The kings of Israel/Judah implemented altruistic social reforms at the urging of the classical prophets. The prophets, and the cult generally, were responding to the desires of the affluent Israelites. Although this element is not entirely absent, the struggle for social justice should not be seen as a confrontation between the wealthy and the royalty. Rather, the wealthy, royal and nonroyal, sought with the guidance of the prophets to employ the state power to nullify the laws of economy and society. The elite was talking to itself.
The affluents did not understand the principles governing social and economic life, and they had no incentive to learn what was then known by intellectuals about these principles. As Schumpeter ( 1950: 215) observed: "Without the initiative that comes from immediate responsibility, ignorance will persist in the face of masses of evidence." Given the fact that masses of evidence were not available to the ancients and the difficulties of understanding the little that was known, even the most altruistic person would conclude that his cost of becoming informed about the effects of social policies would exceed the expected return in social improvement. 13 To the ancients, and many moderns, the solutions to the problems of poverty and exploitation put forward by the classical prophets seemed to be obviously correct and to embody good common sense. The affluents, then as now, saw no reason to delve more deeply into the counterarguments put forward by other intellectuals. The latter, after all, were obviously flinthearted reactionaries. Those cultic officials and intellectuals who refused to support the lofty goals of the prophetic revolution were branded as "false prophets," and, in one way or another, they disappeared from the scene. So in the end did ancient Israel. But in reaching this end the Israelites might console themselves with the thought that they had merely followed a path well trodden by other ancient and modern societies.
Jack Hirshleifer, in a letter ( August 24, 1992), cautions me to distinguish between two types of reforms: (1) reforms that are consistent with efficient working of markets (e.g., regulation of weights and measures, protection against fraud), and (2) reforms that subvert the working of markets (e.g., prohibition of interest). However, I would not credit the classical.