By John Taylor; 2010 March 03, Ala' 03, 166 BE
"We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing." (`Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, 151)
A recent essay called "Bleak Havens" by George Monbiot updates an important thesis in both philosophy and the Baha'i Faith. He writes,
"Extreme wealth invariably leads to captivity. Its victims live in an open prison. In Mexico and Colombia, they and their families face the constant threat of kidnap: they must scurry around, screened and shrouded, as if they were copper's narks. In Russia they can never be free from the fear of assassination. Everywhere on earth they live behind walls and razor wire, guarded by cameras, dogs, watch towers and sensors. The walls that shut the world out also shut them in. They must, if they wish to maintain their place on the rich lists, also live in fear of their rivals. Despite their lobbying power, they cannot permanently shake off the authorities, not least because of the irregular tax and accounting methods which helped many of them to become so rich: the remark attributed to Balzac (behind every great fortune lies a great crime) is at least half right. Who in his right mind would volunteer for this life?" (George Monbiot, Bleak Havens; How the ultra-rich enslave themselves, The Guardian, Feb 22, 2010, http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/02/22/bleak-havens/)
I recommend the whole essay, but I could not resist citing this rather lengthy passage. Like myself, Monbiot tends to be at his most eloquent as a writer when he is angry. But if you are not angry about the hogging of the lion's share of the world's wealth by such a small number, then I do not think you can be wholly human.
As mentioned, philosophy teaches that the extreme riches of a wealthy elite constitute not only a horrible, standing injustice as long as even one destitute person lives without means, how much more the billion-plus that now exist. However, even if you ignore that, there can be no doubt but that their great wealth is a sore burden in itself. The membership of the billionaire's club would be much happier and better off if they helped change the law so that it would be impossible to accumulate more than a moderate amount of riches. Plato, for example, praised the members of a just city, who in his view had by such just actions attained to the height of philosophical enlightenment.
"They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them." (Plato, Critias)
Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau started off his greatest political work with the famous words,
"Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they." (Social Contract, Bk I, pp. 49-50)
The same suspicion of wealth is even stronger in the major religions. Jesus, for example, advised a wealthy young man to give his whole fortune away, and only then to follow Him. The Baha'i Faith tends to moderate this suspicion of money. For example, obedience to the law of Huqquq is thought to "purify" one's standing equity, though it is fair to say that wealth is still considered a burden.
That queen of Baha'i writers, Marzieh Gail, sums up the Baha'i position on this as briefly as is possible to do. Speaking of the great fortune that weighed upon Phoebe Hearst, a sometime Baha'i who at the turn of the 20th Century sponsored the first group of pilgrims from the West journey to Haifa to visit Abdu'l-Baha, Gail wrote,
"Phoebe's burden was wearisome at times, and her life illustrates what Baha'u'llah has written: 'In earthly riches fear is hidden and peril is concealed.' (Tablets, 219) Baha'u'llah also promises that polarizing extremes of wealth and poverty will be done away with, and He further says that all must work. 'The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God...' (Abdu'l-Baha) speaks of how lonely many of the rich are at the hour of death, and of 'the regret that they must be separated from that to which their hearts are so attached'. (Promulgation, 30) 'Eternal happiness is contingent upon giving,' He says." (Marzieh Gail, Arches of the Years, 48)
Abdu'l-Baha often pointed out that the extremely wealthy should look forward to economic equity with hope and anticipation, for they will be much happier and better off for the change.
"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. The rich will enjoy his palace, and the poor will have his comfortable cottage." (Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 132)
Monbiot ends his furious essay with an interesting proposal.
"International attempts to close down tax havens remain half-hearted. But if by some miracle these measures were to succeed, one haven – let us say St. Helena - should be kept open. It should be furnished only with rudimentary homes. All who chose to could live there in peace. Every penny they possessed would remain safe from the taxman, as long as they never set foot in another land. They could sit in their cells and count their money for the rest of their lives. Parties of schoolchildren would be brought to the island to goggle at these hermits, and learn some lessons about the follies of wealth."
Although Monbiot clearly intends this as sarcasm, it does suggest an idea for a more realistic version of that most invidious of all propaganda "unreality shows" on behalf of the rich, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Instead of that, a true reality show would portray the fear of loss, the loneliness, the barricades against the violence of the oppressed, the creative accounting and pathetic attempts to escape paying even one penny of income tax. Then contrast that with the "midnight sighing" of the billions without sanitation, schooling or other essentials. That would be a revolutionary way to tell the truth to power, for today the real power is in the hands of the people.