Many politically progressive Christians have latched on to the concept of a “Jubilee year” as a biblically endorsed excuse for debt cancellations and as a way to “dismantle economic inequality.” But as a new study by Charles A Goodhart and Michael Hudson explains, Jubilee Years didn’t originate in ancient Israel, they weren’t really about egalitarianism, and they can’t readily be applied outside of agrarian based economies.
Here are a few highlights from their paper:
The Israelites borrowed the idea from their neighbors
“Debt jubilees occurred on a regular basis in the ancient Near East from 2500 BC in Sumer to 1600 BC in Babylonia and its neighbors, and then in Assyria in the first millennium BC. It was normal for new rulers to proclaim these edicts upon taking the throne, in the aftermath of war, or upon the building or renovating a temple. Judaism took the practice out of the hands of kings and placed it at the center of Mosaic Law.”
Jubilee Years kept economic power in the hands of the rulers
“The common policy denominator spanning Bronze Age Mesopotamia and the Byzantine Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries was the conflict between rulers acting to restore land to smallholders so as to maintain royal tax revenue and a land-tenured military force, and powerful families seeking to deny its usufruct to the palace. Rulers sought to check the economic power of wealthy creditors, military leaders or local administrators from concentrating land in their own hands and taking the crop surplus for themselves at the expense of the tax collector.
By clearing the slate of personal agrarian debts that had built up during the crop year, these royal proclamations preserved a land-tenured citizenry free from bondage. The effect was to restore balance and sustain economic growth by preventing widespread insolvency.”
Jubilee Years were about an equitable society, not egalitarianism
“In sum, the economic aim of debt jubilees was to restore solvency to the population as a whole. Many royal proclamations also freed businesses from various taxes and tariff duties, but the main objective was political and ideological. It was to create a fair and equitable society.
This ethic was not egalitarian as such. It merely aimed to provide citizens with the basic minimum standard needed to be self-sustaining. Wealth accumulation was permitted and even applauded, as long as it did not disrupt the normal functioning of society at large.”
Agrarian societies tend to produce unsustainable levels of debt
“A study of the long sweep of history reveals a universal principle to be at work: The burden of debt tends to expand in an agrarian society to the point where it exceeds the ability of debtors to pay. That has been the major cause of economic polarization from antiquity to modern times.”
Why the Jubilee-style debt cancellations cannot be exactly replicated in modern economies
“During the millennia reviewed earlier, the main credit/debt transactions initially were undertaken directly between the (ultimate) creditor and (ultimate) debtor. The largest credit relationship was between the government and taxpayers. Nowadays a very large proportion of all financial transactions are intermediated via financial institutions. Any attempt to cancel some category of debt, say government debt or personal mortgages, would immediately drive those financial intermediaries holding such assets, e.g. banks, pension funds, investment trusts, into insolvency.”
For more on the economics of Jubilee Years, see Art Lindsey’s “Five Myths about Jubilee.”