Child Care, Community, and Secure Retirement the Old Testament Way

Exodus 20:

12 "Honor your father and your mother, that you may live a long time in the land the LORD your God is giving to you.

(NET Bible®)

“It takes a village to raise a child.” Maybe so, but the United States of America is not a village. Neither are the individual states, not even New Hampshire. Neither are the cities or even most towns. A village is a small group of people who live close together for long periods of time, often generations. And many of those people are relatives.

Conservatives lament the breakdown of the American family, as well they should. What only some conservatives recognize is that the breakdown began centuries ago. For family, as defined throughout most of human history, meant more than Mom, Dad and children. Family included grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. We began breaking up traditional families the moment the first European colonists set sail for the New World, and broke them up again as covered wagons went west. But traditional arrangements survived for many families into the mid 20th Century. You can see it watching reruns of old black and white variety shows. Mother-in-law jokes were as common then as fat jokes are today.

Extended family is not always fun. It can come with loss of privacy, different ways of doing things, unwanted criticism. Many longed for freedom from traditional constraints, and with feminism, mechanization, and Social Security we got it. Young adults are free to shop around the nation or even the world for a mate, and to settle down wherever career, climate, or social scenes are optimal. Grandparents are freed from baby-sitting duties and can act like college kids during their golden years…until their bodies wear out at which time they are shunted off to institutions. Future seniors will be ready for such a fate, as they grew up in institutions as Mom and Dad pursued their separate career paths.

And we wonder why our great wealth is not buying us happiness. It takes a mighty fine vacation to make up for time used up earning two incomes while there are small children in the family. It’s rather expensive finding a nanny that’s as trustworthy as Grandma, and can any paid servant provide discipline as well? It can take hundreds of hours of expensive counseling to make up for being in daycare before you should be weaned. And with the joy of family overwhelmed by stress, is it any wonder that even the nuclear family is going the way of the traditional family?

The Biblical Answer

Leviticus 19:

18 You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

The Old Testament answer is not groovy or liberating. Sticking to a marriage contract even when times are rough…is rough. Honoring your parents when they are old and incontinent is inconvenient to say the least. But faithfulness has its rewards as well. Rough times usually end. Raise children well and set a good example by caring for your parents, and your children will likely care for you. This is the promise which accompanies the Fifth Commandment.

All of this is old news to Christians. What is often downplayed or overlooked are the second-order family provisions in the Bible: the Jubilee laws and the Biblical laws of inheritance. When the Israelites conquered Canaan they divided up the farmland roughly equally. From then onwards, farmland was to stay in the hands of the original families, inherited through male line descent. If you didn’t like farming or your family, you could sell a lease on your part of the family farm and live in a city, but on the year of Jubilee, the lease reverted back to you or your descendents. The Law tied people to their extended families. “Love they neighbor” in practice meant loving a relative or someone renting land from a relative for the most part.

These laws seem restrictive, sexist and unfair to the modern mind. Why be tied to a single parcel of land? Why was land inherited by males only? And why did the eldest get a double share?

Restricting outright sale of land prevented wealth accumulation through unproductive rent-seeking, as I covered earlier. The single tax proposed by Henry George might accomplish the same thing, but the single tax encourages overpopulation and discourages stewardship of the land. Yet there is more: tying families to an ancestral estate encouraged extended families to stay together, or at least in touch. Adults had kin nearby to lend a hand when in need. Children had cousins to play with. Sons had economic incentive to be near parents during their dotage.

Sons. Why did only sons inherit the land? Imagine the more fair system of sons and daughters both inheriting. Families would be divided as to which field to work. The arrangement was infeasible in that pre-automotive age. Inheritance through the female line only would have worked, and there would be no question of legitimacy. Birth is more easily witnessed than conception. But perhaps that is the problem. The economic tie between man and wife would be looser, as would be the tie between father and child.

As for the eldest son getting a double share, the eldest sons had to wait the longest to get their shares.

Still, the arrangement is un-American. We are used to buying and selling land just like we buy and sell items of personal property. Our ancestors broke ties to our ancestral lands by coming here. Upper class colonists were used to primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited the entire estate and the younger sons had to make their fortunes elsewhere. So I am by no means suggesting that we try to implement the Jubilee laws as written here outside the Holy Land, where we don’t have extended family trees to work with, and the original land distribution was nowhere near equal. I am suggesting that we appreciate those who do manage to live a more traditional lifestyle and recognize the benefits they receive from their voluntary loss of freedom. And we might contemplate ways to adjust our laws to encourage, or at least not discourage, family and community continuity.

Modern Applications

Rest assured I do not wish to tie everyone to a family plot or impose a Biblical lifestyle on everyone. I have enjoyed the modern mobile lifestyle myself. But as I grow older, I appreciate more traditional lifestyles and think it is time to revisit some modern do-gooder legislation which attempts to make family and community economically obsolete. Fortunately, many liberal do-gooders agree. They’re experimenting with eco villages and revisiting the zoning rules which forced a transportation-centric lifestyle on many. They are even talking about adopting a seventh generation outlook, a truly conservative frame of mind in the oldest sense of the word.

Developers can do interesting things. Instead of miles of residential streets attaching cul-de-sacs to pedestrian-unfriendly boulevards, maybe the old fashioned grid layout should be given another try. How about something in between the independent single-family dwelling and the condominium complex? How about clusters of independently owned homes surrounding a commons for the children to play in instead of houses surrounded by lots which are more suitable for show than playing in? How about tucking villages inside of farms instead of selling lots along the highways?

The Internet also has great promise for restoring village and small town life. With telecommuting the highly educated need not leave their home communities throughout their careers in order to make good use of their skills.

Finally, how about allowing families to be true economic units again? We might want to revisit death taxes. Instead of taxing estates and givers, tax the recipient, but allow a nontrivial lifetime accumulated deductible. As long as families divide their businesses and farms to enough heirs, they can avoid the death taxes. Wealth gets spread out while families can build and preserve wealth over generations. Scions of business founders may not be as sharp as the best business managers on the market at maximizing profits for the next quarter. But they can offset their relative incompetence with a long term view. In these days of massive corporate collapse it is worth noting that the only American car company that didn’t go bankrupt is still family controlled…