When God Was the Federal Government: Jubilee and Economic Policy

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 redistribution
2. Debt forgiveness
3. Bank/lending regulation
4. Price controls
The Economic Logic of the Jubilee
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:

  1. Intrinsic Factors: Examples include hard work, discipline, business acumen, and frugality.
  2. Extrinsic Factors: Examples include the variability of nature/markets, the un/reliability of business partners, and geopolitical factors (e.g., war and peace).
Let's first consider how extrinsic factors affect wealth distribution. Consider two Israelites who, upon arrival to the Promised Land, are given their family plot from within the larger tribal allotment. Immediately, two things become apparent:

  1. Not all land is equally fertile.
  2. Weather is variable.
Consequently, we expect, from harvest to harvest, that family fortunes would being to diverge for extrinsic factors alone. And this doesn't take into consideration things like natural fires, the death of a husband, the failure to give birth to sons to work the land, theft, or damage during war. In short, perfectly hardworking and virtuous people can fall into poverty through no fault of their own.

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:

  1. Wealth redistribution, banking, debt and price control practices to create a communally maintained safety net to protect people from the whims of fortune.
  2. Wealth redistribution, banking, debt and price control practices that crack cycles of chronic poverty.
The hard part in all of this is translating the economic practices of Jubilee into a situation that began in wealth disparity and already has generations of chronic poverty. How do we apply Jubilee to an economic situation that is already this far down the road? Obviously, there will be a great deal of argument about all this. The take home point, in my mind, is that any Christian approach to economic policy will not have any knee jerk or ideological objection to wealth redistribution or top-down economic controls involved in banking, debt forgiveness or price controls. No doubt there will be many pragmatic objections. But the year of Jubilee and its economic recommendations should shape the economic sensibilities of voting Christians. The Jubilee was, after all, the economic policy when God was the federal government.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

7 thoughts on “When God Was the Federal Government: Jubilee and Economic Policy”

  1. It should be noted that it's not merely economic policy that has to change to break cyclical poverty, but the structure of our social services in general. Our schools are funded in part based on the taxes garnered from the district in which the school is situated, our health care providers charge the uninsured more than they charge insurance companies for the same service.

    The generational issue is integral. It seems as though the best chance for breaking the cycle of poverty lies with children. So we need to focus our efforts on providing good education (read: education that believes in the children's ability to break the cycle), along with numerous extracurricular programs and activities. Unfortunately, cash strapped states have been forced to cut back on these exact services.

    The renewal implied in a new generation can also be found in adults. Which is why I'm a big supporter of retraining programs. We need to rework our wealth redistribution programs to ensure that recipients are receiving the training to begin to be productive again. (I have a hunch that the lack of these programs might contribute to the "knee-jerk" reaction many Americans have against welfare, they don't see change, just unending support)


  2. Adam Kirsch just reviewed a book that is working w/ a related premise: that familiarity w/ principle of Jubilee led to acceptance of a system which redistributes wealth.


  3. How come places where these dramatic Jubilee originated policies have been enacted have produced untold misery on populations? They appear to be unrealistic and nearly always get taken too far.

    On steroids, wealth redistribution, debt forgiveness, bank regulations, and price controls have done some pretty damaging things to humanity. I am still giving this Jubilee thing some thought, but I already know what I have seen from history. In the Soviet Union the workers flipped the system and took over industry. In Maoist China, the farmers flipped the system and took over the land. The hyper-redistribution created an entitlement focused citizen in those societies where more was never enough.

    If you disagree, examine the financial relationship between the United States and many African nations receiving aid. Billions pour in, extreme debt is forgiven, and the governments enact all sorts of smothering political/economic controls with their new influx of cash. The money is too often ungratefully wasted but of course the leaders always expect more or America will be demonized.

    I think the truly important lesson from all of this is that business as usual had to occur for the other 49 years to make Jubilee possible. 49 years of toil resulted in one year of shaking things up. That’s 2% of the time period devoted to this dramatic change.

    If we are to be Jubilee minded when we vote, where do we draw the line. Do we shake up the whole system, or just little parts of it? How do we enact these principles and still promote gratitude in society, ensuring the effects of Jubilee will be long lasting? If 10% of our money is good enough for God, how much is enough for the government, 20%? 30%? 90%?

    If we are not careful here, we’ll end up with Detroit as our nation’s future. I think if we want to realistically apply this to later generations, one of the biggest gifts we can give our descendants would be to reduce the $9 trillion or so of government of debt coming down their pike.


  4. On the other side of the coin, in homogeneous populations, wealth redistribution has led to the highest standards of living in the world. The Scandinavian social democracies consistently lead the world in health care performance, education, crime rates, or pretty much any indicator you wish to examine. (A disclaimer here: I don't recommend trying to model the US after Sweden, this is merely an example of socialism producing good results)

    I think Americans too often see social policy as the equivalent of a communist dictatorship. It is really unfair to say that it was wealth distribution which ruined Russia and China, it was a dictatorial concentration of power. Redistribution was merely the path the dictators rode to control.


  5. Scandinavian socialism is always held up as the utopia but those nations don't face the challenges that large, more diverse nations do. It's no different than pointing to some well to do white suburb of a big city and saying that if you did just what they did in a black ghetto it would work.

    The Soviets fell for many reasons, and the Chinese learned from those lessons and adapted. The incredible thing is that WE did not and are trying to emulate that broken model.

  6. And yet, the Chinese are currently finding that they have to increase their social expenditures to maintain the viability of their state. China has some of the largest income gaps in the world. They have sold their development program to their citizens by making examples of quick growth zones. Shanghai, Chengdu... They will have to continue to raise standards of living, while making sure that the mass of rural peasants aren't left too far behind. Part of this involves the expansion of wealth distribution programs like subsidization and tax breaks for the rural population.

    The point of the "Jubilee principal" as it's analysed in this article is simply that welfare policies are not a priori faulty.

    We have to remember that the problems we are trying to address are very real. Costs of education and health care are rising, assents which show no sign of slowing. We should at least experiment with helping out those who have been most effected by these price increases, expand our human capital.


Leave a Reply