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The most surprising bestseller in 2014 is that of the French economist Thomas Piketty Capital in the 21st century – a dense 700-page treatise on economic theory backed by massive statistical research – not the usual stuff of runaway literary successes.
Much of its appeal was the way it documented the phenomenon that is reshaping societies around the world: In today’s global economy, inequality is growing rapidly. In the United States, between 1979 and 2013, the richest 1% saw their income increase by more than 240%, while the lowest quintile saw only a 10% increase. Even more striking is the difference in capital income from assets such as housing, stocks and bonds, where the top 1% grew by 300% and the bottom fifth fell by 60%. Overall, the combined wealth of the richest 85 people is equal to the total of the poorest 3.5 billion, or half of the world’s population.
Picketty’s contribution was to show why this happened. The market economy, he argues, tends to make us both more and less equal: more equal because they spread education, knowledge and skills more widely than in the past, but less equal because ‘over time, especially in mature economies, the rate of return on capital tends to exceed the rate of growth of income and output. Those who own assets get richer faster than those who depend entirely on income from their work. Rising inequality is, he says, “potentially threatening to democratic societies and the values of social justice on which they are based”.
This is the last chapter of a very old story. Isaiah Berlin has pointed out that not all values can co-exist – in this case, freedom and equality (“Two concepts of freedom”, in Four Essays on Freedom, 1969). You can have one or the other but not both: the more economic freedom there is, the less equality there is; the more equality there is, the less freedom there is. This was the key conflict of the Cold War era, between capitalism and communism. Communism has lost the battle. In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, markets were liberalized and by the end of the decade the Soviet Union had collapsed. But unfettered economic freedom produces its own discontents, and Picketty’s book is one of many warning signs.
All this makes the social legislation of parsha Behar a text for our time, because the Torah is deeply concerned not only with economics, but also with the most basic moral and human issues. What company are we looking for? What social order best does justice to human dignity and to the delicate ties that unite us to each other and to God?
What makes Judaism distinctive is its commitment to both freedom and equality, while recognizing the tension between them. The opening chapters of Genesis describe the consequences of Gd’s gift to humans of individual freedom. But since we are social animals, we also need collective freedom. Hence the importance of the first chapters of Chemot, with their characterization of Egypt as an example of a society that robs people of freedom, enslaves populations, and subjugates the many to the will of the few. Time and again, the Torah explains its laws as ways to preserve freedom, remembering what it was like in Egypt to be deprived of freedom.
The Torah is also committed to the equal dignity of human beings in the image and under the sovereignty of Gd. This quest for equality was not fully realized in the biblical era. There were hierarchies in biblical Israel. Not everyone could be king; not everyone was a priest. But Judaism had no class system. There was no equivalent to Plato’s division of society into men of gold, silver, and bronze, or Aristotle’s belief that some were born to rule, others to be. governed. In the covenant community envisioned by the Torah, we are all children of Gd, all precious in His eyes, each with a contribution to make for the common good.
The basic insight of Behar is precisely that reaffirmed by Picketty, namely that economic inequality tends to increase over time, and that it can also result in a loss of freedom. People can become slaves to the burden of debt. In biblical times, this might involve literally selling oneself into slavery as the only way to guarantee food and shelter. Families could be forced to sell their land, their ancestral heritage from the time of Moses. The result would be a society in which, over time, a few would become large landowners while many would become landless and impoverished.
The Torah’s solution, set forth in Behar, is a periodic restoration of people’s fundamental freedoms. Every seven years the debts were to be discharged and the Israelite slaves freed. After seven Sabbatical cycles, the year of Jubilee was to be a time when, with few exceptions, the ancestral land returned to its original owners. Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell is engraved with the famous words of the Jubilee Commandment, in the King James Translation: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all who dwell therein” (Lev. 25:10).
This vision remains so relevant that the international movement for debt relief for developing countries by the year 2000 was called Jubilee 2000an explicit reference to the principles set out in our parsha.
Three things are worth noting about the Torah’s social and economic program. First, it is more concerned with human freedom than a narrow focus on economic equality. Losing one’s land or going into debt is a real constraint on freedom. The idea of independence, “everyone under his vine and his fig tree,” as the prophet Micah says (Mic. 4:4), is fundamental to a Jewish understanding of the moral dimension of economics. We pray in the Grace after meals, “Do not make us dependent on gifts or loans from others…so that we may not suffer shame or humiliation. There is something deeply degrading about losing your independence and depending on the goodwill of others. Hence the provisions of Behar are not about equality, but about restoring people’s ability to earn a living as free and independent agents.
Then it takes this whole system out of the hands of human legislators. It is based on two fundamental ideas about capital and labour. First, the land belongs to G‑d: “And the land shall not be sold forever, for the land is mine. You are strangers and visitors to me” Lev. 25:23.
Second, the same applies to people: “For they [the Israelites] are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they cannot be sold as slaves” (Lev. 25:42).
This means that personal and economic freedom are not open to political negotiation. These are inalienable rights, given by Gd. This is what underlies John F. Kennedy’s reference in his 1961 presidential inauguration to “revolutionary beliefs for which our ancestors fought”, namely “the belief that human rights do not come from the generosity of the state but from the hand of Gd.
Third, he tells us that economics is, and must remain, a discipline that rests on moral foundations. What matters to the Torah are not just technical indices, such as growth rate or absolute standards of wealth, but the quality and texture of relationships: the independence and sense of dignity of people, the ways in which the system enables people to recover from misfortune, and the extent to which it enables members of a society to live the truth that “when you eat of the work of your hands, you will be happy and all will be well for you” (Ps. 128:2).
In no other intellectual field have the Jews been so dominant. They have won 41% of the Nobel Prizes in economics. They have developed some of the greatest ideas in the field: David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, John von Neumann’s game theory (the development of which won Professor Robert Aumann a Nobel Prize), the monetary theory of Milton Friedman, the extension of Gary Becker’s economic theory to family dynamics. , the behavioral economics theory of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and many others. Not always but often the moral dimension was evident in their work. There is something awe-inspiring, even spiritual, in the fact that the Jews sought to create – here on earth, not in heaven in an afterlife – systems that seek to maximize freedom and human creativity. And the foundations lie in our parshawhose ancient words still inspire.