Friday, October 09, 2009

The Egyptian nanny state

Victor Reppert said...

“I suppose you would have objected to Joseph's confiscatory grain tax had you been living in Egypt at the time. What right does the gummint have to take half my grain away?”

A lovely specimen of Reppert’s perfunctory prooftexting. That example is double-edged.

1. At the risk of stating the obvious, the fact that a narrator records a historical event something doesn’t mean he approves of it. The narrative viewpoint has to be determined by more than merely quoting a historical description.

2. Joseph had the benefit of divine foresight. A prophetic dream.

Now, I realize that Obama suffers from a Messiah-complex, which Reppert evidently endorses, but I’m afraid I don’t quite share their eschatology.

3. Remember that Egyptian statecraft led to a little-known event called the Exodus. So that might be a bit of a cue regarding the Biblical view of the nanny state.

4. Joseph’s policy was not all of a piece. It came in stages. The first phase involves preparatory measures to address an impending crisis:

“Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine" (Gen 41:34-36).

This was effective in averting a humanitarian disaster. And there’s nothing wrong with emergency measures in a genuine emergency. The potential problem lies is what happens after the crisis has passed. Joseph decided to standardize this arrangement:

“So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land. Then Joseph said to the people, "Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones” (Gen 47:20-24).

This is a policy of national serfdom. It concentrated wealth in the hands of a nepotistic oligarchy (the house of Pharaoh). The Egyptians became a nation of sharecroppers or tenant farmers.

Even that system might have its compensatory benefits as long as it was administered by a benign dictator. However, for every benign dictator you have twenty despots.

The Bible itself hardly regards an Egyptian-type welfare state as the ideal socioeconomic system. Take Samuel’s classic admonition:

“So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day’” (1 Sam 8:10-18).

And, indeed, there is undoubtedly a Pharaonic quality to Obama’s presidency. So while I deeply appreciate Reppert’s comparison between Egyptian feudalism and Obama’s imperial presidency–I’m afraid I don’t regard that comparison as much of a recommendation to vote for Democrats.


  1. Steve

    I recently read Friedmans "Capitalism&Freedom" where he puts forward som good arguments for laissez-faire.

    He does however agree that alleviation of poverty should be state financed, due to the fact that everyone benefits from the fact that poverty is alleviated.

    I was wondering if you agree that the state should have some responsibility in these matters?

    How much in that case and how is it justified, on capitalistic grounds?

    Thanks in advance

  2. That's a very broad question which probably requires a separate post. I'll get around to it when I can.