Monday, March 02, 2015

Bishops' Letter: Postscript coming?

The Bishops' Letter 'Who is my neighbour' is strong on analysis. It looks searchingly at the socio-political scene and pronounces that we are in  dangerous times, evidenced by such as: an adversarial stance in politics - where there are no distinctive political goals, attractive visions or idealism; people are viewed largely as consumers and as mere recipients of narrowly targeted policies; there are grotesque inequalities of wealth and power; we are living through a banking and a housing crisis.

We are becoming a society of strangers. Respect for views other than our own, is disappearing through ignorance, leading to a selfish and competitive mindset which assumes that unfamiliar groups are a threat. The individual is king and autonomy is celebrated, but the support of those in deep need is an undervalued activity, yet therein are revealed the deepest human qualities.  The idea of a common bond between us is fast disappearing. We are moving away from the idea of a 'community of communities'.

Salvation is expected from the market and the state. But the market has damaged the condition for its own flourishing; and the 'anti-messy' bureaucracy of the state, favouring neatness, law and regulation induces a 'chill factor' which stems the flow of common sense and neighbourly help.

So what do the bishops prescribe? They think the solution, rather than to choose between right or left politics or even to split the difference, is to find sources for answers from within them all.  They still like the concepts behind the Big Society. They like mutuality and volunteering (e.g. credit unions and housing associations); subsidiarity (lower levels for decision making); 'intermediate institutions' between family and state (credit unions, housing associations and the churches). They back the idea of the living wage.

But the bishops do not discern any bigger vision for us to hope towards: whilst in 1945 and 1979 there were new visions which 'changed the political weather', they say that 'no such thing is yet on offer in 2015'.  How can it be that their telling analysis has not allowed them to do more than anxiously wring their hands and merely ward brownie points to established remedies for the failures of market and state?  What about examining valid solutions towards recovering the common good and the common bond that they long for? 

1. The living wage liked by the bishops is a voluntary measure and depends on the employer's willingness to pay it. Why did the bishops not champion the work of  The Citizen's Income Trust -  their very own minister Rev. Malcolm Torry? His organisation has painstakingly shown over some years how every person, youngest to oldest could, with economic fiscal prudence, receive a regular income which would not only help unite all citizens in a new basic monetary right, but also eradicate many of the failings of the state welfare and benefits system and so start to address the 'grotesque inequalities of wealth' the bishops deplore. Bishops, have you considered a state-paid, regular citizen's income payment to all?

2. The only suggestion in the letter about the 'banking crisis' is that credit unions are 'an ethical alternative'. What about another ethical alternative - community banks? I declare an interest as a director of Local First CIC - which is helping to form a full-licence independent local bank where profits will be directed to community causes. Such community banks are likely to become transformative common good economic agents in years to come in the UK. Not only will they generate productive lending and provide sound banking, but their surrounding communities will benefit from the banking profits hitherto taken privately. The national effects of the banking crisis we are still living through will start to mend and largely be prevented from recurring bearing in mind the local and small scale nature of these banks. Bishops, have you considered such full-licence community banks?

3. Another solution to the banking crisis unacknowledged by the bishops is that all money should be created by a branch of government under democratic scrutiny with private banks taken out of the creation of money altogether. The money supply monopoly and privilege would then be serving the common good in a powerful new way. Bishops, have you considered monetary reform?

4. To provide homes through housing associations is a reaction to a failed property market and whilst helpful, this is not a permanent solution for the difficulties of home ownership. Those who own a property are in the enviable position of gaining wealth as their property land value rises over time, even as they sleep; but those renters who own no property have no such comfort. That land values are not widely taxed is a national disgrace and a betrayal of the common good. Every citizen - including renters - who add to the success of the economy, thereby raises the common good in wealth terms, much of which is then captured in rising property values, benefiting owners alone. This reform would be accompanied by a balancing cut in income and other taxes.  Bishops, have you considered land value taxation?

5. The early church fathers of the 2nd to 4th centuries: Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo preached and wrote in the context of Roman law and concepts of ownership which are largely the foundation of our own law in the 21st century. (Book: Ownership by Charles Avila). These esteemed church leaders were strong on the contrast between koina - things common for all,  and idia  - private property created by yourself.  Koina being naturally occurring things - that are there for the using. As Chrysostom has it: 
        'God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air,   water, fire, the sun, all such things ...That we may live securely,... given to us in common.'  

The problem, they pointed out, is that the law authorised people to take by force or buy up koina as idia , to the diminishing of the common good, then, as now. They also majored on koinonia - community sharing inspired by the common bond of humanity. 

The good news is that bishops today are speaking the common good talk and the common bond talk of their spiritual ancestors. I wonder when they will write a postscript to their 2015 letter and give us the 'Common Good Recovery Plan'. Attractive vision? Idealism enough, bishops? Just imagine what Chrysostom might have achieved with the benefit of a democratic system like ours... 
Charles Bazlinton. Author: The Free Lunch - Fairness with Freedom

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