Jan 9, 2012

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: "Biblical Economic Justice: Supply and Demand Isn't Enough"

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: "Biblical Economic Justice: Supply and Demand Isn't Enough"

As the voters of the United States recommence the process of electing the next President, it is important to recall our core values. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans may legitimately differ on how best to implement those values, but clarifying what values remain our bedrock is the first step toward assuring that these policy disputes remain constructive. One of those bedrock values is, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "providing for the general welfare." In biblical terms it is "loving your neighbor as yourself."

During my second year in college, I decided to take the introductory course in economics. After all, learning how we allocate resources, create products, and encourage creativity and productivity all seemed like important tools for being an informed citizen. The Intro to Economics course was wildly popular, offered not in a classroom but a university theater in order to accommodate the standing-room-only numbers of students who enrolled. This class, clearly, held the keys not only to information, but to influence and power.

At the first lecture, the professor taught us about supply and demand, an economic model for determining the price of a good in the market. Equilibrium (the price charged for a product) rests at the intersection of Supply provided by producers (at a particular price) with the quantity of Demand (at a particular price) by consumers. When those two meet at a single point, their market equilibrium is found. That price marks the most efficient level for the production and distribution of a product.

Note that "demand" here does not equate to human need, but to the ability (and willingness) to pay for a product. No money -- no demand.

"Wait a minute," I objected. "You mean that if someone is starving on the street, penniless, then according to this model they have no demand to measure?" Right, I was told. Demand measures ability and willingness to pay, not need. You can starve to death with no measurable "demand," no impact on the market whatsoever.

At that moment, I realized that market economics measures efficient production and distribution of resources, but nothing more. Like Darwinian evolution, it possesses no moral compass; it simply describes what is, not what ought to be. And -- again like Darwinian evolution -- its mechanism doesn't integrate values such as compassion, minimizing suffering, protecting the weak, expressing a commitment to love or justice. Supply and demand measures efficiency -- an important concern to be sure, but by itself, incomplete. Just as our society makes decisions that integrate values other than Darwinian survival (we are committed to foster the flourishing of the individual, to intervene to heal the sick, to educate and empower the disabled and the underprivileged), so too our economic priorities must integrate but cannot be limited to market efficiency. There are other important values we also must advance. Supply and demand, by itself, does not evaluate when there might be concerns that override efficiency in particular cases -- feeding impoverished school children, for instance, making sure that indigent elderly have shelter, providing inoculations where needed, internalizing the cost of industrial waste dumped into our air and seas.

Such a commitment to human flourishing even at the occasional expense of efficiency is as consensual as our founding fathers and as sacred as Scripture: It was Thomas Jefferson, after all, who reminds us that "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." God-given concern for life, liberty and happiness are the proper goals of American democracy. Market efficiency is often a tool that advances those goals, but the goals are more encompassing than efficiency and sometimes require us to modify our commitment to the free market in support of more ultimate goals.

The Bible itself provides ample examples of laws that modify the unbridled rights of property owners: we are commanded to leave the corners of our fields unharvested, and to harvest our crops but once. Any remaining produce becomes the property of the poor, and they are legally entitled to access to that yield. Mandatory funds are established so the poor can sustain themselves, and the rich were obligated to provide food, clothing and sustenance for the widow, the orphan and the poor. Ancient Israel provided community education for all (male) children. One legal standard applied to rich and poor alike, with all contributing their fair share in tax revenue. Fields are to lie fallow every seventh (Sabbatical) and 50th (Jubilee) years to renew their bounty. While the market forces of supply and demand were the baseline for ancient Israel's economic activity, both Bible and Talmud delineate a prohibition of excessive profits, which were held to be sinful and impermissible.

Biblical Israel aspired to attain a vision in which all people were recognized as reflections of God's image -- each person of equal worth and dignity. That theological commitment, as it does in the USA's Declaration of Independence and in the world's Scriptures, mandates concern for the individual that sometimes supersedes the mechanism of market efficiency.

Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals should legitimately dispute which policies best advance that bedrock commitment. Such debates can help the nation better understand the challenges ahead and how most effectively to address them. But the underlying commitment must remain bipartisan supreme.

An economy that ignores supply and demand may find itself lacking the resources to sustain itself. We properly work with market economics as the starting point for our economic activity.

But an extremism that elevates supply and demand to its solitary and highest priority rejects a more encompassing Biblical commitment to care for the widow and the orphan, to provide food and clothing for the poor, to educate and nurture all its children, to live harmoniously with creation. Such a idolatrous dogmatism must be rejected, both in the name of our Founding Fathers and in the name of the world's wisdom traditions.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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