Ethical Economics: Behar-Bechukotai Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Ron Atkey will be buried today in a private family service. But a public memorial service will be held at the Metropolitan United Church on 58 Queen Street East at 11:00 a.m. this morning. I will be in attendance. I am also sure that the church will be packed, not only because he had a wide group of friends and acquaintances, but because there will be many Indochinese Canadians in attendance.
Ron was my Member of Parliament for St. Paul’s Riding during the period of the Indochinese refugee movement into Canada. He was first elected in 1972. I never voted for him, but he was an outstanding representative of our riding. He was also the Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Joe Clark cabinet in 1979. He, along with Flora Macdonald with the support of Prime Minister Joe Clark, pushed the decision through cabinet to allow the entry into Canada of 50,000 “Boat People,” refugees fleeing Indochina. He continued to be a supporter of refugee causes the rest of his life; his family has asked that donations in his honour be made to Operation Syria.
Ron was a few years younger than myself and taught law at Osgoode Hall Law School when I was a professor at York University. But I only came to know him well when we worked together to foster the private sponsorship of refugees into Canada. It was he who sent the instructions to the civil service to attend a meeting (to our surprise) on a Sunday afternoon after church in June of 1979 to introduce us to the idea of privately sponsoring refugees. That was the beginning of Operation Lifeline, the Canadian private sponsorship organization for Indochinese refugees.
Ron was a lawyer in practice at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. He was also the first Chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee. In juxtaposition, he was also a board member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for years. Support for refugees, support for human rights and a commitment to Canada’s national security were for him complementary political commitments. Ron also happened to be a very accomplished musician, a humourist with a very dry wit, and a wonderful father to his children and grandchildren. A product of a very enlightened New Brunswick Tory family, he demonstrated the best and the brightest that Canada has produced and that allowed this country to become as great as it is.
Let me begin with the Haftorah portion read after the reading of the Torah. The selection is from Jeremiah at his thundering best. God is in despair. God exclaims, “I will destroy my people, for they would not turn back from their ways.” “I will bring down suddenly upon them Alarm and Terror.” And why? Mainly because they fail to keep the sabbath. On that day, they are not allowed to work.
Economics is about the days Jews are permitted to work. Does that mean that the other six days belong to a dog-eat-dog world? Does it mean a world that rewards the nasty, brutish and strong?
Not according to the Torah.
כִֽי־תִמְכְּר֤וּ מִמְכָּר֙ לַעֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ א֥וֹ קָנֹ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד עֲמִיתֶ֑ךָ אַל־תּוֹנ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו׃
When you sell property to your neighbour, or buy any from your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another. (Leviticus 25: 14)
Economic contracts are intended to constitute a positive sum game in which both parties benefit.
Further, if someone borrows money from you and is unable to pay, you may foreclose, but you also must use your best efforts to ensure that he or she can redeem that land and property.
כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָכַ֖ר מֵאֲחֻזָּת֑וֹ וּבָ֤א גֹֽאֲלוֹ֙ הַקָּרֹ֣ב אֵלָ֔יו וְגָאַ֕ל אֵ֖ת מִמְכַּ֥ר אָחִֽיו׃
If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold. (25:25)
וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־לּ֖וֹ גֹּאֵ֑ל וְהִשִּׂ֣יגָה יָד֔וֹ וּמָצָ֖א כְּדֵ֥י גְאֻלָּתֽוֹ׃
If a man has no one to redeem for him, but prospers and acquires enough to redeem with, (25:26)
וְחִשַּׁב֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵ֣י מִמְכָּר֔וֹ וְהֵשִׁיב֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֹדֵ֔ף לָאִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מָֽכַר־ל֑וֹ וְשָׁ֖ב לַאֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ׃
he shall compute the years since its sale, refund the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding. (25:27)
Further, you may only accumulate wealth (then held in land and property) for a generation. The land is not yours; it belongs to God. In your life, you are merely a trustee.
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (25:23)
Further, excess land acquired must be returned to the commons every fifty years. Inheritance taxes were very steep.
בִּשְׁנַ֥ת הַיּוֹבֵ֖ל הַזֹּ֑את תָּשֻׁ֕בוּ אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ׃
In this year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding. (25:14)
וּבְכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶ֑ם גְּאֻלָּ֖ה תִּתְּנ֥וּ לָאָֽרֶץ׃
Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land. (25:14)
This is a social justice ethos. Economics is not a matter of losers and winners, but striving to ensure as many as possible are winners and that when you are down you get a helping hand. This is not anti-capitalist. Private ownership is not only recognized, but encouraged. However, as practiced and organized today, our system has shown itself to be very fragile and sometimes dysfunctional. The economic crisis of 2007-08 was a case in point.
Though the causes were building up over the previous decade, this deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression was a warning, but without the thundering voice of Jeremiah that there was an underlying deeper crisis. Why? Because the economies of most of the Western world – in Europe and Japan – are just finally getting out of that dramatic downturn and posting significant growth. However, even in the pre-crash period, during a period of strong expansion, living standards for the majority had stagnated and, in some cases, even declined. And that is almost still the case even though unemployment is now very low.
Further, in Canada, in the major cities, there is now a housing bubble. The Bank of Canada is trying to ensure that the air seeps out of the bubble rather than bursts by gradually increasing interest rates both by small increases and by interspersing those increases intervals of several months to prevent a sudden shock to the system.
We are not free of crisis and dangers. Further, the inequalities between the rich and the poor, between the rich and the middle class, continue to expand exponentially. Young people, who cannot hope for a capital infusion from parents and family, begin to despair of ever purchasing a home. And overshadowing this fear is the huge anxiety about climate change and our collective failure to take care of the earth as proper and responsible trustees should.
Classical economic policies are not working. And when the most powerful leader in the world believes that he invented the expression “priming the pump,” we are in deep trouble. However, even an infusion of an economic stimulus, or a bailout package in a period of a greater crisis, is not adequate. These are only stopgap measures. Must one choose the alternative – fiscal austerity as now practiced in Greece with its corresponding political instability that follows from cutting social spending in the effort to reduce public debt. Going further and backward, the resurrection of a mercantilist system to replace our global one, of protectionist economies and mobility barriers in place of increasingly open borders with enhanced trade and human mobility to foster a free flow of goods, services and people, are steps into a backward dead end and even greater calamity.
Nor is an economy run on ethical principles the right choice, an option Karl Polanyi had proposed. However, an economic system not guided by and framed with ethics is even worse. Just war doctrine does dictate how or when wars are fought. It merely tries to civilize a horrific pattern of humans coming together in violent conflict. Ethics in economics can go further, for, unlike war, economics can be a positive sum game. Without intervening in economic fundamentals, taxation policies, inheritance restrictions and a whole host of measures can be taken to even out the odds against those in weakened positions.
This does not mean evading understanding the fundamentals of economic growth. These must be grasped. As much as we congratulated ourselves in the past for accomplishing this task, we have not done so adequately. Why is there economic inequality that continues to grow? Why do we continue to threaten the very planet that has treated us so well? Why do we elect leaders who counter the massive scientific evidence and consensus about human instigated climate change and are climate change deniers? Why do we not ensure steady if sometimes a bit bumpy economic growth alongside wealth redistribution?
With the help of Alex Zisman