information. The second, arguably more reliable measure which has recently been championed by a number of prominent economists, relies on a combination of data from national income and wealth accounts, fiscal data coming from taxes on income and, to an extent, household income and wealth surveys. All of the facts and figures presented here are based on this measure of distribution—unless otherwise stated—and are taken from the World Inequality Database which can be accessed at wid.world.
In the last several decades, debates around the globe have intensified about the place of governments in safeguarding the welfare of their people. On one end of the spectrum have been those arguing that the state’s role in this enterprise should be absolute. They would say that, as the ultimate representative of the people, public institutions bear full responsibility to create universal systems to meet all social needs, and that leaving such concerns to the private and non-governmental realm can only result in piecemeal programming, profiteering from essential services, and people falling through the cracks. On the other end of the spectrum are those that have argued that government is inevitably inefficient, corrupt, and prone to stifling the transformative ingenuity generated by market forces, the freedom of altruistic individual initiative, and the responsiveness of grassroots community action. As such, the needs of society, they would say, can be best met by minimizing the size and scope of government, with an understanding that this leads to robust economic growth and the flourishing of non-governmental organizations and charities able to respond directly to local needs and provide support for the most disadvantaged. These debates, of course, have not just played out in academic and philosophical arenas, but have had a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of all people.
At present, a frenetic pace of change in countless spheres—from economics to climate, from technology to demographics—has fed a mounting sense of uncertainty. In every corner of the globe, growing masses live in precarious social conditions and governments find themselves paralyzed by disputes about their responsibility and capacity to respond. Despite the many achievements brought about by the prevailing sociopolitical order, its legitimacy is increasingly called into question. There is thus a crying need for a renewed vision of the place of public institutions in providing for social well-being.
As with many subjects involving extremes of perspective, instead of one side “winning” the ideological debate and attempting to impose itself, arriving at a lasting solution would seem to require a more moderate approach. The sustainability of any set of social arrangements depends on the degree to which genuine consensus is built. In this connection, the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, together with the Bahá’í community’s emergent reconceptualization of the relationships between individuals, communities, and institutions, provide new vantage points from which to understand and begin to address current political impasses. Moreover, the writings and recorded utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offer numerous insights on the subject of government’s responsibilities and proper functioning. Disclosing glimpses of a world in which institutions and people work in concert for societal well-being, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words illuminate a way forward characterized not by compromise between competing claims but by their reconciliation and harmonization.
The Emergence of the Modern Welfare State
In his seminal 1776 work An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that among a sovereign’s central obligations was “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain”. These, he suggested, could not reasonably be established by a private interest because any profit they might generate could never repay the expense incurred, but they “may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”1Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books IV-V (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 310.
Smith, the so-called father of capitalism, was first and foremost a moral philosopher, and his concern was not only explaining the dynamics of the new political economy. He also pointed to the ethical implications of nascent capitalism—both in terms of the system’s potential pitfalls and the social norms required for its proper functioning. As Smith saw markets as human constructions whose ultimate purpose was to serve the public good, in many of his writings, he designated a central role to government in safeguarding markets through considered regulation and in making provisions to ensure social well-being.2Smith leveled harsh criticisms against the actions and motivations of the employer “order”, saying that its interests were “never exactly the same with that of the public” and it generally had “an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III, London: Penguin, 1999, p. 359). He also advocated higher taxation on the rich, especially on those deriving and maintaining their wealth from rents, and displayed a deep concern for the soul-crushing effects of laborers having to engage in mindless, repetitive work (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books IV-V, London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 368-434).
In a sense, Smith’s comments on the place of public institutions in society presaged a set of ideological contests that would shape the modern world. For thousands of years, human beings have debated the role of those in power to regulate individual action and provide for social needs. But these questions came into much sharper relief in the last two centuries as a result of the revolution of industrial capitalism in Europe and a variety of attendant developments. As a new age of material and technological abundance dawned, population levels grew and cities swelled with the rural peasantry entering the urban labor force. Millennia-old communal and familial arrangements for ensuring collective well-being were disrupted, and governments were increasingly expected to fill the gaps.
In the fertile soil of the political upheavals of the day and the mounting discontent with the new miseries produced by the industrial economic order, an array of European thinkers and activists developed the modern ideas of socialism and communism. While the specifics and ambition of their proposals varied greatly, they generally called for the collective ownership of the means of production as an antidote to what they saw as the exploitative capitalist system. In such schemas, the society as a whole would be the primary owner of the resources of economic life, and this ownership would be administered either by the state, by workers groups, or through some other collective framework. These ideas achieved their highest and most influential expression in the work of German philosopher Karl Marx, whose writings would provide the ideological and theoretical foundations for numerous movements and revolutions in the century to come. The most significant of these was undoubtedly the Russian Revolution of 1917 that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union—as this state would serve as the standard-bearer of international socialism and sociopolitical challenger to the Western capitalist order during most of the twentieth century.
But well before the rivalry between the capitalist and socialist camps erupted on the global stage, there were attempts to reconcile their respective aspirations and appease differing factions through hybrid systems. Tracing its origins to late nineteenth century Germany, the modern welfare state emerged through this process. Under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm I and his “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the newly-united German nation implemented a series of policies designed to undermine the threat of socialism by meeting the social needs of the working class. The measures included health and accident insurance, an old-age pension program, and worker protection regulations.
Over the course of the early twentieth century, industrialized countries followed Germany’s lead and began expanding government’s involvement in social welfare. As with Bismarck’s government, many states faced the accusation that they were the defenders of a system that benefited the few at the expense of the suffering masses, and they therefore enacted measures to deliver essential services and curb the worst inequities. As humanity was rocked by world wars and the Great Depression, many wealthy nations established universal and targeted systems to provide healthcare, education, unemployment and disability benefits, pensions, childcare, and other public services. This was bolstered by the influential work of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated increased public spending and government taking a more active role in the market and national employment levels.3In view of this discussion, it is interesting to note that John Maynard Keynes once famously commented: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else” (John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London: Macmillan, 1936, p. 383). Moreover, following the conclusion of World War II and the emergence of the Cold War between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, the capitalist West sought to demonstrate not only its military supremacy to the socialist East but also its superiority in delivering broad-based prosperity to its citizens. In this context, by the middle of the century, the welfare state—with varying degrees of comprehensiveness—had become the norm in high-income capitalist countries, and increasingly in poorer countries as well.
However, by the 1970s, the proposition that government ought to serve as the principal arbiter in ensuring social welfare, a proposition that seemed to have attained broad consensus, was eroding. The size and scope of most governments had expanded significantly in the decades prior, and a growing chorus of economists, led by Milton Friedman, argued that underwriting large, bureaucratic states was hamstringing private interests and impeding economic growth. Moreover, in the global ideological and geopolitical contest between capitalism and socialism, capitalism had gained the upper hand. As awareness grew about the atrocities occurring in the Soviet Union and cynicism rose about the failures of other revolutionary social movements to achieve their goals or even abide by their noble ideals, market economies were proving themselves more capable of delivering prosperity than planned economies. In this context, the capitalist governments of the world felt less and less pressure to prove their capacity to provide for social well-being.
The twilight of the Cold War witnessed the ascendance of so-called “neoliberalism”. Led by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, and prescribed to many developing economies, this economic vision entailed lowering taxes, privatizing state enterprises, deregulating markets, and promoting economic globalization through the reduction of national barriers to trade and investment. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the implementation of such measures—combined with the forces of globalization—had succeeded in restructuring the relationship between many citizens and their national governments.4Even China, the last major flag-bearer of international socialism, had introduced in the preceding years a series of transformative economic reforms, leading to its signature “socialist market economy” and the eventual lifting of 850 million citizens out of poverty (World Bank website, “The World Bank in China”: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview, accessed 25 January 2020). In this context, one prominent thinker proclaimed the “end of history”, asserting that humanity had reached the end of its ideological evolution with Western-style liberal democracy upholding a free-market economic system triumphing as “the final form of human government”.5Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, no. 16, 1989. Fukuyama later expanded this article into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, even as the liberal-democratic capitalist order remained ascendant on the global stage, there were increasing signs of an undercurrent of discontent. Resurgent and often deadly forces of religious fanaticism and ethno-nationalism, skyrocketing economic inequality, and the booms and busts inherent to the system dashed much of the optimism of the period immediately following the Cold War. Building on earlier traditions of distrust in government stewardship, this once-simmering dissatisfaction with political and economic elites began erupting to the surface.
As a result, humanity currently finds itself at a juncture of paradox and precarity. Despite objective gains in many metrics of human well-being in recent decades, large numbers of people perceive their lives and the world in general as becoming worse.6Max Roser, “Most of us are wrong about how the world has changed (especially those who are pessimistic about the future)”, Our World in Data, 27 July 2018: https://ourworldindata.org/wrong-about-the-world, accessed 25 January 2020. Rich and poor countries alike are experiencing ever more uncertainty amidst unending transformations in the spheres of technology and employment, waves of internal and international migration, disasters precipitated by changes in the climate, and the havoc wreaked by global pandemics. In a world in which the notion of “disruption” itself is lauded as a social good, a growing number of citizens clamor for greater social stability.
However, there is a lack of clarity about from where this salve should come. Governments, the traditional purveyors of societal security, are externally looked upon with suspicion and are internally divided as to their responsibilities. Crises of faith in public institutions are everywhere apparent as society demonstrates itself bereft of a shared vision on this front.
The Bahá’í Perspective on Government Providing for Social Well-Being
In the nineteenth century, as the modern world was being forged by economic and political upheavals in Europe’s centers of power, another set of developments was agitating the status quo in sites across the Middle East. In 1863, one month before the founding of the world’s first socialist party,7Ferdinand Lassalle, the originator of the idea of “state socialism,” founded the General German Workers’ Association on 23 May 1863. In contrast to Marx, who saw the state as an apparatus for maintaining existing class structures, Lassalle considered the state to be independent of class allegiances, a potential instrument of justice, and therefore essential to establishing socialism (Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, p. 59). Bahá’u’lláh inaugurated a new chapter in a transformative movement that had been building for decades.
In the unassuming setting of a garden north of Baghdad, Bahá’u’lláh declared that humanity was entering a new stage in its history and, over the course of the next several decades, gradually outlined a comprehensive assessment of the world’s contemporary condition. He indicated that humankind stood at the cusp of its collective maturity and that the upheavals into which it had fallen were symptomatic of a turbulent adolescence. As such, the world was in need of new social tools and reinvigorated spiritual principles to give up outdated modes of social organization based on greed, conflict, and particularistic thinking and embrace a new ethic of reciprocity, collaboration, and universality. Bahá’u’lláh expressed that on the other side of this transitional period would be a peaceful and prosperous global civilization, but that it would be humanity’s responsibility to construct this new world.
In this connection, the Bahá’í writings contain many insights for the restructuring of governance and social organization. Beginning in 1867, Bahá’u’lláh wrote to the kings and rulers of the world—including Emperor Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Tsar Alexander II, and Pope Pius IX—admonishing them to abandon wasteful and self-serving endeavors and dedicate their energies to the well-being of their citizens.8These messages are compiled in the book Summons of the Lord of Hosts. And in 1875, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá anonymously directed a treatise to the rulers and people of Persia, which laid out the practical and moral requirements for the nation to overcome its degraded condition and achieve prosperity.
Later published under the title The Secret of Divine Civilization, this unequaled work on the interplay of spiritual principle and political economy spoke to a nation struggling to enter the modern era. At a time when the Shah had publicly “resolved to bring about the advancement of the Persian people, their welfare and security and the prosperity of their country,”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 5. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advised the country’s leaders to look to the rest of the world and learn from others’ breakthroughs in science and public administration. By abandoning their cultural and religious biases, particularly concerning the West, and earnestly seeking knowledge and insight from whatever source it might come, they could overcome the country’s stagnation. For ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a society characterized by the technological and institutional advancement of the West and the spiritual devotion of the East would be the envy of the world.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s call for national upliftment was directed at the entire society. Pointing to a reciprocal relationship between people and government, He indicated that the nation at every level was in need of education and a regeneration of moral principle grounded in spiritual conviction.10‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that Persia’s “people must make a massive effort” and that “[c]lose investigation will show that the primary cause of oppression and injustice, of unrighteousness, irregularity and disorder, is the people’s lack of religious faith and the fact that they are uneducated. When, for example, the people are genuinely religious and are literate and well-schooled, and a difficulty presents itself, they can apply to the local authorities; if they do not meet with justice and secure their rights and if they see that the conduct of the local government is incompatible with the divine good pleasure and the king’s justice, they can then take their case to higher courts and describe the deviation of the local administration from the spiritual law. Those courts can then send for the local records of the case and in this way justice will be done. At present, however, because of their inadequate schooling, most of the population lack even the vocabulary to explain what they want” (Ibid., pp. 10-18). Moreover, provision had to be made for the well-being of all people, particularly the downtrodden, but The Secret of Divine Civilization does not stipulate categorically from where it should come. The source of public welfare is given less import than the assurance that the people’s needs are met. For instance, with regard to the capacity of individual initiative to promote the common good, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá discusses the prospect of a prosperous and enlightened person using his or her wealth to transform the fortunes of the generality of the people. He states:
Above all, if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, and it would rank in the sight of God as the supreme achievement, for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude.11Ibid., p. 24.
But while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes clear the duty of every individual to be “a source of social good”,12Ibid., p. 2. He nevertheless places the ultimate responsibility for social well-being on government and leadership. It is the “monarch”, He says, “on whose high resolve the welfare of all his subjects depends.” 13Ibid., p. 11. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the obligation of a leader to view his or her work as an act of service and to “consider the welfare of the community as one’s own” (Ibid., p. 39). At the core of The Secret of Divine Civilization is a call for authorities to abandon self-interest and act with moral rectitude. He writes that “any agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind’s greatest good, is capable of misuse. Its proper use or abuse depends on the varying degrees of enlightenment, capacity, faith, honesty, devotion, and high-mindedness of the leaders of public opinion.”14Ibid., p. 23. On a policy level, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identified the widespread practice of bribery among Persian government officials, known “by the pleasant names of gifts and favors,” and asserted that such behavior could in part be curbed by relieving provincial authorities of the corrupting influence of “absolute authority” (Ibid., p. 15).
On this note, while The Secret of Divine Civilization highlights a number of practical considerations for the building of a materially and spiritually prosperous society, it is primarily concerned with establishing the social norms on which the project can be sustainably undertaken. The same can be said of the Bahá’í teachings more generally. The Bahá’í Faith does not put forward a blueprint for a new sociopolitical system, but rather calls for the development of new modes of social engagement and collective decision-making capable of giving rise to such a system. In the Bahá’í view, without a renewal of attitudes and qualities such as compassion, selflessness, and fairmindedness at the individual and collective levels, the idea of erecting just social structures is a chimera.
Although the Bahá’í writings do not advance technical policy prescriptions, they nevertheless offer glimpses of some practical arrangements of a society befitting a humanity that has come of age. What follows are a number of these interconnecting guiding lines. At the outset, it should be noted that the implication here is not that there is a particular model to be realized but rather that there are multiple ways to arrive at the same social outcome. Different governments may adopt different approaches to respond to the unique realities and social needs of their people—though by embracing a posture of learning, they can continually gain insight from one another’s advances and adjust their approaches accordingly. Nevertheless, the Faith does make clear that there are certain social thresholds below which it is immoral to let any member of the human family fall—and others which it is likewise immoral to surpass. As such, certain principles on governance and social welfare might well be regarded as universal. On this note, it should also be stressed that the topics addressed below do not represent a comprehensive treatment of the Bahá’í perspective on the subject. While the Bahá’í teachings emphasize an integrated vision of human well-being and contain countless insights on questions ranging from education to health to societal cohesion, the guiding lines that follow focus on issues related to economic conditions.
Elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty
One of the most widely discussed subjects in the world today is income inequality. For this reason, few of the social teachings of the Bahá’í Faith seem as relevant now as the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty. This cardinal Bahá’í principle recurs, in particular, throughout the writings and recorded utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was emphatic as to the grave injustice of extreme inequality and its destabilizing effect on society. Not to be confused with complete equalization, which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would go against nature and result in “chaos” and “universal disappointment”,15‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 273-274. He describes the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty in this way:
Certainly, some being enormously rich and others lamentably poor, an organization is necessary to control and improve this state of affairs. It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good. To be seated in the mean is most desirable. If it be right for a capitalist to possess a large fortune, it is equally just that his workman should have a sufficient means of existence.16‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 152. In another instance, He affirms: “Consider an individual who has amassed treasures by colonizing a country for his profit: he has obtained an incomparable fortune and has secured profits and incomes which flow like a river, while a hundred thousand unfortunate people, weak and powerless, are in need of a mouthful of bread. There is neither equality nor benevolence. So you see that general peace and joy are destroyed, and the welfare of humanity is negated to such an extent as to make fruitless the lives of many. For fortune, honors, commerce, industry are in the hands of some industrialists, while other people are submitted to quite a series of difficulties and to limitless troubles: they have neither advantages, nor profits, nor comforts, nor peace” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 273-274).
It bears noting that at the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made this statement in Paris in 1911, the Western world was experiencing a period of heightened inequality.For example, when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the subject again in New York City in 1912, it is estimated that the top 1% of earners in the United States were taking in nearly a fifth of the nation’s income. This figure fell substantially in subsequent decades but has rebounded and been surpassed in recent years.17Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, “Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States”, NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2016: https://www.nber.org/papers/w22945.pdf, accessed 25 January 2020 In many ways, present-day economic conditions are the same as those to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke, with extremes of wealth and poverty that are difficult to fathom.18It has been reported that in 2009 the combined wealth of the world’s 380 richest people equaled that of the poorest 50% of the planet’s population—that is, more than three and a half billion people—but by 2019 the disparity had grown significantly, with just 26 individuals having as much as the poorest half of the world (Larry Elliott, “World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%, says Oxfam”, The Guardian, 21 January 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/21/world-26-richest-people-own-as-much-as-poorest-50-per-cent-oxfam-report, accessed 25 January 2020). Such a skewed distribution of resources not only has countless deleterious effects on the ability of those living in poverty to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives, but has been shown to be detrimental to the entirety of society—including to the wealthy.19See, for example, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Penguin, 2010). Addressing this imbalance thus represents one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. The question, of course, is how. And on this front, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points to regulatory and legislative means:
There must be special laws made, dealing with these extremes of riches and of want. The members of the Government should consider the laws of God when they are framing plans for the ruling of the people. The general rights of mankind must be guarded and preserved…. The government of the countries should conform to the Divine Law which gives equal justice to all. This is the only way in which the deplorable superfluity of great wealth and miserable, demoralizing, degrading poverty can be abolished.20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 152.
In utterances like this and many others, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lays the responsibility of correcting the imbalance of extreme inequality on government. He repeatedly states that the “remedy must be legislative readjustment of conditions”,21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107. as such laws represent the “greatest means” for promoting social equity.22Ibid., p. 216.
Taxation and voluntary giving
When speaking of legislative action to foster social equity, the most often cited means is progressive taxation. Since the first modern income taxes were levied in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century,23The tax was introduced in 1799 to fund the growing war against Napoleon. It required all annual incomes over £200 to be taxed at a rate of 10% and incomes between £60 and £200 to be taxed at a graduated rate from less than 1% to 10%; incomes below £60 were not taxed (Parliament of the United Kingdom website, “War and the coming of income tax”: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/taxation/overview/incometax/, accessed 25 January 2020). the notion that taxpayers ought to pay incrementally greater percentages of their income or wealth based on what they have and what they earn has become commonplace. In recent years, in the context of growing levels of inequality, leading economists have proposed aggressively redistributive tax rates to try to limit the concentration of wealth among a small few. This, they contend, would lead to a more equitable circulation of resources and curb the social and economic instability caused by extreme inequality.24In the landmark 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, for example, Thomas Piketty proposes an annual global wealth tax of up to 2% and a progressive income tax up to 80% for the very highest earners. A century ago, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also laid out a schema for progressive taxation. Writing that the “question of economics must commence with the farmer and then be extended to the other classes” as “the farmer is the first active agent in human society”, He describes a system for the collection of taxes in a village and their payment to a community “storehouse”.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Additional Tablets, Extracts and Talks”, Bahá’í Reference Library website: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/additional-tablets-extracts-talks/, accessed 25 January 2020. Administered by an elected local board composed of trustworthy individuals, the storehouse would have multiple sources of revenue. The first source would be a “tithe” owed by farmers, which would be calculated in consideration of their revenue and needful expenditures. By way of example, He defines a five-tiered taxation scale in which farmers whose annual income is equal to their expenses—that is, with no surplus—would pay nothing to the storehouse, while those with the greatest surpluses would pay half of their income to it. In between, He gives scenarios of farmers owing, respectively, one-tenth, one-fourth, and one-third of their net earnings.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “As to the first, the tenths or tithes: we will consider a farmer, one of the peasants. We will look into his income. We will find out, for instance, what is his annual revenue and also what are his expenditures. Now, if his income be equal to his expenditures, from such a farmer nothing whatever will be taken. That is, he will not be subjected to taxation of any sort, needing as he does all his income. Another farmer may have expenses running up to one thousand dollars we will say, and his income is two thousand dollars. From such [a farmer] a tenth will be required, because he has a surplus. But if his income be ten thousand dollars and his expenses one thousand dollars… he will have to pay as taxes, one-fourth. If his income be one hundred thousand dollars and his expenses five thousand, one-third will he have to pay…. But if his expenses be ten thousand and his income two hundred thousand then he must give an even half because ninety thousand will be in that case the sum remaining. Such a scale as this will determine allotment of taxes. All the income from such revenues will go to this general storehouse” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 40).
The reason for these progressive taxation rates is to address disparities in people’s means and needs. In the context of all people contributing to the community’s output, such a measure promotes social equity and ensures the elimination of poverty. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains:
All must be producers. Each person in the community whose income is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man’s capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation. If his production exceeds, he will pay a tax; if his necessities exceed his production he shall receive an amount sufficient to equalize or adjust. Therefore taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production and there will be no poor in the community.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 217.
It is important to note that, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, such a measure would be founded on an ethic of reciprocity and social trust. Those contributing to the village storehouse would do so knowing that their contributions would help ensure the well-being of their neighbors, particularly those who may be unable to provide for themselves—such as orphans, the elderly, and those with disabilities. In addition, any member of the community that confronted a set of emergency expenses would be able to draw from the storehouse. Thus, all contributors would simultaneously be beneficiaries. The same principles would hold true in large urban settings, though on a larger and more complex scale.28Ibid., p. 41.
The sense of social trust and reciprocity underpinning the storehouse would be bolstered by local control of its finances. It is only after all local needs are covered, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, that any surplus found in the storehouse would “be transferred to the national treasury.”29Ibid., p. 40. It is interesting to note that the high-tax Nordic countries mentioned above maintain a similar type of local control of tax revenue, with municipal income tax rates often higher than national rates and decisions about how to use these funds made close to the tax base. But on a more profound level, its proper functioning would depend on a particular worldview and moral orientation at the communal level. Specifically, it would require a conception of individual well-being as inextricably tied to collective well-being—that is, of individuals constituting component parts of an organic social body. Notions of individual accumulation and the primacy of individual ownership would need to be subordinated to a vision of private property as simply a means to the end of collective prosperity.
In this connection, in the Bahá’í view, the giving of one’s property for the collective good should be an act performed willingly, and not one based on coercion. On this note, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts:
To state the matter briefly, the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh advocate voluntary sharing, and this is a greater thing than the equalization of wealth. For equalization must be imposed from without, while sharing is a matter of free choice… Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.30‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 115.
This principle of voluntary sharing applies not only to charity, but also holds true in relation to the Bahá’í conception of taxation. 31‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107. As seen in the description of the community storehouse and the moral framework that undergirds it, taxation in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s view represents a “duty” in the true sense of the word—that is, an obligation enthusiastically fulfilled. On this note, while it is possible to approach the above passages from an individualistic perspective, such a reading gives rise to an apparent incongruence between the dual counsels on externally-imposed taxation and freely-performed giving. However, this seeming discrepancy may be reconciled by looking at the issue through a collective lens. That is to say, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may be indicating that the wealthy segments of society, as a whole, need to voluntarily support and submit to progressive taxation policies. From this perspective, rather than such measures arising from, say, a coercive revolution of the working classes, they would be the result of an act of collective will across society. Discretionary charitable giving, then, would be in addition to these agreed-upon contributions.
In this connection, the Bahá’í vision of taxation finds its most complete expression in the law of Huqúqu’lláh. The “Right of God”, Huqúqu’lláh was set forth by Baháʼu’lláh and stipulates the payment of 19% of any wealth in excess of one’s needful expenses to the center of the Faith—currently the Universal House of Justice. These monies are to be expended for humanitarian purposes and are intended to help equalize levels of wealth across different parts of the world. The calculation and payment of Huqúqu’lláh are left to the discretion of the individual; it is not solicited nor is its amount determined by any authority. It thus depends entirely on an individual’s conscience and must be paid with sincere joy in order to be acceptable.
In addition to income inequality and taxation, one of the most daunting challenges facing policymakers today is expanding opportunities for meaningful, secure, and fairly-remunerated employment. In many places, where stable work in manufacturing, agriculture, and professional services was previously the norm, a restructuring of the labor force is taking place—with short-term, contract, and informal jobs becoming more and more common. Among other factors, the rise of the “gig economy” is being driven by increasing levels of automation, in which machines carry out tasks formerly done by humans. While the earliest advances in automation date back to at least the industrial revolution, leading voices have signaled that the world is now in the first stages of a new revolution in automation with the potential for even more disruptive results. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and related spheres are making machines capable of performing highly-sophisticated functions that match or exceed the capabilities of the human brain.32Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond”, Foreign Affairs, 12 December 2015: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-12-12/fourth-industrial-revolution, accessed 25 January 2020.
While such labor-saving innovations hold great promise for humanity, their rewards have thus far not been equally enjoyed by all. On the contrary, in the twenty-first century they have begun to leave growing legions of workers scrambling to piece together livelihoods as their work becomes obsolete. On this front, the forecasts of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offer a vision for how humanity can not only cope but thrive in the midst of such changes. Speaking at a time of comparable economic transformation,33The so-called “Second Industrial Revolution” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. when the fight for labor rights was picking up momentum in the Western world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá illustrated a vision of fair remuneration of workers and the liberation of humanity from long hours occupied with mundane, back-breaking tasks:
The civilizations of the past have all been founded upon the enslavement of mankind and the poor working class has suffered every oppression for the sake of the enrichment of the few. This limited wealthy class has alone had the privilege of developing individuality. The downtrodden worker after labouring long hours each day, has not had sufficient mental capacity at the conclusion of his task to do anything but eat and sleep.
That all mankind might have opportunity, it was necessary to shorten the hours of labour so that the work of the world could be completed without such demand of strain and effort, and all human beings would have leisure to think and develop individual capacity….
The first decided shortening of the hours will appear… when a legal working day of eight hours is established…. But this working day of eight hours is only the beginning…. Soon there will be a six hour day, a five hour, a three hour day, even less than that, and the worker must be paid more for this management of machines, than he ever received for the exercise of his two hands alone….
You cannot understand now, how the labour saving machines can produce leisure for mankind because at present they are all in the hands of the financiers and are used only to increase profits, but that will not continue. The workers will come into their due benefit from the machine that is the divine intention, and one cannot continue to violate the law of God. So with the assurance of a comfortable income from his work, and ample leisure for each one, poverty will be banished and each community will create comfort and opportunity for its citizens. Education will then be universal at the cost of the state, and no person will be deprived of its opportunity.34‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as reported by Mary Hanford Ford in Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 106-107. It is worth noting that a few years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made this prediction about the shortening of the working day to eight hours, US President Woodrow Wilson enacted the legal day of eight hours for all federal workers, which subsequently became the norm for all US workers.
In other recorded utterances, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points to the role that government ought to play in managing changes in labor relations. Through the development of sound policy, public institutions have the capacity to help ensure that all people can truly benefit from advances in technology, so that all are able to earn a living and contribute to society through a trade or profession. Specifically, He indicates that elected leaders bear the responsibility for resolving the issue of wages. Wage agreements should be developed, He says, with wisdom and moderation, “so neither the capitalist suffer from enormous losses nor the laborers become needy.”35‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 43. On this note, He encourages the adoption of systems of employee share ownership—a scheme that has gained increased acceptance in recent years—as a way to foster both equitable compensation and workers’ sense of identification with their labor:
For instance, the owners of properties, mines and factories should share their incomes with their employees and give a fairly certain percentage of their products to their workingmen in order that the employees may receive, beside their wages, some of the general income of the factory so that the employee may strive with his soul in the work.36Ibid.
On this note, the Bahá’í writings suggest that no social reform—no matter how well-designed or sophisticated—can lead to the desired outcome if it is not precipitated and accompanied by a particular set of values and attitudes. But such qualities are not static, nor do they emerge spontaneously. In the Bahá’í view, humanity therefore needs to engage in an intentional, iterative process of learning about the principles that make for a just, prosperous, and unified society and how these can be systematically cultivated at the individual and collective levels.
From this perspective, it is not only about what policy decisions are made but about how they are made. And here, the Bahá’í principle of consultation sheds light on a new way of arriving at decisions of shared import. In consultation, individuals come together in an earnest attempt to discover the truth and make decisions, not through begrudging negotiation or even amicable compromise, but through a sincere setting aside of self-interest and personal preference. “No welfare and no well-being”, affirms Bahá’u’lláh, “can be attained except through consultation.”39Bahá’u’lláh, as quoted in The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement by the Bahá’í International Community, 1995. On the use of consultation within the elected bodies of the Bahá’í community, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:
They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.40‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 88.
By prizing humility over forcefulness, dialogue over debate, and truth over victory, consultation opens the way to a mode of making decisions in which options are dispassionately assessed and a variety of perspectives serve to build a more complete vision of social reality. By championing true consensus-building and a universal sense of ownership of the arrived-at decisions, it allows individuals, communities, and institutions to engage in a process of shared learning. In this way, plans and systems can be objectively evaluated, and those that work can be sustained while those that do not can be discarded or reformed.
Such a model of genuine deliberation is clearly a departure from those dominant in the political systems in the world today. Nevertheless, signs abound that humanity is tiring of growing levels of partisan gridlock and rancor preventing government from living up to its potential. It is clear in the writings of the Bahá’í Faith that public institutions have an indispensable role in ensuring humanity’s social well-being, but central to the challenge of fulfilling this duty will be fostering a new ethic of leadership and alternative patterns of governance. Bringing about this change will no doubt require continual proactive effort,41In The Secret of Divine Civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “If haste is harmful, inertness and indolence are a thousand times worse” (p. 108). as well as much trial and error. Still, there is every reason to be optimistic that this long-term process of institutional maturation is already in course. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:
The world of politics is like the world of man; he is seed at first, and then passes by degrees to the condition of embryo and foetus, acquiring a bone structure, being clothed with flesh, taking on his own special form, until at last he reaches the plane where he can befittingly fulfill the words: “the most excellent of Makers.” Just as this is a requirement of creation and is based on the universal Wisdom, the political world in the same way cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even from moment to moment.42Ibid., pp. 107-108.
Today, people who seek to stress the spiritual basis of peace and justice among men, or who dare to accent the necessity for the regeneration of human hearts and characters as the first step to needed social change, are usually rebuffed by those who immediately cry out, “Oh, you must be practical and realistic.”
This is because so many folk think that the only practical approach to human problems is one which deals immediately with outward evidences of what is desirable. They do not see human needs beyond the specific projects devised for education and security. Outwardly these matters do represent the things which separate the “Haves” from the “Have Nots” in human society, and if you look at them in this light, they may seem to be the sole issues which have all along produced restlessness, division and strife among men.
However, any social program which is to operate for true world betterment must of necessity go beyond outward evidences, if it is to be really practical. The best plans for social cooperation and peace are always limited by the kind of human beings who must use and apply them. There is no more realistic force in the world today than the Bahá’í Faith. In its teachings and its social program there are profoundly realistic approaches to the· fundamental social changes which must be the basis of any real and lasting unity for mankind.
The Bahá’í Faith is first of all a Faith which harmonizes the inward incentives and outward procedures to unity. Outward procedures give the means for unity and inward incentives give the heart for unity. There is great difference between folk who have the means for unity and the folk who have the heart for unity.
Legislation and the interplay of conflicting social interests may furnish a kind of means for unity, and even a certain state of outward compliance. However, legislation and the pressures of expediency have never been able to get at the inward fears, jealousies, greeds and animosities of men. And it is these which furnish the vicious inner motives which can browbeat the intelligence of men and make mockery of outward social compliance. Nearly every day we see tragic instances of failure where social change depends upon means alone. Instances where people nullify and obstruct legislation, where they sabotage social effort or fail to produce and support the kind of courageous policies and action needed for the patterns and standards consistent with just and enlightened ideals. The means for unity is there, but legislation is killed or evaded; communities lose their moral integrity in compromise with policies of hatred and division, and people excuse themselves from honest upright action by saying, “Law is not the way to do this.” “The time is not ripe” or “This is the right policy, but we must work up to it gradually.” Now, all such people are really saying is, “I have not the heart to do this thing” or “The people whose opinion I fear have not the heart for forthright action about this, and I do not know how to reach them.”
The religion of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of The Bahá’í Faith, begins with that essential spiritual regeneration of the human being which creates a heart for brotherhood and impels action for the unity of mankind. Bahá’u’lláh has made it very plain that the test of Faith is its social force. Principle and social planning are useless until they are rendered dynamic by the stamina and will of men to enforce and apply spiritual ethics to human affairs.
The second great realism of the Bahá’í faith is that it provides new patterns for the application of spiritual principle to the social problems of humanity.
When Bahá’u’lláh first proclaimed some eighty years ago, “This is the hour of the coming together of all the races and nations and classes. This is the hour of unity among the sons of men,” the prophecy was a far fetched ideal to the world of jealous politics and cultural isolation which received it. But the unity of mankind today is no mere social ideal. Human strife has made it a social necessity.
It is not surprising then to see that human unity is an increasingly popular subject for liberal thought and action. Nor is it surprising that programs to foster unity are being launched on every hand. Yet so many of the bona fide efforts for unity are being fatally compromised because they must be launched through the established social patterns which preserve old disunities. Do people learn brotherhood and the spiritual attitudes and social cooperation which brotherhood involves by lectures or hesitant compromising ventures, which leave untouched and unchanged the separate education, separate worship, separate security, separate social planning which shape every phase of their community living—embittering separations made in terms of differences of race, creed, culture and nationality? Any social pattern which elaborately preserves and accents these outward differences and their resultant inward animosities must of necessity crucify the objective of social unity.
The Bahá’í Teachings not only destroy without equivocation the fallacies which have nourished social strife and disunity, but they provide new patterns of social living and development through which men learn brotherhood by performance.
And what realistic way is there, you may ask, to deal with the ancient bitter diversities of race, religion and culture? What can be done with the changing pressures of unstable economics and the conflicting education of the world’s peoples?
The Bahá’í Faith provides for the diversities of religion, that long needed center of reconciliation, which can produce harmonious understanding of its varying prophets and systems. Bahá’u’lláh has shown us in the Bahá’í Revelation that the great revealed religions of the world are like lamps which carry the pure light of Divine Truth providing social teaching and discipline for humanity. But as that lamp is borne by human hands, there are periods when conflicting interpretations of the Divine Word, dogmas and superstitions, alienate and divide men. Periods when the temptations of material power pervert religion into an instrument for the exploitation and suppression of human development. It is because of this that new lamps have always come and will always come. Each of the great lamps tests the social force of the others. In this men should find source for progress, not reason for strife. God in His mercy has provided in the Divine Faiths a continuous and successive renewal of Universal Spiritual Truth.
The Bahá’í learns the relation and ordered unfoldment of Truth in all Divine Religions. Thus Spiritual Faith is lifted above the period differences of its various names and systems. Is it unrealistic that in a world so in need of spiritual regeneration, Jews, Christians, Moslems and Believers of all Divine Faiths should be given that which will relate their spiritual purposes and development and thus enable them to travel harmoniously a wide free path to greater social demonstration and understanding of the Truth? Is this not a more effective way to create the heart for unity than the elaborate separations and the jealous fencing off of Religious paths? Today men so preserve and concentrate upon their symbolic differences that the common goal is lost in confusion and animosity.
There are really no diversities of race to those who truly accept the fact that all mankind is God’s creation. Yet the outward differences of color, physiognomy and culture have annoyed and divided us. When members of the human family meet each other who have striking differences in appearance and manners, they resort very naturally to reactions of fear, distaste and derision, which grow out of the human complex for conformity and the fear of strangeness. Unity of mankind is not only a basic principle in the Bahá’í Faith, but it is also the basis of a new social pattern in terms of which Bahá’ís worship, work, educate themselves and contribute their capacities to civilization. Living in a Bahá’í community is a matter of learning differences, appreciating them and achieving with them great loyalties to human welfare, which are above the narrow confinements of race, creed and class, color and temperament. The most practical knowledge in the world is the knowledge that the world can never become what so many people like to believe; a world in which we make other people look, act, and understand in terms of that with which we are familiar. That kind of world is neither possible nor desirable. What we really want is a world of harmonized differences, where a man can make his contribution with other men for the good of all mankind. This is the world of the Bahá’í Community, a community covering seventy-eight national backgrounds and thirty-one racial origins and Heaven knows how many temperaments and cultural backgrounds in this first one hundred years. A growing Community which operates with every possible human difference to take into consideration, yet its members through practicing and perfecting their practice of the Bahá’í Teachings, have achieved a unity of objectives through which entirely new social patterns, standards and virtues are being evolved.
People do not like to mention religion and economics in the same breath. The problem is that of the economically disinherited who in bitter restless upsurge change periodically the pressures and controls of this world’s unstable economics. It is practical to talk of trade policies, of commerce regulations and spheres of influence, now. However, the world must soon face the fact that economic instability and the bitter struggle and suffering which go on because of it, have a question of human motives, human development, behind them. Motives behind the failure to use opportunity, or the use of it to selfishly acquire and control wealth, goods, and services, constitute the real factors causing the unhealthy inequalities, the exploitation and suppression in human society. Bahá’u’lláh stressed the need of a spiritual basis as the first step in the development of stable world economics. The extremes of poverty and vast wealth are not only matters of material opportunity and education, they are also matters of greed and slothfulness in human characters.
Material education and spiritual enlightenment must be applied to bring the kind of economic adjustments which will make possible responsible efforts for all people and insure a just distribution of wealth, goods and services for all people.
Until then, we are all, regardless of our skins, creeds and countries, caught economically between the evil extremes which are produced by the Jeeter Lesters and those masters of selfish financial genius, who, like a cancerous growth, feed upon and weaken the earth’s human and material resources.
Nothing but the wholesome regeneration of human hearts and establishment of new social objectives for the efforts and acquisitions of men, will in the final analysis remedy these ills.
The great realisms of the Bahá’í Faith lie in its new spiritual teachings and in the new social patterns which they provide for needed development of mankind; a development which will turn men from the beliefs and superstitions which are destructive to human solidarity and create in them the heart to initiate and perfect new standards, new morals and new undertakings for a great new era of civilization.
These achievements are possible when man is afforded that perfect combination of Human and Spiritual Unity. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the great expounder of the Bahá’í Teachings, has described it in these words:
Human Unity or solidarity may be likened to the body, whereas unity from the breaths of the Holy Spirit is the spirit animating the body. This is a perfect unity. It creates such a condition in mankind that each one will make sacrifices for the other and the utmost desire will be to forfeit life and all that pertains to it in behalf of another’s good. It is the unity which through the influence of the Divine Spirit is permeating the Bahá’ís, so that each offers his life for the other and strives with all sincerity to attain His good pleasure. This is the unity that caused twenty thousand people in Írán to give their lives in love and devotion to it. It made the Báb the target of a thousand arrows and caused Bahá’u’lláh to suffer exile and imprisonment for forty years. This unity is the very spirit of the body of the world.