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Taxation, Drought and the Golden Rule

by Neil Podger

published in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1996
Nineteen years ago in mid-1976 I attended a conference in Canberra entitled 'Australian Agriculture to the Year 2000 - Limits to Growth' presented by the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. I recall one speaker saying that the world's refugee problem could soon become more of a concern for Australia and this has proven to be amply true. Unexpectedly I made contact with Peter Medling, a fellow student in 1959 in Agriculture at Melbourne University. After so many years this was a great pleasure but I wasn't sure what Peter's reaction might be to news I had become a Bahá'í. I shouldn't have worried - Peter's own life had taken on a spiritual dimension. He also asked whether the Bahá'í Faith had any scheme of reverse taxation. Peter lately can't recall putting this question, but I safely assure you he did. With surprise I answered "yes", recalling what I'd read in Bahá'í literature. There was no elaboration but the thought remained.

Australia's present drought really took hold in 1994. We imported wheat - what a reversal! At a gathering of Bahá'ís last October one of the children asked, wasn't there something we could do to help farmers in the drought? On discussion we agreed we should pray for rain and I voiced my understanding of the role and uses of taxation in a caring society. Later on the Bahá'í Assembly for Hornsby Shire asked me to write a paper on the topic for presentation at this Conference. I want to thank all those who prompted me, especially Peter and my Assembly, for encouraging this result.

Even as I finalised the paper in June, Sydney was sodden with rain and northern Victoria had experienced some flooding. But one can easily show that drought-affected farmers recover slowly even though a drought may have broken. Though the grass may be green, the financial position of many may remain uncertain for an indefinite period.

Agriculture must be more soundly based than this - it has been estimated that the world's population "is virtually sure to double before it stabilizes in the middle to latter half of the 22nd century ... at a level of about 12.5 billion (people) some 160 years from now.... Agriculturally, the challenge is huge".[1] Part of the answer is to understand the role farmers play and will play in the coming decades and establish measures to protect their status, as well as that of the land itself.

What we are searching for is a broad-based way of bringing stability and a planned continuity to the farming enterprise and the communities to which farmers belong. Let's ask questions about taxation for example and see how it might be more effectively managed. We'll find there are useful answers here - the key is a simple change to the method of taxation.

'ABDU'L-BAHA AND THE GOLDEN RULE

The way in which taxation could provide such a counterbalance originates in a talk,[2] entitled 'Cooperation', given by 'Abdu'l-Bahá[3] whilst on his historic and extensive travels to Europe and North America during the years 1911-1912. Throughout his tour of these nations 'Abdu'l-Bahá, for the first time before large audiences in the West and in the course of innumerable personal exchanges, presented the basic teachings and modus operandi of the Faith[4] his Father, Bahá'u'lláh,[5] had founded some fifty years previously.

The key words in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's talk were cooperation and reciprocity. It seems his intention was to identify particularly relevant instances of where and how the Golden Rule:[6] "an ethic variously repeated in all the great religions",[7] might be applied to achieve a satisfactory and equitable organisation of human affairs in the 'here and now' - the world of today. He showed, as was his intention, that simple or single-step changes, rather than revolutionary multi-step changes, could transform and humanize the character of systems most of us assume, or have been led to believe, are anchored in the belief that the vagaries of market-driven economics must be allowed to determine outcomes.

Cooperation means working together for the common good and all of us can cite examples of where and how cooperation was applied (or should have been) in some situation. Reciprocity is a concept, (long 'on hold') which should now be carefully re-examined and its implications re-explored. Reciprocity is the return, or mutual exchange, of some good or favour such as affection, an act of kindness or, in trade, some priviledge or advantage such as a reduction in tariff. Roughly speaking it means 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. What we immediately sense is that the two, in combination, have untold potential for achieving a variety of goals important to humankind.

Purely reciprocating action (minus the human character of reciprocity and its spiritual connotations) abounds in day-to-day technology and nature. There is the internal combustion engine with pistons going up and down and the ubiquitous alternating current with voltage varying above and below zero. In the natural world we have the rise and fall of tides and the passage of solstices following each other "as night follows day". Perhaps we should, given this, more readily accept that periodic drought is part and parcel of the 'Australian environment'. Like it or not, bad seasons as well as good are our past, present and future, and remain the major influence on the rise and fall of fortunes.

Clearly this cycle needs to be considered when we seek to achieve a higher degree of stability in the affairs of individuals and communities. In combination with a variety of approaches, the taxation system could be arranged to allow tax to flow back and forth, in a controlled manner, in such a way that cooperation and reciprocity become the norm rather than the customary approaches.

A simple analogy is a central reservoir (or storehouse as termed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá) connected at suitable level to a series of smaller 'pools', associated with individual enterprises, the latter constituting the total monetary 'catchment'. When harvests are bountiful and markets opportune, incomes exceed outgoings and tax, or goods in kind, in certain cases flow positively to the storage reservoir under suitable control. The reservoir expands to accept this but in lean times, or in any or most cases where an individual's income fails for a variety of reasons to meet expenses, tax flows naturally and negatively to that pool. This ensures that the individual's pool doesn't 'dry up' and the farm or enterprise remains alive and ready (and conceivably in receipt of encouragement) to respond to opportunities presented by a following season.

Reflection suggests that this model has the potential to become an integral component of not only local but higher-order agricultural systems. What we should particularly note is that the simple proviso for tax (or stored surplus) to flow from the central store back to the individual has 'humanised' or 'spiritualised' the current one way process by defining or establishing an essential partnership between individual and community based on cooperation and reciprocity.

In such a system it seems reasonable that taxation, on average, could remain at much the same as the current level. The central reservoir certainly needs to be large enough to provide a satisfactory reserve. This might not be the case initially, so during good times the positive tax rate might need to be set at generally higher level. Another concern is where taxation changes direction when a farmer's position improves and tax flow would switch from negative to positive. It may be that limited support should be continued to ensure that such farmers achieve a sounder recovery.

Also, conceptually, the model could be extended to bring the tax base adjacent to the individual; and this is certainly how it was envisaged by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. That is, the reservoir with primary interface could be placed locally, in the township or village. This would allow specialised and possibly varied local-to-individual controls, the major feature of which would remain, as currently, a sliding taxation scale, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá described in some detail together with illustrative parameters. Separate, independent controls could then be applied to the flow between each local reserve and the national reserve, and by extension, to and from any supra-national reserve which could evolve out of current international credit agencies.

The model allows one to look more closely at the aspect of subsidies and implies that these are, as such, a potential threat to long-term survival of the entire system and should be managed with appropriate care. In operation, the average tax flow must be positive, unless the central reserve develops its own sources. It can never in practice, remain continuously negative for any locality or nation; neither should it be excessively negative for any individual. Common sense suggests that the essential, overall feature of agricultural production is that it should be value-adding. This may in fact prove to be too narrow a view, but there should be a basic starting point or first assumption.

Another cooperative aspect might involve the building in of balances based on the agronomic feasibility of agricultural practices for the area. For example, a loss sustained in an attempt to grow wheat where rainfall is marginal might not be supported, since these crops rarely succeed and soil may be exposed to the ravages of the wind. On the other hand, the trial of a feasible but novel crop might attract support, since this could lead to an increase in diversity of products and to greater security for everyone.

Nor does the model in any way prevent the "building in" of encouragement for practices which have both short and long term value for both individual and society. These may include an increase in on-farm fodder reserves and water storage and other necessarily first lines of defense and all-important measures to protect or reclaim the quality of the environment. Also, valid concerns of the wider community could find remedy by means of controls directed specifically (for example) to improve the welfare of animals or retire agriculture from areas where its practice is manifestly inappropriate. All these, and many other aspects mentioned above, clearly come within the missions of agencies for education, agricultural research and extension at all levels, from local through to supra-national.

The main idea is to implement a taxation system functioning with the deliberate intent of incorporating a safety net, from collective resources and out of a sense of mutual solidarity. This will effectively underpin the uncertainty and financial risk attaching to nearly all cycles of agricultural production. In such cycles, the individual farmer has little option but to lock into whatever the season presents - for example, the amount and timing of rain or incidence and severity of plant or animal disease. The community as a whole, recognising its vital stake in this process, cooperatively employs material means, and where necessary in relation to the individual reciprocates, helping ensure continuity of the livelihood of the farmer and the valuable and essential contributions of agriculture.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

'Abdu'l-Bahá was described by an astute observer as one "who will surely unite the East and the West: for He treads the mystic way with practical feet".[8] He was convinced that Europe would sink into war soon after his western journeys and would refer to the expected disaster and its aftermath of overt racial antagonism, institutionalised materialism and rampant nationalism with dread and heartfelt sadness. On return to his home in the Holy Land at almost seventy years of age he organised the growing of grain at various locations, some bordering the Sea of Galilee, and arranged for storage. Throughout the Great War, he dispensed grain in Akka and Haifa as conditions required.[9] The British Government, in acknowledgment of these and other numerous and continuous humanitarian services, offered him the honour of knighthood. This recognition he graciously accepted from the Military Governor of Haifa at a special conferring ceremony in April of 1920, the very month pioneers arrived to bring the Bahá'í Faith to Australia and the year before his passing. In all this, he did honour to his Father, Bahá'u'lláh, Who is known to Bahá'ís as "the true Joseph".[10]

Elsewhere 'Abdu'l-Bahá described the "struggle for existence" as humanity's "greatest affliction" thereby identifying the philosophy of 'the devil take the hindmost' as inhuman. He said that mankind, possessing the divine gifts of mind and intellect, is charged by its Creator to at all times use these for no other purpose than to build a true brotherhood of man. Should it remain careless however, and wasteful of these unique bestowals "of which all other created things are minus", and circle away from the straight pathway of quest for this goal, it must without recourse and repeatedly reap a barren harvest, 'fit for fire'. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings and personal example provide us with a great store of grist for the mill of true human endeavour, enough I should say, to carry us safely from this to the next divine springtime, if we but use it wisely. I should like to close this paper with a brief quotation from 'Abdu'l-Bahá which I feel is particularly relevant:[11]

"The reason for God's having made Himself manifest, and for this shining forth of infinite lights from the realm of the invisible, is none other than the training of all men's souls and the refining of the characters of all on earth - so that blessed individuals, who have freed themselves from the murk of the animal world, shall rise up with those qualities which are the adornings of the reality of man."

Notes:

1) Dillon, J.L. 1995. Faculty of Agriculture Graduation Address, University of Sydney, 2nd June 1995 - delivered at the occasion of conferring on Professor Dillon of the Degree of Doctor of Agricultural Economics 'Honoris Causa'.

2) "Foundations of World Unity", 1955. Compiled from Addresses and Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette Illinois.

3) 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921) is the eldest of Bahá'u'lláh's children to survive infancy. He occupies a unique position in religious history having been specifically appointed in his Father's Will to interpret the meaning and application of his Father's Writings following the latter's passing.

4) The Bahá'í Faith has its origins in 1844 when its Herald, the Bab, or 'Gate' (1819-1850) proclaimed Himself in Shiraz as the recipient of a new Revelation from God and the Forerunner of the Promised One of all ages - Who was soon to appear. The Bahá'í Faith has its World Centre in Haifa in Israel and is today established in over 220 countries and nations, second only to Christianity in spread and representation. Its membership world-wide numbers over five million.

5) Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892) is the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, His title "signifying at once the glory, the light and the splendour of God" (see note 10). In 1863 in Baghdad, He announced Himself as the One promised by the Bab. He had been banished from His native land of Persia in 1852 and was eventually imprisoned in 1868 in Akka in Palestine in which vicinity lies His Shrine. His Writings - prayers, tablets and treatises concerning the basis of this Faith He as bidden by God had established, its laws, purpose, structure into the future and ultimate destiny - occupy, quite literally, 'a hundred volumes'. As He Himself has assessed: "Through each and every one of the verses which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed, the doors of love and unity have been unlocked and flung open to the face of men".

6) The Golden Rule, for example - "love thy neighbour as thyself", or "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", or "choose for others that which you would choose for yourself".

7) "To The Peoples of the World - the Promise of World Peace", 1985, The Universal House of Justice - Bahá'í World Centre, Haifa.

8) Dr David Starr Jordan, President of the Leland Stanford Junior University at Palo Alto in California is reported as having made this remark (see Balyuzi 1971, below) on the occasion at his invitation, of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's address to the assembled campus, some 2000 strong, on 8th October 1912.

9) Balyuzi, H.M., 1971. "'Abdu'l-Bahá - a Biography", published by George Ronald of London.

10) Shoghi Effendi, 1944. "God Passes By". Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette Illinois.

11) "Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá", 1978, Compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Bahá'í World Centre, Haifa.

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