Biblical guidance for ethical economics

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I'd like to join the war against the war against Christmas: a cause bravely championed by muffled voices in the catacombs like Bill O'Reilly at Fox News and Rex Murphy on CBC. So here are some Christmas presents from the Judeo-Christian tradition that I hope will find favour with deniers and those who just don't care if there's a God since it would make no practical difference. I'll draw from the Judeo part, since it's my background. You can call me Santa.

The early books of the Hebrew Bible contain some amazing laws from biblical times (packaged as divine commandments) that read like Christmas cards to people today who are drowning in debt or who've lost cherished homes. Take the law of the Sabbatical year: every seventh year, all debts are forgiven. (In addition the land must lie fallow -- something under the tree, as it were, for environmentalists.)

Then there's the Jubilee year: every 50 years -- after seven cycles of seven -- all land reverts to its original owners. Under this rule, inequality couldn't expand endlessly, so that -- as in the U.S. -- the top 20 per cent own 87.2 per cent of the wealth while the other 80 per cent have 12.8 per cent. Instead, the gap narrows periodically. We're morally primitive by comparison. In Spain today people lose their homes yet must keep paying the damn mortgage.

These laws used to be viewed as idealized, impractical versions of biblical realities. In my seminary days, I thought of them as evidence for their opposite: societies probably rife with oppressive debt, etc. But it turns out they weren't unusual. Similar enlightened rules were common in the ancient Mideast. They're part of a venerable tradition linking economics with morality that reigned until very recent times. In his book, Economics of Good and Evil, Tomas Sedlacek traces it from the Epic of Gilgamesh right to Adam Smith -- who Sedlacek says has been misrepresented as trusting the economy to amoral market forces.

Sedlacek is a Czech economist who's both an academic and popularizer. He advised Vaclav Havel when he was president and he represents the best of the Havelian approach -- which it's nice to mention this Christmas, just after Havel's death. That approach placed a moral sensibility at the heart of public policy -- and not in merely rhetorical or chauvinistic ways: God on our side; My country right or wrong, etc. Sedlacek wants to restore this lost ethical emphasis to economics much as Margaret Atwood resuscitated it in her book, Payback, two years ago. It's a nice little trend.

Jesus in the New Testament is even more focused on debt, equating it with sin: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. It goes so far there that God sacrifices his only son -- to "redeem" the debt/sins of humanity. That's a bit of a stretch for some of us but at least, Sedlacek says, a moral thread runs through economics until the modern era, based on a sense of mutual human responsibility. With that moral element now eliminated, you wind up bailing out ("forgiving") the biggest, most powerful debtor/sinners, i.e. the banks, but doing nothing for the poor and destitute, who were supposed to inherit the Earth.

I know that's terse and I recommend the book over my summary. But since Sedlacek puts such stress on human sympathy and solidarity -- which is another way to say, Peace on Earth, good will toward men -- let me mention one more directive from the Hebrew Bible. It's in the Ten Commandments and may be the only biblical law to forbid an emotion: Thou shalt not covet. What a pointless injunction. We have no control over our emotions; they come to us unbidden. Yet nothing is as destructive to human sympathy and community as envy or jealousy. It's as if the Bible felt it was necessary to forbid them, even as it knew that was a hopeless order. It chose to at least draw attention to the danger.

I offer these thoughts in the spirit of seasonal gift-giving which, as Sedlacek notes, is a very uneconomic -- at least in the modern sense -- activity. Nobody uses econometrics to calculate gifts they give or gratitude they feel. The whole process is uneconomic -- but only in the withered, current sense.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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