Written by Scott A. Shay
Socialism is in the air in America. A majority of millennials prefer socialism to capitalism. Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, may win the Democratic Party nomination. With or without Bernie, young socialists are emerging as a new generation of Democratic Party leadership, based on democratic socialism and social justice.
What socialism means varies, but included in all forms is public control of or economic regulation tantamount to total control of major industries if not the entire economy. To back their claims, some socialists cite the Bible itself. Queens-Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has tweeted biblical citations to former White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders in her fight against climate change, and she quotes the Bible in her writings about prison reform. She is not alone as a growing number of religious Americans are aligning socialist politics with their faith.
But is the Bible socialist? The answer is that the Bible’s approach to political economy is a relevant corrective to both sides of the political spectrum today.
The Bible supports a social safety net, making health and safety an overriding priority. It also favors partial economic redistribution, and legal regulations on the economy, each of which would be consistent with some parts of the socialist agenda. In fact, the Bible is unique among ancient texts, based on its social and economic justice agenda. Unlike any other sacred text of its time, the Bible commands Israelites (overwhelmingly farmers) to voluntarily set aside part of their harvest to be gathered by the poor and pay compulsory taxes, which were then redistributed to support the less fortunate. If a farmer did not follow these biblical laws, his crops were not kosher for buying or eating, a substantial enforcement measure in that era.
Further, the Bible required that farmers leave their land fallow every seventh year (sabbatical) and allow anyone to harvest from it. Other laws protected the poor. The Bible required the release in the sabbatical year of Jews who had sold themselves into slavery to pay debts. But in a most astonishing directive to prohibit income inequality, the Bible instituted the return of all purchased properties to their original families every 50th year (the jubilee) so that everyone would have a more or less equal share. This provision applied to the king as well.
However, unlike any form of socialism, the Bible rejects monopolies, particularly by the state, and advocates a free market. The jubilee was not only a law of economic redistribution. It is more fundamentally a law against monopoly. Indeed, the jubilee ensured that Israelites would remain independent farmers, privately owning the means of production of their industry (land and tools). Within this framework, farmers, like the Patriarchs, took business initiatives, entered into contracts and had no issue making money. In some cases, for example, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and some later rabbis of the Talmud actually accumulated wealth. However, the legal requirement of the jubilee set ancient Israel apart from the empires of old, which had many state monopolies that had begun through either military conquest or land monopolies by wealthy farmers. Ancient pharaohs, other god-kings or temple cults owned most of the land, and with such an economic monopoly, they could exercise tremendous political power.
To further constrain economic and political monopolies, the Bible separated the state’s powers and wealth. The biblically mandated king was to be a commander in chief and executor of the divinely legislated laws of the Bible. He was constrained by the institution of the High Priest/Temple, which had its own financial base: the independently appointed judicial branch, the Sanhedrin and the Prophets who acted in place of the Fourth Estate, none of which were financed by the king. Within this framework, women as well as men could buy and sell freely, provided they did so honestly. Indeed, the Bible prohibits deceiving people about one’s wares in any way.
Rather than calling for socialism or capitalism, the Bible is best described as advocating a highly transparent market economy with a social safety net, an overriding concern for health and safety, and a strong impulse against too much income/wealth inequality.
Americans today — on both sides of the spectrum — stand to learn from the Bible. Its admonitions against monopolies is an essential message for all of those in the capitalist camp today. Even natural monopolies should be broken up because the greatest protection for the people and the economy is to have multiple sources of any product or service. Monopolies also inevitably lead to dishonesty in business; why inform consumers if you are the only supplier? But perhaps worst of all, too much concentrated economic power ultimately leads to political oppression. Chris Hughes appropriately captured this point in his essay advocating the breakup of Facebook: “I don’t blame Mark [Zuckerberg] for his quest for domination. …Yet he has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and consumer choice.”
To those in the socialist camp, the Bible reminds us that public ownership is just a fancy name for state monopoly, but perhaps even more powerful because competition becomes illegal. And governments are always susceptible to corruption of their leaders as recent state socialist economies such as Venezuela have tragically shown.
Even the wise King Solomon became corrupted by too much wealth and power. And sadly, today’s leaders are no King Solomons.
Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism. Learn more here.