Thesis Number: #3 (Page 9 of 10)

Learn, or Lament?

Once upon a time, the key texts of what we now call the Bible were known as the Book of the Covenant. The name-change suited those who wished to sterilise the power of God. As Dutch Reformed pastor Conrad Boerma noted, the Book of the Covenant dealt with “the most important point of all, the question of property…It is one which the church will not be able to avoid much longer” (1979: 33).

A new generation of religious leaders, including Pope Francis in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wish to champion the interests of people who are excluded from the riches of society. They have yet to declare their position on the ownership of the riches of nature. An important first step would be the publication by Pope Francis of an Encyclical on the Economics of the Covenant that sets aside the heresy in Pope Leo’s Rerum novarum.

While the world’s attention is mostly directed at suffering in low- and medium-income countries, the peoples of the trans-Atlantic nations are also in deep trouble. Their traumas could be rectified, for they stem directly from two dysfunctional realities: toleration of rent-seeking, and the pathologies of a tax system that protects the interests of rent-seekers. This was not intended by the founders of the modern Welfare State.

  • A British Liberal Government, through its People’s Budget (1909), initiated the first steps towards the Welfare State. It prescribed a tax on resource rents to fund old age pensions and unemployment benefits.
  •  Consolidation of the Welfare State in the 1940s was guided by William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury who published Christianity and Social Order in 1942. He wrote: “[A] great deal of what is amiss alike in rural and in urban areas could be remedied by the taxation of the value of sites as distinct from the buildings erected upon them” (Temple 1976:113).

An ecumenical approach to public finance that united Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities is possible precisely because of their tradition in relation to the ownership of land and the special status ascribed to rent. The correct diagnosis of the pathologies that disfigure our traumatised civilisation, employing the prism of rent as a social (for some, a sacred) flow of revenue, would unify spiritual and secular authorities.

  •  The Prophet Mohammed affirmed the social possession of nature (Sultaniyya Hadith 26; Sait and Lim [2006: 90]). And a thousand years before the advent of classical economics in Europe, Islamic scholars, starting with Abu Zakariya Yahya b. Adam al-Qarashi (d.818 CE), applied reason to advocate Land Taxation (Azmi [2002], Katbi [2010]).
  • The science that affirms the soundness of rent as public revenue was explained by sundry Nobel Prize economists in the 20th century, including William Vickrey, Joseph Stiglitz, Franco Modigliani, Robert Solow, James Tobin and Sir James Mirrlees. See, especially, the Open Letter to Mikhail Gorbachev (Noyes 1991).

The prophetic teachers of eastern faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism and the Tao) drew from the cosmic order the insights into the wise way of living, aligning the laws of nature with rules for the right way to live on Earth. Their teachings are in harmony with the Covenant that founded the Abrahamic faiths. United on this one principle, spiritual leaders could formulate an agenda for earthly reforms that would initially be resisted by secular power. That is the challenge for people who wish to create an authentic democracy: the need to face down the rent-seekers.

The social contract must be re-negotiated if we wish to embark on the next phase in the evolution of our social galaxy. Social evolution was stalled three millennia ago, when city civilisations collapsed under the burden of rent-seeking.

If a new social contract can be re-negotiated and sustained on purely humanist terms, so be it. But if it is needed, strength can be drawn from the Covenant to arm people with the power to create a place on Earth that would be truly wonderful to live in.

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