The Gleaner Laws

Leviticus 19:

9 " 'When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest.

10 You must not pick your vineyard bare, and you must not gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

(NET Bible®)

Feed the hungry. Charity doesn’t get more basic than that. Ditto for welfare. No point in talking about education, counseling, job training, or even healthcare until we take care of the basics: such as food.

Then again perhaps we don’t have to talk about food in a rich nation like the United States. We have fat poor people! Name any society prior to the 20th Century which had fat poor people. On this score, we’re the greatest! What can we learn about feeding poor people from a bunch of ancient tent dwellers?

Quite a lot actually. The U.S. has fat poor people because it has a lot of food. Our food is so cheap that the government pays farmers not to plant. Our food is so cheap that we toss corn into fermentation vats to make fuel for our SUVs for that trip to McDonald’s. Our government first came up with Food Stamps as yet another way to dispose of extra food.

But it takes more than cheap food and Food Stamps to fatten our paupers. Food stamps are a small part of an alphabet soup of anti-poverty programs ranging from acknowledged welfare programs up through entitlements like Social Security and public education. This alphabet soup of anti-poverty programs and agencies employs an army of bureaucrats to administer and another army of tax collectors to fund. And even as taxes skyrocket, the needs of these programs grow faster. This once rich nation is plunging deeply into debt; national bankruptcy looms.

And even as our welfare programs drive us deeper into debt, some people still fall through the cracks. Not all poor people are fat. Some are still hungry.

Consider the problem of feeding the poor in a nation that is not rich, a nation where food is expensive. Consider doing so without an alphabet soup of pencil pushing bureaucrats. Consider doing so without pencils! It would take a miracle. But hey, we are talking about the Bible here…

The Gleaner Laws Detailed

Deuteronomy 24:

19 Whenever you reap your harvest in your field and leave some unraked grain there, you must not return to get it; it should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow so that the LORD your God may bless all the work you do.

20 When you beat your olive tree you must not repeat the procedure; the remaining olives belong to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard you must not do so a second time; they should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.

22 Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this.

(NET Bible®)

How do you provide food for the poor when food is expensive, when growing food means walking behind a pair of cantankerous oxen instead of riding in an air conditioned tractor? Tax the farmers and farmers have less reason to farm; food becomes even more expensive. Give away the food too generously and people have no incentive to farm or pay farmers. Give food only to the needy, and many poor people will fake need instead of getting a job.

The gleaner laws implicitly recognize these difficult realities. They actually require that farmers work less! Instead of hoping that farmers (or other people of means) will work hard in order to pay the taxman, the gleaner laws forbade farmers from doing the low margin efforts, leaving that work for the poor. Farmers were forbidden from reaping the corners of their fields (where the weeds concentrate) or picking up dropped sheaves of grain. Farmers were also to make only one pass through their trees and vineyards. Late ripening fruit was left for the poor to pick.

While the well off were forbidden to do the last bits of work, this work was still done – by the poor. The poor had to work to get their “free” food. But it was work that the poor could do. Gleaning requires no capital. Gleaning requires no specialized skills or education. Gleaning requires no long term planning or deferred gratification. Gleaning requires no social skills or willingness to follow orders. This is work a mentally ill bum could do – and would do since the marginal results of effort are immediate.

Deuteronomy 23:

24 When you enter the vineyard of your neighbor you may eat as many grapes as you please, but you must not take away any in a container.

25 When you go into the ripe grain fields of your neighbor you may pluck off the kernels with your hand, but you must not use a sickle on your neighbor's ripe grain.

(NET Bible®)

On the other hand, a mentally ill bum might not store up enough food to last between harvests. The same goes for anyone else who is living close to the edge. The Bible provided yet another provision for such people. Gleaner rights were not limited to just after the main harvest. The poor (actually anyone) were allowed to pick from the fields and vineyards before the harvest as well. However, they were not allowed to use tools or take a basket. In other words, they could eat on the fly prior to the harvest, but they could not stockpile what farmers had planted and tended.

Feeding the Bums and Hippies

When I walked the streets of downtown Asheville, I would be hit up by many a beggar. Some were in obvious need of help: amputees and the obviously mentally ill. Others appeared able bodied and were quite well spoken. Both types drank much of the proceeds of their begging. There were even healthy young people on the street, twenty-somethings who would rather beg for table scraps from restaurant patrons and dive into dumpsters than hold a real job. Once I even tried to recruit some of these street hippies to distribute literature for a city council candidate I was supporting. It didn’t work out, but I got to know some of these people better. The one I got to know best, “Spanky,” had once been a software programmer. He preferred living in the streets and dumpster diving to being walled in a cubicle. ‘Twas quite surreal talking to him about the lit drop proposal as he calmly rolled up a joint on the sidewalk and fired it up in broad daylight.

Most right wing welfare reformers would say that Spanky and his ilk deserve no alms. Indeed, he should be put into a bootcamp to clean out the marijuana and instill some discipline, and we should trash the Bill of Rights as part of a never-ending war on recreational herbs just to make sure that Spanky will go back to his cubicle. Many left wing do-gooders agree with most of this prescription, though they would employ a medical veneer to the forced rehabilitation.

Matthew 12:

1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick heads of wheat and eat them.

Mark 2:

23 Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples began to pick some heads of wheat as they made their way.

Luke 6:

1 Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples picked some heads of wheat, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.

(NET Bible®)

The Bible disagrees! The Bible gave gleaner rights to everyone. Though the purpose of those rights was to feed the poor and the fatherless, everyone was entitled to exercise them. Jesus and his disciples hammered home this point by exercising these rights while on the road. Jesus and company were quite capable of holding day jobs. They were articulate and had access to the best healthcare in human history, so we can assume they were able-bodied. They didn’t need to resort to nibbling other people’s crops; they did so because they had the right to. By modern standards, Jesus was a welfare cheat!

This right might cause some Objectivists and libertarians in the audience to mutter about “altruism” or “initiation of force.” To the contrary, gleaner rights stem from natural rights, as I’ll demonstrate below. But for the moment let us focus on the welfare implications: why give a welfare right to everyone? Shouldn’t we just focus on the truly needy?

Who is truly needy? It’s not always obvious. Human ability is a continuum, ranging from retarded cripples with deformed faces to athletic geniuses with winning smiles. If this range of ability is distributed in a bell shaped curve (highly likely), then the curve is higher at the border between need/not need than it is at the beginning of obvious need. Well to the left of the boundary you have the invalids, the truly crazy, the severely autistic head bangers, the profoundly retarded. Taking care of these people is hard work, but it’s obvious that the work needs to be done. At the margin you have the Forrest Gumps, the partially crippled, the guy collecting workman’s compensation for a bad back who might be able to work part time, but dares not risk losing his disabled status by trying. There’s the rub. People at the boundary have to prove need, and in doing so increase their neediness. Is that bum simply too lazy and drunk to hold a job or is he truly incapable of getting his act together? We don’t know. He doesn’t know! The same for many collecting workman’s comp. Some might be able to work part time, or at a sedentary job. Or the pain might be too much. They cannot tell without trying, and by trying they might lose their disabled status. And then there are many people near the edge who go in and out of need status.

Here is irony: to encourage the borderline needy to strive, you need to extend welfare rights to the able-bodied indolent.

The Right to Glean

Many conservatives and libertarians concede the need for charity, but balk at the idea of welfare rights, especially those which extend to those of sound mind and body. They do so for good reason: welfare rights are easily abused, and if all are on welfare, who will do the work?

Gleaning is work. Those who work the land were entitled to the easy parts of the harvest. The gleaner laws thus throttled welfare abuse without hiring and army of social workers to determine need. But this is a mere utilitarian argument. Why should anyone, needy or not, be allowed to nibble in field which others have planted? Why should they be allowed on other people’s land?

Answer: the land belongs to God. We are just tenants – including land owners. Or, for the benefit of secular philosophers, land ownership is a compromise of natural rights. Ownership means some get full exploitation rights on chunks of land while all lose the ability to be hunter-gatherers. John Locke’s theories of land ownership (at least, as usually cited) do not fully address the problem of initial ownership of the land. Yes, the farmer who clears a field adds value to the land, but the land had value to start with. We know this using revealed preference; people have fought wars over “unimproved” land.

Unimproved land often yields food on its own. Edible fruit and seeds, along with fish and game, are scattered about in nature. Gleaner rights emulate this natural state! Were the earth less crowded we could all be gleaners and no one would have to plant. On a more crowded world, some must work the land. Under the gleaner laws, those who do work the land are entitled to the amenities of civilization and the security of a barn full of food. But those ill suited to civilization were allowed a shadow of the natural life, wandering and gathering.

Modern Applications of the Gleaner Principle

We no longer live in a world of small farms within walking distance of the poor. And modern farmers are heavily invested in expensive machinery designed to extract the maximum amount from the land. Re-imposing the gleaner laws would be an ex post facto penalty upon modern farmers. Finally, I fully sympathize with any landowner loathe to allow strangers onto their land to glean in these days of high crime.

But we could still maintain some of the rights implied by the ancient gleaner laws. In fact, we already do. In some jurisdictions you can fish with hook and line without a license, but you do require a license to fish with a net. In some states bow hunting season is longer than gun hunting season. In both situations, the right to extract from nature is limited by limiting technology instead of through quotas or property rights.

This is an inherently progressive idea. High technology and property rights are upfront expenses; those who have can buy more. Low technology requires more time. Those with higher incomes will naturally limit their extraction to recreational hunter-gathering, while leaving some behind for those who “need.”

We could even apply the principle to intermediate levels of technology, where “low technology” is the fishing technology of, say, ca. 1960s sized fishing boats and nets. Overfishing by giant drift nets is devastating the oceans. Traditional fishing communities are hard hit by the damage and would be even harder hit if caps were placed on allowed catch sizes. One answer would be to cap fishing boat sizes and/or net lengths. The “arms race” of larger fishing boats is not increasing the total catch; it is diminishing catches in the long run. The arms race is simply allowing the well-capitalized to muscle out smaller independent operations. Cap boat/net sizes to what was workable a generation ago or so ago. If this is not sufficient, then offshore property rights and/or fishing quotas are necessary. If this is more than sufficient – if the catch drops below optimal – then a limited number of licenses for bigger operations could be granted.

The principle even answers the problem of whaling rights for aboriginal peoples. If we allow anyone to go whale hunting, whales would go extinct quickly given modern technology – or even late 1800s technology. If we restrict the technology to canoes and the like, only those who really want to hunt whales will do so – whether they be Inuit, Norse, Japanese, or corporate executives on a team-building offsite.

The underlying economics of the gleaner laws extends to areas other than preserving natural rights. We have various institutions which apply the principle to manufactured products: food banks and thrift stores. Take thrift stores. Today, I donate my still-useable junk to a thrift store if I don’t have a friend of family member who could use it. I don’t do garage sales or Ebay; the extra money is not worth the work. Donating to a thrift store is an example of giving by working less. When I was in college, I made many trips to the Salvation Army thrift store because I had a pickup truck and my friends were buying cheap couches for their dorm rooms. These friends were not poor or truly needy—I went to a preppy University—they were in some ways living like poor people so they could study and party instead of work full time. Gleaner type institutions support such actions while they also support the truly needy.

And this is good. The ambitious poor could use a leg up at times (a topic we’ll explore later). And the not-so-poor should sometimes chill out. The Bible doesn’t just have Sabbath days, it also has Sabbath years. Every seven years the Israelites were all supposed to be gleaners. Maybe we should adopt something similar.

Exodus 23:

10 "For six years you are to sow your land and gather in its produce.

11 But in the seventh year you must let it lie fallow and leave it alone so that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave any animal in the field may eat; you must do likewise with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Leviticus 25:

1 The LORD spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai:

2 "Speak to the Israelites and tell them, 'When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the LORD.

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®)