Exchange and Property Rights in the Light of Biblical Values

By Noel, Edd | Journal of Private Enterprise, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Exchange and Property Rights in the Light of Biblical Values


Noel, Edd, Journal of Private Enterprise


Can market institutions and/or market outcomes be reconciled to Biblical values? Many modern Christian theologians think not.1 They raise objections to a number of practices associated with market exchange. These range from alleged product market abuses, such as price gouging by firms and restraining entry to obtain excessive profits, to alleged domestic and foreign labor market abuses, including paying unjust (nonliving) wages and the exploitation of workers in lesser-developed economies through the practice of sweatshop kbor. The economic ethics of the Scriptures are understood to have been violated in these instances. In large part they are cited as characteristic of the unjust, impersonal nature of much of modern market exchange which is driven by the raw unchecked pursuit of economic gain. In fact, a contrast is sometimes drawn with both personal exchange and economically just practices exhibited in the world of Old Testament Israel.

In contrast, modern market economists emphasize the salutary features which stem from freedom of exchange. They highlight the benefits of allowing an extended division of kbor to disperse productivity gains through market-based exchange to numerous parties. In the end, such exchange is in fact an exchange of property rights. Well-enforced property rights have certain characteristics, including the rights of use, transférabilité, and ability to serve as collateral for borrowing. Societies which promote the pursuit of individual self-interest and economic gain are seen to achieve, through impersonal market mechanisms, rising living standards and generally fair (i.e., what is understood to be just) economic outcomes. Unjust exchange is often seen to stem from government intervention bestowing monopoly power or privilege upon a particular individual or group which is exploited in the product and/or labor markets.

The prominent twentieth-century economic historian Karl Polanyi claimed that in fact market mechanisms did not characterize the world of antiquity, including the economy of ancient Israel. Instead the Israelites relied upon nonmarket conventions, particularly reciprocity and redistribution, and exchange based on status or community considerations such as duty and/or obligation. However, significant research since Polanyi has tended to undermine this claim and laid weight on the rise of market institutions in ancient Palestine which brought challenges to these various forms of nonmarket conventions (Silver, 1995; Temin, 2001; Freyne, 2004). This scholarship opens the door to re-examine the role of exchange and property rights in Israel and the manner in which they are understood in the light of the values of the Hebrew Bible.

Seeking to extend this line of research, this essay examines the features of property rights and exchange found in the Old Testament. It also brings to bear a prominent theme of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible with respect to measuring the justice of economic activity. That is, the argument here seeks to trace the 'moral trajectory' of the Old Testament command "to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) into the marketplace. The ways in which the Old Testament develops the concept of commutative justice largely shape this trajectory as applied to economic exchange. Indeed, beginning with the foundation laid in the Decalogue and carrying through the case law into the wisdom and prophetic literature, the concepts of justice and injustice in exchange are found to be interrelated extensions of this trajectory. It is argued that both the wisdom and prophetic literature make use of these connections in addressing deceit, fraud and unjust gain in Israel's agrarian economy. This analysis of different sections of the Old Testament canon supports the claim that market exchange and property rights are reconcilable with Biblical values.

The paper is organized into the following five sections. In section I there is an overview of the literature on the role of reciprocity, redistribution, and forms of exchange in ancient Israel and surrounding Near Eastern societies. …

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