The road to Egypt: job creators in the Ancient World

Joseph’s rise to power is no blueprint for good government but rather a profoundly cautionary tale

Joseph turned Egypt into a slave society (eye, hieroglyphic image via Shutterstock)
Joseph turned Egypt into a slave society (eye, hieroglyphic image via Shutterstock)

In a recent commentary on the Torah portion Parshat Miketz posted in The Times of Israel, Shawn Ruby presents the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt as evidence that having a government-managed economy works. Specifically, he casts Joseph as the first “Keynesian” economist, that is, the first person to realize that a powerful executive with the authority to make economic decisions on behalf of the people can plan consumption patterns more wisely than a group of disorganized individuals, and thereby become the salvation of everyone.

Mr. Ruby writes:

Whether the famine was supply-side or demand-side in origin, Joseph’s example teaches us the important role government has in smoothing out the ravages of the business cycle.  Saving a surplus during the years of plenty and spending during the lean years is an ancient formula, backed by modern economics since the Great Depression.  Unfortunately, it has been forgotten by too many modern-day policy makers.

Mr. Ruby is correct to realize that the story of Joseph and Pharaoh may be read, among other ways, as a brilliant treatise on political economy. In reaching the conclusion that he does, however, he fails to consider a great deal of relevant textual evidence from the story that weighs against his thesis. At the very least he might take a look at the next portion, Vayigash:

Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said ‘Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!’ And Joseph said, ‘Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.’ So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock. And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, ‘We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.’ (JPS Tanakh, 2000)

“Smoothing out the ravages of the business cycle” indeed. What Mr. Ruby ignores, and what the text devotes many verses to emphasizing, is that central planning of the kind undertaken by Joseph and Pharaoh ultimately leads down a Hayekian “road to serfdom.”  Here, what starts as a grain shortage brought on by natural cycles in the east wind and the Nile’s ebb and flow is leveraged by a government with authoritarian ambitions to utterly enslave the people – better yet, to have the people beg the government to enslave them! This much is clear: the more the coercive power of the state is deployed in the name of preventing individuals from making bad decisions about how to arrange their own sustenance, the greater will be the eventual loss of individual liberty.

Of course, the state cannot give anything it does not first take by threat of force, yet when the meal comes back to us, we still often think we are getting something for nothing.

Far less clear is what the people actually gain in exchange for their freedom.  Ruby writes “It is not clear what caused the famine in Egypt,” yet a close reading of the text forces us to acknowledge it may well have been Joseph himself.  In the stories of the patriarchs, the Torah is clear that famine strikes every generation, and for every one of the patriarchs, the temptation is the same: to go down to Egypt to get food. This was true not only in the time of Jacob, but for Isaac and Abraham as well.  The point is that Egypt’s irrigated agricultural production is so tremendous in the good years that there is always plenty of food left over for the bad years. The text does not give us a reason to suppose the average quantity of food is any different in the time of Joseph. What changes, however, is who owns it, and where it is kept. Joseph’s new policies are essentially two-fold: the seizure of grain by the state through taxation, and the relocation of the grain from the countryside to guarded stores in the cities.  What we have here is the anatomy of a manufactured crisis.

In a free market economy, some farmers may store grain in years of plenty, and others may sell it to non-farmers. Enterprising individuals may even take to raising cattle, especially when the abundance of grain drives down its price and puts unskilled growers out of business. Of course, astute observers of grain futures – that is, commodities speculators like Joseph – can always dream up a plan to make timely investments in grain and turn a nice profit. But with the coercive power of government behind him, Joseph goes much further, using taxes and public “investment” to crowd out private saving so that the next crop failure will lead to a near-perfect state monopoly on food. Once the food shortage arrives, Joseph and Pharaoh are poised to “de-kulakize” the farmers, first taking their money, then their property, and finally the farmers themselves in exchange for life-giving bread. Safe and comfortable in their fortified cities (guarded, no doubt, by well-fed soldiers), Joseph and Pharaoh use a supposed concern for the well-being of the nation as a pretext to enslave it. We tend to read the biblical text in light of the eventual Exodus, and carelessly assume that Egypt was always a dictatorship which Joseph simply helped out with a few agronomical innovations. Looking more closely at the text, it becomes clear that Joseph is the one who turned Egypt into a slave society.

Mr. Ruby is right about this: the story of Joseph is very relevant to the debate over the role of government in the economy today. The relentless narrative theme at the core of the Five Books of Moses is that life in Egypt, even as a slave, offers many temptations that each generation must struggle anew to resist. The Torah points out that people are willing to sell everything they have, even their liberty, to be free from the anxiety of not knowing how they’ll put food on the table tomorrow. Indeed, the sense of gratitude that this guarantee of security produces can be so powerful that the slave may even forget the price he paid for it: “We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free,” pined the Israelites in the desert. Of course, the state cannot give anything it does not first take by threat of force, yet when the meal comes back to us, we still often think we are getting something for nothing.

The story of Joseph is no guidebook for managing the economy, but rather a sophisticated and somber warning of how free people choose to become slaves. Interestingly, many laws in the Torah seek to make this outcome a practical impossibility for the Jewish nation. The fifty-year Jubilee resets gross inequalities in land ownership that have accumulated through past transactions, and the sabbatical shmita rule forces the people to rehearse for famine every seven years by letting their fields lie fallow. Even individuals who insist on remaining slaves after their prescribed term of service are sharply rebuked. The Torah does not encourage reliance on a cadre of powerful experts to secure our future. Rather, by establishing each person (and not a Pharaoh) as the image of God, it sets forth an ideal of individual autonomy and creativity to which we all can aspire.

Viewed in light of this ideal, the political temperaments of today’s western democracies are a very sorry sight indeed. In the past several years, Europe’s ailing welfare states have witnessed ferocious demonstrations against the prospect of reducing free services provided by government, and Israelis have marched to demand that their leaders “do something” to lower the cost of everything from housing to cottage cheese.  Meanwhile, in America, the recently concluded electoral contest saw both major parties promising that they knew best how to use the power of the presidency to “create jobs.” Among other things, Parshat Vayigash should remind us that the Pharaohs were some of history’s most successful job creators: as we learn in the Book of Exodus, there was always more demand for the backbreaking, menial labor needed to construct massive pyramids out of brick and stone for the glory of the god-king. Fortunately for Pharaoh, his planners had enough control over the economy to set a price for labor that was commensurate with the regime’s architectural needs. We may only hope that the free societies of the world internalize the lessons of biblical Egypt soon, reversing steps they’ve already taken down a road that always leads to the same destination.

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