A Conservative Economy

In the last entry I examined the “shock doctrine,” in Naomi Klein’s phrase, as a method of perhaps explaining some recent actions and behaviors by people in power. My conclusion was that shock doctrine/disaster capitalism is an attempt at what I call “neoliberal sustainability”: their methods often unleash disaster on nations following their principles, and they then profit from the resulting chaos, be it social, economic, or ecological. I pointed out that their raw materials — the environment, their workers, or both — would eventually lash back against them. Their version of sustainability really isn’t, because while they can dance for a long time, the planet is an island, presently inescapable.

What is our alternative?

Some would argue that we need to get back to plain old capitalism, with no disasters involved. Unfortunately the djinn is out of the bottle. If we adopt a purely capitalist system (that is to say, more than we already have), disaster capitalists will act, and as they are willing to monetize the unthinkable and hawk their wares during tragedy, they will have a competitive advantage; soon all other capitalists will have to go back to neoliberal theory just to compete. It’ll be the tragedy of the commons all over again. While Milton Friedman propounded neoliberal theory, he did not precisely invent the mechanisms involved. Chicago School capitalism is an evolution of capitalism, not an aberration—capitalism taken to its logical extreme.

Socialism is perhaps the most highly-regarded alternative to disaster capitalism, at least world-wide. I speak of what might be termed light-handed socialism: a strong government-supplied social safety net, public health care, progressive tax codes that redistribute at least a portion of the wealth. This is popular, to one degree or another, the world over: even here in the capitalist-dominated United States we have welfare, Social Security, and Medicare, although neoliberals have attacked all three and certain conservatives have adopted the extremely ill-informed position of “keep the government’s hands off of Medicare!” The US also has a system of public education, another socialist principle, even if the US system is creaky and perhaps failing. There is much to admire about a socialist setup, but it does leave some things to be desired.

The difficulties with socialism are threefold. First, socialism’s tendency is to drift away from personal liberty and toward “knowing what’s best” for its citizens. Secondly it may permit people to be idle, neither contributing to the community nor reaching their full potential. Finally it relies on a strong central government, with all its attendant bureaucracy. When the first and the third problems combine we drift toward tyranny, and so I do not trust socialism on its own. If democratically built and maintained by people of good will, it could function well, and I would not be surprised, nor entirely displeased, if all the world ended up on some form of light-hand socialism. But even people of good will can be misguided and trample on the rights of others.

I would like to put forward an alternative. Let me say that this system I am about to describe is almost entirely theoretical and has its own inherent flaws. Moreover, considering the range of human behavior, I am suspicious of any one solution proving effective. However I offer it up because it makes for an interesting contrast with Friedman’s neoliberalism, and worthy of discussion.

Consider a system in which all people are compelled to set aside a portion of their income for the poor, as a social safety net. Moreover, periodically—no exceptions or exemptions—everyone lives on that safety net, no matter how wealthy or exalted, and, again periodically and again without exception, all debts are forgiven,  On a somewhat longer cycle, all property is returned to its original owners, no matter who’d owned it for decades.

Radical, isn’t it? Daring? It’s on beyond socialism, really—what socialist ever insisted that people live as if they were poor every few years? How can I possibly justify putting forward such a ludicrously revolutionary plan? Who invented this nonsense, Lenin? Marx?

Well, as it’s straight out of the Bible, some might say that the inventor goes by “God.”

Don’t believe me? Leviticus and Deuteronomy, my friends. Read on:

Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the fallen grapes of the vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”

Look at that: a portion of all income (the year’s crop, which in those days was just about the only income) has to be reserved for the poor and the immigrant. The poor have to work to gather it, but everyone with land is required to leave a little of the harvest unharvested. And since the bigger fields would leave more to be gleaned, the portion exacted goes up with the increase in a person’s wealth. Progressive taxation.

Keep going, to Leviticus 25:1-7: “The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you, the land shall observe a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the yield, but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of the unpruned vine; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during the harvest—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.”

More daring yet: here Leviticus is commanding that every seven years, no one even gets an income. You don’t plant a crop, you just let the land go wild, and then everyone eats what they can—like the poor do in every other year. Now the richer folks could derive some benefit from stored harvests, but they’d still be out rubbing elbows with the poor to supplement this store, which wouldn’t last forever. Can you imagine Warren Buffett or the Koch brothers standing in line at the soup kitchen next to the homeless vets and mentally ill? That’s what this is commanding.

It gets better—try Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 7-11: “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. […] If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry out to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God shall bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.”

Oh, my. All debts forgiven? Loaning to your neighbor even though you know you won’t get your money back? Debt and interest on debt are the bedrock of our whole system. Try telling Visa or Bank of America that they don’t get to collect what they’ve loaned out, if the calendar’s ticked over into the seventh year. Then try telling them that they have to loan it out anyway. Our banks would fall apart (more than they already have, that is).

Now for the real kicker, Leviticus 25:8-17, 23: “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout the land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer you shall diminish the price […] The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

Wow. So under the law of Leviticus, we have no more claim on the land than the immigrants currently so despised; under the law of Leviticus, there is no private property, for everything belongs to God. We just get to borrow it. In another verse it states that houses in walled cities are excepted; but otherwise the land, which in those days was the heart and soul of all property, the home equity and the investments of the age, belongs ultimately to God, not to us.

Such a radical notion can have no bearing on America, surely. We have never followed such biblical law. Except that judges have insisted that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our law; except that until 2003, Texas and eleven other states had a law against sodomy practically taken direct from Leviticus 18:22; except that “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” is inscribed around the top of the Liberty Bell. It’s why it’s called the Liberty Bell. The Bible is in our blood. To our shame we have generally adopted those laws that coerce and compel, not those that liberate; there has never been a jubilee of riches on this continent. But the code is there.

But where do I get off arguing for Leviticus 25 and against Leviticus 18? Simple: I use the formula that Jesus taught, in the Gospel of Mark (12:28-30): “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The lesson is plain: if one commandment conflicts with another, then these two take priority. So yes, Leviticus 18:22 proclaims that men having sex with men is an abomination, but the commandment to love our neighbors prevails over it, and I so love my neighbors that I will not say anything done in such great love between people is abominable. Meanwhile Leviticus 25 commands us to live, on occasion, like the poor, and there can be no greater act of love for your neighbors than to share their suffering. Compassion, it is, in the old sense: com-passion, “suffering with.” So I set aside one part of Leviticus and raise up another, just like Jesus did.

I remember a few other things Jesus said: “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11). Which seems discouraging until you recall this: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Or try Matthew 19.23: “Truly I tell you, it  will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Or Matthew 6:19-21, and 6:24, and Luke 6:20, and Luke 16 pretty much throughout…

Mutual care and compassion is the backbone of the Judeo-Christian ethos. The wealthy are charged, time and time again, to care for those with little or nothing. Jesus even points out that without the love of neighbors there’s not even any point in following any of the other rules: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40).

Now, remember that I am only mostly Christian, and remember that I am putting this forward as a theoretical contrast to Friedmanian economics. Obviously the Biblical Jubilee and sabbath year would be awfully difficult to enact now. It could be done, but it would require a radicalism beyond socialism. After all, we could replace leaving a little grain to be gleaned with our food stamp program, but how could we enforce everyone living off them and them alone every seventh year? I think the only way would be to ban all financial transactions, period—every seventh year, all the wealth of all the millionaires and billionaires simply becomes worthless for a time. It is not taken away or redistributed, it just… stops working. They could wait out the year and be filthy rich again at the end of it, but for that seventh year they’d have to live a little more like the rest of us.

This idea has its own flaws. Still, what a different vision of society, no? The men who insisted that adultery be punished by death and prohibited eating shellfish on the grounds that they didn’t have fins and scales, also insisted that the poor be cared for without exception, that the chains of debt be broken, and that to a certain extent private property simply doesn’t exist, since everything belongs to the Creator. How’s that for conservatism?

It makes you wonder why those Christians backing the GOP aren’t lobbying, and hard, in favor of welfare and food stamps; it makes you wonder why those Jewish people voting Republican and insisting on military aid for Israel aren’t demanding debt relief for homeowners and credit-card holders. Ah well. As we’ve seen, hypocrisy is running amok these days; I’m hardly immune myself. I can be hard on such people, as I have been hard on neoliberals, yet they are my neighbors too. I do not want to see them poor; I do not want vengeance. I want to see them just as comfortable and healthy as everyone else in the neighborhood is.

So as the Republicans—and those Democrats who belong to the banks—continue to put forward neoliberal theory as government policy, and pass their tax cuts by holding jobless benefits hostage, remember: there are alternatives. Old alternatives. Radical, and yet with impeccably conservative credentials. You might even ask yourselves, “What would Leviticus do?”

When it comes to rules on how people have to treat each other, the Bible is abundantly clear: treat each other with justice and compassion. The neoliberal theory that has hijacked our economy, our government, and even our discourse is neither compassionate nor just. Remember that.

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One thought on “A Conservative Economy

  1. Pingback: Moses mount | 2p-tech

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