This is another post that got long but I think it’s worth it. As an incentive, if you hold out to the end I will even bring in F.A. Hayek.
Christian redistributionists sometimes appeal to the Old Testament Law, especially the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, as evidence for a “leveling” of society. They point out that during jubilee, which happened every 50 years, land was “redistributed” and slaves were set free and they claim all this as a biblical mandate for “social justice.”
I’m here to disagree with that interpretation of jubilee, but if nothing else I’d like to point out a couple of things.
- We must keep things in their historical, cultural, and theological contexts. Any serious student of the Bible has probably learned to “keep it in context.” That’s a principle I’ve tried to apply to many things from economics and history to personal life decisions.
- Ancient Israel was a theocracy, with the religious and civil laws all intermingled together. America is not. Culturally, we have historically been a Christian nation and have drawn our morals from Christianity (a reason I believe the West has been so successful) but we do not have an official religion with official religious laws.
- The Israelites were God’s chosen people and they were operating life based on specific promises He made to them. It originally had no king or much government at all. From what I can see He set things up in ways that forced them to rely on God for their prosperity and protection. The system He set up was for them and was not a mandate for all nations.
There may be other caveats but my point is that when studying the Old Testament Law and trying to apply them to modern politics we need to keep things like this in mind. While I heartily agree with searching for overall and eternal principles, we need to remember that some things were meant for unique times, situations, and people.
THE YEAR OF JUBILEE
Now on to the good stuff! Was the year of jubilee a time of “leveling” of the society? I do not believe so and here is why:
Wealth was not “leveled”
First and foremost, only land was returned; there was not a “leveling” of wealth itself. If someone bought a chunk of land right after jubilee, he had 50 years to get as much profit as possible from that land. After 50 years he relinquished the land itself, not the wealth he made from it. He’s financially ahead while the original owner, now an old man, is starting again from square one.
Likewise, if someone sold his land right after jubilee, he would have to wait 50 years to regain it for free. Doing so possibly ensured his poverty for 50 years or forced him to find some other occupation or indentured servitude. If he was smart with the money procured he could find a way to turn a profit and possibly buy back the land before jubilee. But if he waited he would re-obtain the land only as an old man.
The point here is that wealth itself was not leveled.
Not all the land was returned
The only land that was returned to the original owners was the agricultural land, not the dwellings within walled cities (Leviticus 25:29-31). I suppose that would include craftsmen who worked in the city and became wealthy from shops and such; they would not be required to return the property (possibly I’m reading too much into this). Fifty years is a long time to have no house or shop. This is hardly the “social justice” case of “affordable housing” for all.
Not all slaves were freed
The only slaves required to be freed at jubilee were fellow Hebrew people. Slaves taken from foreign nations or resident aliens were not required to be freed and the Israelites were allowed to bequeath them as an inheritance (Leviticus 25:44-46). There was no “leveling” of the entire society here and, again, this is hardly the case for the modern “social justice” rhetoric.
Rule of Law and Certainty of the Law
Underneath all this I can’t help but see the principle of the Rule of Law as stated by F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (bolding mine).
“Stripped of all technicalities, this means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge….under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action. Within the known rules of the game the individual is free to pursue his personal ends and desires, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts.”
God gave His Law to the Hebrew people before they ever entered the Promised Land. The rules were fixed, known beforehand, and so the Israelites were not surprised when, every 50 years, they had to give up the land they bought. Based on the certainty of the law businessmen and entrepreneurs could make the best decisions possible in weighing the risks associated with investment. As John Steele Gordon said;
“…markets, which can function even in disaster with ruthless efficiency, hate uncertainty. When uncertainty regarding the future is high, they tend to tread water” (Imprimis July/August 2012)
But when laws are constantly changing—as they have in America for several decades—there is no certainty in the future so why risk your money in investment? When laws remain fixed, people know how to adjust to make better financial decisions.
We would all be quite upset if the rules of a football game kept changing in the middle, thereby forcing our team to lose. If we do not agree with arbitrary and constant rule changes in football why would we support it in an entire society of 300 million people?
So there it is as I see it. The year of jubilee was not quite the “leveling” that some make it out to be. Wealth itself was created and retained by the investor and was not redistributed. The year of jubilee put some restraints on the rich but it also put restraints on the poor. They could not simply take what they wanted in the name of “social justice.” They either had to buy back their own land or wait 50 years to get it for free. There was no class warfare or politics of envy and there is a strong belief in private property. Some were richer, some were poorer, there was no mandate to eliminate poverty, and it seems like the system is designed to encourage hard work and smart financial decisions.
While it’s likewise not a case for a complete and unrestrained free market, it’s hardly a socialist utopia. The restraints here may be worthy of thought and discussion, but whatever system we put in place needs to remain fixed so that we all know the rules by which to play. No matter what system we have some will always have more than others. Therefore, we also need to stop the politics of envy and coveting (two other Christian sins by the way).
But I am not a scholar of Old Testament Law. Maybe there is more to it than this, but thus far in my intellectual journey I think it reasonable.