If God were in charge of a nation's fiscal policy, what kind of policies would he create? It is an interesting question for a nation founded on "Christian values" because, in fact, God did play economist for a time in the Old Testament when the nation of Israel was forging its social, political, religious, legal and economic life after its liberation from Egyptian slavery.
A critical feature of God's economic policy was the year of Jubilee. God's commandments regarding the year of Jubilee are found in Leviticus 25.8-54. This is a long text, so I won't give it in full here (click on the link if you want to read the whole passage). I would, though, like to walk through some of the economic mechanisms and the logic of the Jubilee.
The Economic Mechanisms of the Jubilee
First, regarding timing, the Jubilee was to be celebrated every 50 years, roughly the span of a generation (v. 10 "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants"). I think this is a key feature. Whatever the Jubilee is doing it is hitting an economic reset button every generation. The Jubilee seems to be trying to prevent economic problems from cascading down through the generations where inequities would build up more and more systemic inertia.
Beyond timing, the celebration of the Jubilee involved a couple of different interlocking economic features. First, the Jubilee functioned as a price control on the buying and selling of land. The price of land was to go down the closer you got to the Jubilee. This price control feature prevented price gouging when the Jubilee was imminent. That is, if the Jubilee was five years away the seller might inflate the price to try to get as much out of the sale over the short five year contract. This pressure to price gouge would be less acute if the Jubilee were, say, 40 years away. In short, the Jubilee was to override the Invisible Hand of the market in setting prices:
If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God. (v. 14-17)The most dramatic aspect of the Jubilee, economically speaking, was its wealth redistribution feature. During any given 50 years land would be bought and sold, fortunes would rise or fall. Some would have grown richer. Others poorer. Some would have increased their land holdings. Others would have lost their land. Regardless, every 50 years the wealth would be redistributed with previously purchased land given back to those who sold or lost it:
If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property. (v. 25-28)It is important to note that if the individual could pay for the land they should do so. The landowner, if at all possible, should be compensated for losing the land during the Jubilee. However, if the individual is destitute and cannot pay for the land it should be given back nonetheless.
In between the Jubilees many people would have fallen into poverty. God commands that these people be given interest-free loans and that they should be able to make food purchases at the cost price.
If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (v. 35-38)Finally, if the individual becomes so poor that they have to "sell" their labor in debt bondage he is to be freed from the debt and bondage on the Jubilee:
If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (v. 38-43)Summarizing all this, we see in the Jubilee God creating economic mechanisms that prevent drastic disparities of wealth from accumulating over time. This is mainly accomplished through four economic mechanisms:
1. Wealth redistributionThe Economic Logic of the Jubilee
2. Debt forgiveness
3. Bank/lending regulation
4. Price controls
Obviously, these economic mechanisms are pretty dramatic and disruptive. However, we should pause to note that the Jubilee isn't commanding wholesale wealth redistribution. Specifically, although the land is to be redistributed every 50 years the Jubilee allows individuals to keep any capital gains (other than land) they have made over the 50 years. That is, cattle, precious goods or other forms of wealth are not liquidized and redistributed at the Jubilee. Outside of land other forms of capital wealth can be retained. Total equality isn't the goal.
Regardless, the Jubilee was a pretty drastic form of wealth redistribution as land, in that agricultural era, was the main engine of wealth.
So it begs the question: Why does God command wealth redistribution in the life of Israel? I think there are two answers to this question.
First, there are two reasons why inequalities of wealth might occur:
- Intrinsic Factors: Examples include hard work, discipline, business acumen, and frugality.
- Extrinsic Factors: Examples include the variability of nature/markets, the un/reliability of business partners, and geopolitical factors (e.g., war and peace).
- Not all land is equally fertile.
- Weather is variable.
It appears, then, that the Jubilee recognizes these eventualities. That is, wealth and poverty are often the product of fortune and luck. The Jubilee redistributes wealth because wealth isn't wholly earned. There are people who work just as hard as you or I do who can lose it all. Just ask the low-level employees of Enron who lost their jobs, investments, and retirement packages. You, in short, cannot take full credit (or blame) for your position in life. Good or ill. You are mix of both work and blessing. Recognizing this, the Jubilee seeks to spread that blessing around. Jubilee takes the good fortune that has fallen on the few and redistributes it across the community. This is only fair as "hard work" isn't the issue. The issue is ensuring some protection--a communally maintained safety net--from the damaging winds of fortune.
But, it might be countered, what about those intrinsic factors? Some people are poor because they are lazy or spend their money on wine or "loose living." Should these people be rewarded by the Jubilee?
The Jubilee takes these intrinsic factors into account by working on the generational scale. That is, the economic sins of the fathers are not to be visited upon the children. The generations are to be liberated from the cycles of chronic poverty. A child is not to suffer the economic consequences of a father would wasted his life and lost the family homestead. Thus, the goal of Jubilee isn't to extend charity to the lazy. The goal is to break generational cycles of poverty.
The Economic and Political Implications of the Jubilee
The question we are left with is this: How should the Jubilee affect how we, as Christians, approach contemporary political and economic policy issues?
First, I don't think the Jubilee can be, in any straightforward way, applied to contemporary America. I say this on purely pragmatic grounds. The nation of Israel began their common economic life in the Promised Land in a state of approximate equality (every family with its own plot of land). This primordial place of equity is needed for the Jubilee to work. The Jubilee is a "reset" button and we need to specify the initial setting for the mechanism to work. Obviously, in America today we have no initial setting of primordial equity. Some people began their lives in America as landed aristocracy. Some were slaves. There was no primordial equality in America. We began this national experiment with dramatic and tragic wealth disparities.
Given our lack of a primordial state of equality can the Jubilee have anything to say about our current economic policies? I believe so. First, the Jubilee does inform us about God the Economist, about how God thinks about issues such as wealth redistribution, price, banking practices, and debt. More specifically, we see how God wants economic policy to be shaped to address some Divine concerns about ensuring the common good. Specifically:
- Wealth redistribution, banking, debt and price control practices to create a communally maintained safety net to protect people from the whims of fortune.
- Wealth redistribution, banking, debt and price control practices that crack cycles of chronic poverty.