Putting God on the side of the geoists

Chapel atop Mt. Sinai
Sinai Summit (credit: Wikimedia)

Peoria Georgist John L. Kelly has produced a three-titled book making the theological case for economic justice:

The Other Law of Moses:
God’s Remarkable Plan for Prosperity:
What 21st-Century Nations Can Learn from Ancient Israel’s Economics

I am the second-least-qualified person to review this book.  That’s because it takes for granted that the reader is a believing Christian, and that the reader has an Amazon Kindle or other proprietary software (or hardware) with which to read it. I claim neither qualification; what I review here is a text which I was told is the text of this book.

An earlier version of this book is the basis for the course Economics as if God Cared, offered by John Kuchta once or twice each year at the Henry George School of Chicago.

As a believer in economic justice, with an understanding of how that can be achieved, I can deal with the issue of how well this book presents the case.  As to whether it is persuasive, well, you’ll just have to ask the 78% of Americans who claim to be Christian, or the 40% who claim to attend church regularly, or  the 20% or so who actually do so, or the ones– and I have no idea how many there are– who take their theology seriously.  I was already persuaded, and seeing the Biblical support that Mr. Kelly has compiled did nothing to unpersuade me.

Kelly’s basic point is that God gave the Jews His Law at Mt. Sinai.  If they would just respect and behave according to the Law, no further intervention by God would be necessary. The Law, if properly observed, brings peace, freedom, and prosperity to the people.  When kept, it worked well, making Israel in 1200-1000 B C the first “middle-class country” ever.

And what is “the Law?” The main elements are:

  • Equal Rights, no special privilege for royalty or anyone else, everyone gets land of equal productive potential.
  • Sabbath and Sabbatical Year.  During the latter (every seventh year), all debts cancelled and all slaves freed.
  • Jubilee every 50th year. All land returned to living descendants of its original holder.
  • Tithe, equivalent to land rent, given to “God”, used for religious purposes but also (apparently) community needs.  No taxes on production.
  • Special rules for widows, orphans, etc. who couldn’t support themselves

Sounds pretty geoist to me.  Whereas Henry George’s proposal was for the community to collect land rent from those holding formal title, Kelly’s God keeps ownership of the land (after all, He made it) and sets up rules for allocating its use. George’s system strikes me as more flexible, because folks have different numbers of descendants and different abilities and interests, but God at least takes a big step in the right direction. George didn’t treat jubilees specifically, but clearly his proposal would limit debt (and therefore debt-slavery) and make underwater mortgages extremely unlikely.

(Unfortunately the book doesn’t deal with the post-Sinai concept of usury, whereby lending money at interest is permissible only if the lender bears some of the risk. )

Kelly describes the “tithe” as being 10% of the land’s “productivity” (productive potential?)., and goes on to assert that “ten percent of a parcel’s productivity is still, today, a reasonable and customary rent.”  In today’s world, productivity of land isn’t always straightforward to estimate, but Illinois farmland data here (pdf) gives the impression that the actual land rent is more like 20% to 35% of what the land produces.  If the value of labor were excluded, counting only the natural productivity of the land, of course this percentage would be much higher, theoretically up to 100%.

Starting with arrival in the promised land, Kelly takes us thru the various Biblical periods, including Judges, Kings, the two kingdoms, Babylonian captivity and return to the Promised Land, Hellenism, Roman dominance, and the time of Jesus. He sees Jesus as seeking to restore the Law, which was still well-known if little-observed during this era.

One significant portion concerns the meaning of “Give Caesar what
belongs to Caesar.”  When Jesus said this in the context of taxes, according to Kelly, he really was saying “Don’t give Caesar anything because he has no right to collect taxes from you,” but had to avoid this straightforward statement because it would have got him in trouble with the rulers.

The final section of the book reviews some subsequent developments, particularly the origins of the United States as a place where the essential elements of the Law were still practiced until relatively recent times.  This part includes useful information about some other modern countries where aspects of the Law have been implemented, much of it taken from Land Value Taxation Around the World.

The Other Law of Moses could be quite useful to thinking Christians who are actually concerned about the poverty and totalitarian trends seen today. Provided of course that they have the necessary proprietary software and/or hardware to read it. I hope someday soon to read a review written by one of them.

For the rest of us, it’s reassuring to see the Bible interpreted as an endorsement of geoism (of course, many clergy, including Edward McGlynn and  Preston Bradley, have done this over the years.).

UPDATE 2012 February 8: Yesterday I was informed that a hardcopy version of this book is now available at: https://www.createspace.com/3779298


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