Capitalism vs. Biblical Law

Exodus 20:

15 Thou shalt not steal.

16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

(King James Version)

“Thou shalt not steal.” “Thou shalt not covet.” On these two commandments one could build a libertarian legal framework, and some Christian libertarians do just that. They are partially correct. Not only does the 10th Commandment make wishing for socialism a sin, the Law of Moses in general is a framework for a society that strongly resembles anarcho-capitalism. Recall that God was none too happy when the ancient Israelites demanded a king.

But then there is the rest of the Bible, including that pesky New Testament, with all its good news for the poor and admonitions against accumulating wealth. Churches which focus on the New Testament tend to think lefty thoughts, even going so far as to flirt with Marxism. And lately, the Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has been making anti-capitalist pronouncements, with much rejoicing from the liberal media.

Is he right to do so? If so, how do you explain the Old Testament Law? Did the Creator start out as a right wing extremist and then get all tender hearted after his son was born?

I think not. The Law of Moses has rather more lefty goodness than most people realize. Despite the assertions of Christian libertarians and Tea Party Republicans, the Old Testament Law contained labor laws, constraints on wealth accumulation, public health regulations, laws against predatory lending, mercy towards property criminals, and something very much resembling a universal basic income.

However, the Old Testament did not mandate socialism or anything resembling Marxism. Those on the Christian Left unhappy with modern capitalism would do well to study God’s example government when coming up with remedies. Conversely, those on the Religious Right should soften their hearts a bit and recognize that God called for more than voluntary charity even back in the days where there was no tax funded police force or standing army.

So here’s a quick course. I have covered many of these subjects in more depth complete with citations elsewhere on this site. Just follow the links if you are interested.

Just Say No to Feudalism

Leviticus 25:

8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

9 Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.

10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

(King James Version)

Let us start where Daniel Ortega, Moses, and Murray Rothbard are on the same page: feudalism is bad. When the rich hog the land, the rich become parasites.

Murray Rothbard called for one-time radical land reform. The land distribution in much of Latin America is a byproduct of a feudal order set up by the Spanish Conquest. According to Rothbard’s libertarian theories, this made the land stolen property, and thus he called for a breaking up of large land holdings that was at least as radical as what the Sandinistas later carried out. Once a reasonably just land distribution is achieved, then it’s on to a pure private property regime according to Rothbard.

Biblical Law called for ongoing land reform. Every jubilee year all farmland was to be redistributed as if inheritance was the only way to transfer ownership. It was illegal to buy land and then use the rent to buy more land indefinitely. Wealthy farmers could only buy leaseholds which lasted up to the next jubilee year. Unsuccessful farmers could not sell off their descendants’ birthrights to the family farm.

While the inheritance laws did favor the eldest son, it appears that primogeniture was illegal. The eldest got a double share; younger other sons got a single share. Successful men who used their wealth to acquire multiple wives had their estates more finely divided. Instead of creating legacies for future lazy descendants, they got to enrich the national gene pool.

Latin America, and thus the new Latin American Pope, flirts with communism because of the injustices of feudalism, not capitalism.

That said, the Law also put some limits on other businesspeople.

Labor Law in the Old Testament

Deuteronomy 24:

14 You must not oppress a lowly and poor servant, whether one from among your fellow Israelites or from the resident foreigners who are living in your land and villages.

15 You must pay his wage that very day before the sun sets, for he is poor and his life depends on it. Otherwise he will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

(NET Bible®)

If you underpay and you work people into the ground, they have no time or resources to look for a job or go into business for themselves. The Old Testament says don’t do that. Indeed, the opening chapter of the Bible is a setup for a labor law: the Sabbath. Work was restricted to six days a week from the beginning.

But I’d like to point out another interesting bit of labor law: you were supposed to pay your workers by sundown. This probably implied not working people after sundown, but I cannot prove it. But even if it did not, it put a limit on a common dirty trick played by corrupt employers: changing the terms of payment after the work is done. See the Humphrey Bogart movie “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” for an illustration. Extended internships, jobs that pay in “prizes”, and the virtual slavery practiced in parts of India are other examples. With the requirement that employers pay daily, the worst case scenario is that an employee gets underpaid for a single day’s labor.

Also, many of the mentally weak have a terrible time budgeting for the future. Daily payments reinforce the connection between real work and making money. Deferred payments make lottery tickets way too exciting by comparison.

A Universal Basic Income of Sorts

Deuteronomy 23:

24. When thou comest into thy neighbour's vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel.

25. When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour's standing corn.

(King James Version)

The ultimate check on abusive employers is the ability of employees to quit and look elsewhere for work. This is an area where excessive labor law can backfire: make life too hard for employers, and those seeking work have limited options. On the other hand, back in the days of free wheeling capitalism in the United States, working conditions could be pretty harsh.

The Law provided a safety valve: you could eat without working. The gleaner laws allowed anyone to go out into the fields after the harvest and gather what was left after the first pass. Also, one could go into any field at any time and eat what was there as long as you didn’t bring a basket or any other tools. This right was unconditional; the able-bodied could exercise this right. Jesus and his disciples did so.

Jesus was a welfare cheat according to modern Republican standards.

(I too was guilty of advocating such a hard hearted standard back when I supported pure libertarianism. Today, I advocate a universal basic income as part of my ongoing quest to make government less onerous.)

Capital for the People

Deuteronomy 15:

7 If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the LORD your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition.

8 Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs.

(NET Bible®)

A social safety net is at best a stopgap measure. The better long term check on abusive employers is to have more employers to choose from and/or the ability to go into business for yourself.

Under the Law of Moses, self-employment for at least part of your career was meant to be the norm. The Jubilee Laws gave all non-Levite citizens a right to a piece of the ancestral farm at some part of their lives should they live long enough. But they were also entitled to business loans at zero interest. Not only was it illegal to lend at interest to a fellow Hebrew, the rich were expected to make loans at zero interest.

True, these loans were secured by future labor. Fail to pay and you could become an indentured servant for up to six years. But upon release you were to be given yet more capital to get a second chance at economic independence.

Mercy Toward Robbers

Listen up Tea Partiers and admirers of Sheriff Arpaio: while the Law was very harsh on violent criminals, and it supports your Second Amendment right to self-defense, it was otherwise lenient on thieves compared to U.S. law today. There were no prisons! A thief was a debtor. Period. If he couldn’t pay back sufficient restitution, he had to work a term of indenture. But he had access to his family. He didn’t live in a cage in a state of continuous fear. There was no solitary confinement, no need to shove a cell phone up where the sun doesn’t shine in order to have contact with the outside world.

And he got capital to start a new life upon release.

Factory Farming vs. Biblical Law

Deuteronomy 25:

4 You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain

(NET Bible®)

Leviticus 19:

19 You must keep my statutes. You must not allow two different kinds of your animals to breed, you must not sow your field with two different kinds of seed, and you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.

(NET Bible®)

Deuteronomy 22:

9 You must not plant your vineyard with two kinds of seed; otherwise the entire yield, both of the seed you plant and the produce of the vineyard, will be defiled.

10 You must not plow with an ox and a donkey harnessed together.

11 You must not wear clothing made with wool and linen meshed together.

(NET Bible®)

And now a few words to those rural Red Staters annoyed by animal rights activists and environmental regulations: the Bible might side with the environmentalists sometimes.

This is not to say that we should become nature worshipping hippie vegans. But there are hints here and there that we should show a bit of stewardship towards the creation. Muzzling oxen as they are tasked to tread on grain is a minor cruelty compared to modern factory farming.

And note the prohibition on hybridization. Perhaps GMO seed is an even worse offense.

Frankenfarming is as much about increasing economies of scale as it is about boosting total yields anyway. Mix more skilled labor into farming and you can get pretty good yields without tinkering with the Creation or destroying the natural environment. Note that the Jubilee Laws tended to keep farming a small scale personal operation.

And the land itself is entitled to a bit of rest.

Leviticus 25:

3 Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather the produce,

4 but in the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath of complete rest — a Sabbath to the LORD. You must not sow your field or prune your vineyard.

5 You must not gather in the aftergrowth of your harvest and you must not pick the grapes of your unpruned vines; the land must have a year of complete rest.

6 You may have the Sabbath produce of the land to eat — you, your male servant, your female servant, your hired worker, the resident foreigner who stays with you,

7 your cattle, and the wild animals that are in your land — all its produce will be for you to eat.

(NET Bible®)

Love Thy Neighbor

Leviticus 19:

18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

(King James Version)

Deuteronomy 22:

9 You must not plant your vineyard with two kinds of seed; otherwise the entire yield, both of the seed you plant and the produce of the vineyard, will be defiled.

10 You must not plow with an ox and a donkey harnessed together.

11 You must not wear clothing made with wool and linen meshed together.

(NET Bible®)

Love thy neighbor as thyself is an Old Testament commandment. Jesus was quoting. Keep that in mind when trying to measure a leftward drift in the Bible. The lefty goodness was always there.

But there was also quite a bit of conservative and libertarian goodness as well. The Bible does not say love humanity as yourself. You can’t. Pretending to do so is an act of self-deception. The best you can do for humanity is to study economics and look carefully at the statistics and think through the complete implications of policies and laws. This is difficult and unnatural. Note how the national news channels lock onto particular cases which make for dramatic stories, while hundreds or thousands of people get lost to the national consciousness. This is bad. A nation is not a neighborhood.

Instead, we should be focusing on the stories in our respective communities, where we as individuals and churches can actually get to know the details and do something useful without having to muster a national majority or get the ear of a king, president, or dictator.

For a nation or humanity, it’s about making and enforcing rules that are good enough so that local charity can do the rest. This is more social legislation than the libertarian ideal, but less than a socialist utopia. The Law of Moses does contain what we would call social legislation today, but the Law is clearly crude and incomplete. There are benefits to this crudity; the Law works in a society without efficient bureaucracy, record keeping, and communications. Wealthier nations can perhaps do better, but even there aspiring for rule-based perfection creates legal cruft, which strangles small business and leads to corporate serfdom. Attempts at legal perfection are even worse in poorer nations where corruption is rampant.

Better rules can make the world a better place, but there is no substitute for love at the local level.