Rabbi Aryeh Spero penned a column for the Wall Street Journal explaining “What the Bible teaches about capitalism”.  Any guesses as to what his conclusions are?

Considering the source publication, it is no surprise that Rabbi Spero claims biblical authority proves that capitalism represents the penultimate expression of the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Capitalism is holy, and capitalists are doing God’s work.   But the Bible’s implicit endorsement of capitalism (as it never expressly endorses Adam Smith or the like) arises, if at all, from the prevalent capitalist economic organization of society during biblical times.  Spero has his causation backward.  Capitalism didn’t arise as the highest expression of man’s morality; biblical, mainly Old Testament, moral truths were forged and refined in the crucible of the existing capitalist system with which society was economically organized at the time. 

Perhaps a short history of the means by which man has organized his economic activities, i.e., his activities directed at securing the resources necessary to survive, might be helpful.

For most of his history, man was a hunter/gatherer, existing in small family groups or clans, not unlike, e.g., a chimpanzee troop or a wolf pack.  Within these groups, it must be assumed that cooperation, not competition, carried the day.  The clan members cooperated to meet the individual challenges of survival, including cooperating to fend off other clans, and other dangers life in the wild presented.  There was surely some hierarchy within the clan, and thereby some competition for place, but as against Nature, in all her many forms, inter-clan competition had to give way to cooperation or clan membership would fail of its essential purposes.   Nothing outside of one’s personal effects was individually owned, not food, nor land nor perhaps even reproductive rights.  Capitalism, in as much as it depends on the recognition of private resource ownership among the relevant group, did not exist.  Thus for most of man’s history, pure communism—from each according to ability, to each according to need—prevailed.   Today’s only extant example of pure communism is in a war-fighting unit during combat.  No so-called Communist country has ever been truly communist like our hunter/gatherer ancestors.  The state may have owned everything during, for example, Mao’s reign in China, but the Chinese Communist Party owned the state. 

It was only upon the reorganization of economic life to cultivation and animal husbandry that man became concerned with property ownership outside of his personal effects.  Animals and small plots of land were reduced to possession and control, i.e., owned, by individuals and families within the greater society.  If cultivation required collective effort, i.e., irrigation of the fields as was the case in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the collective may have had claims against the individual plots, or maybe there were no individual plots, and the community operated as something of a large commune.  In any case, the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture gave birth to at least the idea of resource ownership, and capitalism, wholly dependent on property rights recognizable by others, got its start. 

The ancient Greeks may have had the first truly capitalist society.  The polis (city-state) had a city center surrounded by family or individual-owned plots of land.  The main impetus for cooperation among the citizens of the polis was protection.  The source of wealth with which the polis provided defense was the family farms surrounding it.  It is not an accident that democracy also arose in ancient Greece.  Each producing unit—usually the family on its farm or with their flocks and herds—had a vested interest in the affairs of the state by dint of their holdings, so each was given a say in the operation of the state through the mechanism of direct voting. 

The Old Testament describes a Hebrew society very similarly organized to the Greek polis, and when it isn’t explaining the travails of ancient Hebrews in relation to their God, it provides a working basis for how individuals will treat one another in the new (at the time) agriculturally-based economic organization of society.  Thus the Ten Commandments provided prohibitions against interference with property rights, imbuing them with a moral tincture.  Not only was one not to steal, one was not even to covet. 

But imagine how quickly American capitalism today would collapse without the covetous impulse to keep up with the Joneses.   Rabbi Spero laments what he sees as envy directed at the 1% for their success, but fails to see that envy or covetousness is precisely the vehicle through which the 1% manipulates the 99% into purchasing the latest greatest consumer gadgetry to issue forth from their (off shored) factories.  If the Bible, as Spero asserts, celebrates the tenets of capitalism as the foundation for moral behavior, it should not have included the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  (Exodus 20:17, NIV).  How in the world would America have got McMansions and BMW’s and iPhones without a population consumed with covetousness?  Nobody needs McMansions, BMW’s or iPhones.  Modest cottages, Corollas and any old phone in the world will do just as well as the status-enhancing brands.  But what about the creative impulse represented by capitalists’ efforts to differentiate one’s product in the minds of consumers such that more can be charged for it because others consider it a status enhancer?  Rabbi Spero celebrates it, but somehow doesn’t get that it arises from the same place as covetousness.

What if instead of envy, the source of the 99%’ers angst is inequity?  The Bible, even the Old Testament, is replete with admonitions to treat others equitably; that justice should be the same for the poor as for the rich.  Perhaps the 99%’ers believe it an injustice that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than do their secretaries.  Is it envious to seek justice and equality in treatment before the government?  The ancient Jews certainly didn’t think so:  “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.”  (Exodus 23: 6, NIV); “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.”  (Exodus 23:8, NIV).   How is a ten million dollar donation to a political campaign anything but a bribe?  How is a lobbying contract with a government agency that is worth over a million dollars any different?

Since the very essence of capitalism is definable, defendable property rights, which is also the very essence of the agricultural means of economic organization during biblical times, then the Bible necessarily conflates, at least in the Old Testament, respect for property rights and obedience to God.  In this respect, Spero is partially correct to observe that within the Judeo-Christian ethos “resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor.”  The Old Testament has no other vehicle through which it might illustrate morally acceptable behavior than the capitalism-based society from which it sprang.

But capitalism was inherently unstable during biblical times, just as Marx observed several millennia later about capitalism in the age of Industrialization.  Capitalist instability during the dawning of agriculture was more apt to be the result of the inability of the farmers and pastoralists to survive natural calamities without collective help, than to be caused by capitalism’s inherent inequities.  It is not because of a socialist bent, as Rabbi Spero asserts, that all the land in Egypt reverted to Pharaoh’s ownership during a terrible famine.  It was because the people were starving and needed Pharaoh’s help to survive.   The capitalist organization of society, where each family owned and worked its own plot of land, had failed of its essential purpose, and the only answer was to socialize the risk in order to save the people.  Pharaoh’s strategy, as created and implemented by Joseph, was eerily similar to that of the US federal government during the Great Recession, with Ben Bernanke playing the part of Joseph:

When that year was over [the year after having sold all their livestock to Pharaoh for food], they [the Egyptians] came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land.  Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well?  Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh.  Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate. 

So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh.  The Egyptians one and all sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them.  The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other.  (Genesis 47:18-21, NIV).

Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed so you can plant the ground.  But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh.  The other four-fifths you may keep a seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children (Genesis 47:23-24, NIV).

Rabbi Spero believes this tale provides biblical support for capitalism when in fact, just the opposite is true.  Every one of those Egyptian farmers were capitalists (the owned land, the only capital that mattered during the age, else they wouldn’t have been able to sell it) and each had failed to properly manage weather-related risk,  just like America’s investment and commercial banks had failed to manage the risk that the housing market might decline.  The Egyptians gave their land and their bodies to Pharaoh to save themselves from starvation.  American banks, however, gave up nothing, offering only the American people in bondage to the federal government for repaying the massive debt incurred to save them from their folly.  If the tale of Egyptian famine during Joseph’s age tells us anything, it tells us of the dangers that inhere with capitalist economic organization.  At least the Egyptians didn’t try to sell someone else into bondage to pay for their mismanagement.  

Abram (later “Abraham”), the patriarch of the Hebrews, and thereby of Christianity, was a fabulously successful, imperialistic capitalist:

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him.  Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.  (Genesis 13: 1-2, NIV)

Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents.  But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together.  (Genesis 13: 5-6, NIV)

So Abram said to Lot, Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.  (Genesis 13: 8-9, NIV)

The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south and east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust then your offspring could be counted.  (Genesis 13: 14-16)

Abram could be a metaphor for America’s idea Manifest Destiny, or for any of America’s rapacious capitalists through the centuries.  But long after Abram died and his descendants had eventually been enslaved, freed and exiled, there arose out of Nazareth a new interpretation of God’s will for mankind.  Not much of it held promise of any earthly, capitalist riches:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6: 19-21, NIV).

This new interpretation did not bode well for future Abrams:

“All these [Jesus commandments] I have kept, the young man said.  “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you still want to be perfect, go, sell your possession and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me.” 

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.   (Genesis 19: 20-24, NIV).

 So, can it be said, as Spero asserts, that the Judeo-Christian ethos offers up a ringing endorsement of American capitalism as a moral endeavor?   It seems to me that the best, i.e., richest American capitalists, are rarely, if ever, concerned with the morality of the Judeo-Christian ethos, and are instead concerned with enriching themselves, let justice and equity be damned.  What, according to his professed Savior, does Mitt Romney still lack?   

And that’s why it’s best to just leave biblical morality out of the public square.  The Bible no more supports the capitalist catechism than it supports redistributionist or socialist dogma.  The operative commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.   Some capitalists do so well, but probably, like Jesus observes of the rich man getting into heaven, a great many more do not.  The failure is not the fault of the system, but is the choice of the individual, one thing at least, that Spero gets correct.