An article in the Times of Israel, “The road to Egypt: job creators in the Ancient World”, has the subtitle Joseph’s rise to power is no blueprint for good government but rather a profoundly cautionary tale.
I’ve not studied the issues mentioned in the article, but want to put up a post as a marker for future reference. I’ll try to come back to these ideas, but in case that doesn’t happen, or it is a long time until I do, the discussion will be here.
As a Christian, I don’t spend much time in the Torah. Okay, make that zero time.
Having spent a bit of study effort in the book of Genesis, I am familiar with the story of how Joseph used his God-provided experiences and abilities to care for his family.
Imagine my surprise to learn that during the famine years Joseph sold wheat in exchange for cattle and other livestock. When grain ran out a year later and people needed more food, they sold their land to Joseph, i.e. the government. When the famine ended, they had neither land to raise grain nor livestock to produce cash or food. They were slaves. They knowingly went into slavery.
Instead of Joseph and the feast & famine being a story favoring benevolent centralized government by a bright whiz kid who knows everything, it is instead a warning tale about a coercive government that gathers power to itself and moves its citizens into slavery.
In fact, the authors wonder who it was that caused the crisis:
The text does not give us a reason to suppose the average quantity of food is any different in the time of Joseph. What changes, however, is who owns it, and where it is kept. Joseph’s new policies are essentially two-fold: the seizure of grain by the state through taxation, and the relocation of the grain from the countryside to guarded stores in the cities. What we have here is the anatomy of a manufactured crisis.
If you want to find economic lessons in the Torah, the authors suggest you would find some other than an advocacy for centralized planning:
The fifty-year Jubilee resets gross inequalities in land ownership that have accumulated through past transactions, and the sabbatical shmita rule forces the people to rehearse for famine every seven years by letting their fields lie fallow. Even individuals who insist on remaining slaves after their prescribed term of service are sharply rebuked. The Torah does not encourage reliance on a cadre of powerful experts to secure our future. Rather, by establishing each person (and not a Pharaoh) as the image of God, it sets forth an ideal of individual autonomy and creativity to which we all can aspire.
Practice for a famine – forces saving and preparation. The individual is the image of God – hint the government isn’t your God or savior. Jubilee – resets past injustice.
Hmm. I’ll come back to this article. Good stuff to think about.
Hat tip to Café Hayek – The Biblical Road to Serfdom
Russ Roberts’ comment:
I would just point out that Joseph had inside information based on his dreams. If he had only gone public, private speculators would have saved just as he did but the power would have been decentralized and competitive rather than centralized through the state and exploitative.