We’re all working for the Pharaoh

We’re all working for the Pharaoh July 21, 2015


More of our reports and analysis from the recent Acton University conference. Read the first eight posts here:

  1. The refreshing difference
  2. We can’t create heaven on earth
  3. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”
  4. Is there really enough to go around?
  5. Letting our Jesus Freak flag fly
  6. Was Jesus a socialist?
  7. But what about sin?
  8. The pursuit of wealth is not neutral

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

The first lecture I attended at Acton, after the required series of four foundational lectures, was John Bergsma’s “Property Rights in the Old Testament I,” focusing on the Pentateuch. Bergsma, of course, argued that the Bible supports principles of private property and the free market, at times using what I found rather strained arguments. For instance, he argued that the transaction in which Esau sells his birthright to Jacob implies the legitimacy of buying and selling even intangible things, and he suggested that Jacob’s deceit of his father was an attempt (however misguided in its method) to recover what was rightfully his in the face of Isaac’s willingness to “collude” with Esau to defraud Jacob. (I had always thought that the blessing Jacob cheated Esau out of and the birthright he bought were two different things, but Bergsma seems to believe that they were the same thing.)

Central to Bergsma’s interpretation of the Pentateuch was what he called the “liturgical” aspect of property rights. Freedom from the “command economy” of Egypt, and possession of one’s own land, is necessary so that God’s people can properly worship God. Now we could argue whether this link between property and worship holds in quite the same way in the New Testament, but as an observation about the OT (clearly with implications for Christians) I found this quite profound and thought-provoking.

Less convincing was Bergsma’s claim that some degree of inequality was presupposed by the command not to covet. Now I don’t dispute that inequality between rich and poor existed, of course. What bothers me about this claim is the assumption that “coveting” is only possible if you have less than someone else. This, I think, gets close to the heart of my fundamental moral issue with much of what I heard at Acton, and what I consistently hear from Christian defenders of the free market.

Biblical stories involving someone coveting what belongs to someone else, at least the ones that come to my mind at the moment, involve a rich man desiring something that a poorer man has. Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, not because Naboth was richer than Ahab but because Ahab’s fancy was tickled by this particular vineyard. Similarly, the rich man in Nathan’s parable in 2 Sam. 12 (and, of course, David in the real story to which the parable points) has far more “sheep” than the poor man whose one ewe lamb the rich man desires.

The most fundamental issue raised in Bergsma’s talk, though, was the nature of property in the OT. As Bergsma admitted, property in the OT is not really “private,” because (at least in the case of land) it belonged fundamentally to the family. This of course is the idea behind the law saying that familiar property should be returned in the “year of jubilee.” Bergsma pointed out that the Torah does prorate the value of the property based on how many years are left, showing respect for the rights of the buyer. But fundamentally, it seems to me that the concept of property found in the Torah is at odds with that of modern capitalism.

On the other hand, the OT understanding of property fits quite well with the Catholic economic and political philosophy known as “distributism,” articulated by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in the early 20th century. As I believe I mentioned in my first post, this is the position that I most identify with in regards to socio-economic matters.

From this perspective, “capitalism” (as defined by the distributists) and “socialism” are two sides of the same coin. Both concentrate power in the hands of a few–capitalist entrepreneurs in the one case, government bureaucrats on the other.  The distributist goal, on the other hand, is to encourage the “widest possible ownership of property.” Distributists tend to agree with the Marxist critique of capitalism as “alienating” workers from the product of their labor, but their answer is radically different.

Instead of doing away with private ownership, the proper approach is to encourage more ownership. Chesterton and Belloc used the slogan, “the problem with capitalism is that there are too few capitalists.” The original “distributists” were not primarily economists, and were highly idealistic. Hence, it’s easy to dismiss distributism as a naive fantasy. However, in recent years authors such as John Medaille and Thomas Storck have revived distributism and are applying distributist principles to contemporary economic and political issues.

From my perspective, distributism is primarily about goals and secondarily about means. Hence, I found it interesting that Todd Flanders, in his lecture on distributism (also on Thursday), spoke approvingly of the goals of distributism and found common ground in that respect with his own “free-market” perspective. Flanders particularly affirmed distributism’s “humane” approach to economics, recognizing the importance of the person and the family and treating people as more than just production units. He also praised distributism’s adherence to the principle of subsidiarity and its opposition both to autonomous individualism and to “crony capitalism.”

On the other hand, Flanders questioned whether distributism could “deliver” these goals. In particular, he criticized the willingness of most distributists to call in the power of the state in order to ensure wider ownership. The valid goals of distributism, he argued, can best be met by free-market methods. For instance, one of the common distributist claims is that wages and prices ought to be regulated (preferably by guilds) so as to meet Pope Leo XIII’s call for every working man to have a wage sufficient to support a family. Flanders argued (as does Thomas Woods in his The Church and the Market) that this is economically unfeasible and would actually harm the poor.

Indeed, distributists such as Belloc and Chesterton were critical of the very concept of wages, arguing that it was better for people to own their own land, or to be joint owners of a company, rather than to be “wage slaves.” (The Mondragon Corporation, in Spain, is often held up as an example of such a “distributist business,” and Flanders in fact praised Mondragon as an example of how distributist goals may be met through free-market methods.) Flanders countered, “I’m a wage slave and I like it.”

Not everyone is cut out to be a farmer. Not everyone needs or wants to own land. Some people find more fulfillment and security in working at a specialized job and receiving a wage. Furthermore, Flanders pointed out that being a joint owner of the company for which one works actually puts one at more economic risk, because if the company folds one loses both one’s job and one’s investments. Owning stock in a company other than the one for which one works actually gives more security. (I thought this was a very strong argument.)

Flanders also argued that there is a natural tendency in the free market for wealth to become concentrated in relatively few hands. This I think was a significant admission calling into question his initial claim that distributist goals can be met through free-market means. For Flanders, this makes distributism impractical. It would require constant government intervention. And, of course, for practically anyone involved with Acton, that is an automatic disqualifier.

Click to read one of Edwin’s fundamental disagreements with the Acton philosophy.

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