14 October 2005
by John McKinnon
With widening inequalities and 20 per cent of the world in extreme poverty, it is worth re-examining whether globalisation and free-market capitalism are in tune with Biblical ethics.
The eighth Commandment
Perhaps because of the ideological battles of the twentieth century, or a belief in individual freedom and reward for effort, capitalism has assumed the mantle of the “Christian” economic system. In looking to the Bible for ethical guidelines, the Ten Commandments are a natural starting point. The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15), is widely accepted as providing foundational property rights.
In his essay, “Property and possession in the light of the Ten Commandments,” in Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life (edited by William Schweiker and Charles Mathewes; Eerdmans, 2004, 17-51), Patrick Miller demonstrates that the commandment has a complex trajectory through the Old Testament and contains a deeper principle than simple property rights. In fact, this commandment raises significant ethical implications for today’s economic debate.
First, Miller looks at the prohibitions against stealing people, Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. The Deuteronomy passage specifically refers to slave labour or sale for gain. People are not goods to be bought and sold or used for economic exploitation. This point is furthered in some of the Sabbath regulations. Slaves are not only to be released every seven years but this freedom must be accompanied with liberal economic benefit (Deut. 15). Thus, while the commandments acknowledge that humans become caught in economic bondage, this must never become permanent; people must have an opportunity for a fresh start.
Second, Miller examines what he calls the legal trajectory of the eighth commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 22:1-15 contains a set of laws relating to theft and restitution. In most cases, the theft relates to those objects that are means of livelihood and production. The emphasis is not on property rights as such but rather that people have access to the means of providing life’s necessities. In verses 10-13, the concern is to provide protection in the case where someone has lent property or provided safekeeping for property. It appears that God wished to ensure that these social virtues are not endangered by concern about the liability or risks taken on. Exodus 23:4-5 even requires one to look after the property of an enemy.
Deuteronomy 22:1-4 elaborates this command and makes it clear that there is a positive responsibility to care for our neighbour’s economic wellbeing. As Miller states: “The divine instruction about loving one’s enemy thus begins not in the New Testament but in the moral dynamic effected by the eighth commandment.” Indebtedness is addressed in Deuteronomy 24:10-13. The creditor is not permitted to use his economic advantage to deprive others of basic necessities. Chapter 24 discusses fair payment of wages and a process whereby the poor can have access to agricultural produce.
The property laws were not about protection of property of the rich from the poor but about ensuring that the poor had access to basic needs. For Miller, “the trajectory of the eighth commandment explicitly opens up from a narrow reading of the commandment as a guard of private property to a positive inducement to generosity.”
Globalisation and trade
Economic globalisation involves increasing international trade in goods, services and capital, leading to diminished national sovereignty in exchange for increased power for the owners of capital. As this power has become increasingly concentrated, breaches of the ethical principles derived from the eighth commandment become apparent.
Debt is a major cause of poverty in the world today. Debt servicing far exceeds aid payments and has resulted in a decline in many essential services such as health and education. Debt restructurings usually involve the privatisation of utilities, reductions in government spending and the introduction of user pays principles. This is in contrast to the Pentateuchal principle that debt, no matter how incurred, should not deprive debtors of basic necessities or economic well-being.
Market power has become concentrated and a few multinational companies now dominate markets for several commodities predominantly produced by poorer countries. Prices received by the producers has remained low and a tiny fraction of the price of the final product as sold in the US or Europe. In many cases these “cash” crops have replaced subsistence food crops, rendering the producers totally dependent on the global markets. Once again, we must consider this in the light of the commandment’s insistence on economic well-being and fair wages.
While trade can lead to prosperity, “free” trade has often eroded the ability of national governments to protect citizens against foreign exploitation. High agricultural subsidies in the West not only lock out imports from the poorer countries but also encourage significant over-production. This surplus gets dumped on poorer countries thus further damaging the market of local producers. Such “theft” of markets denies these producers the means of economic livelihood and surely comes within the moral ambit of the eighth commandment.
Similarly, intellectual property and patent rules protect rich country corporations and effectively lock poor countries out of the market for life-saving medicine and technological advancements. Patent protection for seeds and fertilizers directly impinges upon the productive capabilities of third world farmers. Again, the basic needs of the poor are subjected to the profitability of the assets of the rich, in contravention of the eighth commandment.
Cases of multinational corporations moving factories into poorer countries to exploit low wages bring to mind the commandment’s applications to slavery. This exploitation, which often involves very low wages and appalling conditions, is usually the only possible employment to which workers have access. They therefore have no option but to remain in exploitative situations.
The commandment against stealing is more than a simple protection of private property. It is a positive encouragement to generosity and a set of principles for caring for the poorer members of society. Global capitalism exhibits much that contravenes the eighth commandment, leading to the conclusion that a significant amount of global economic activity is stealing.
John McKinnon is NSW State Coordinator for Tear Australia (www.tear.org.au)
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