Saturday, March 21, 2015

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Economic System According to Torah

A Lengthy Question by Moshe F…

I wanted to initiate a discussion on this topic.  I'm in no way an expert on economics and neither am I an expert on Torah, but it seems to me that Torah encourages a unique economic system which is neither capitalist not communist.  It seems to me that the basis for Torah's economic system is individual self sufficiency - the Torah wants every family to own land (with the exception of two tribes), and the obvious implication is that every family should grow their own food on that land.  (If the Torah wanted commercial/collective agriculture it wouldn't have made such a demand that every family own land, and that land is never to be sold for more than 50 years - land is to remain with each family forever.  And I don't think it's because commercial/collective agriculture didn't exist back then, I believe that it did exist, specifically in Egypt.)

I hear people saying that we no longer live in an agrarian society, so we now fulfill the Torah's vision of social justice by giving a lot of tzedaka (charity), etc.  But I feel that this is a mistaken approach. 

The Torah has a very unique system of social justice which is so far unparalleled by any social justice system that any society has been able to create.  And the basis of Torah's social justice system is individual self sufficiency through individual land ownership.  If most of society is self sufficient because most families grow their own food, then mitzvot like peah, shichecha, (the mitzvot of leaving a small percentage of the produce on the land for the poor to freely collect), maasrot (tithing) and shmita and yovel (leaving the land fallow on the 7th and 50th years) actually promote social justice in a way unparalleled by anything else, instead of being only rituals like they are now. 

So perhaps instead of saying "that was in the past when 90% of population had to farm in order to survive, now farming is done by only 5% of population, and therefore we have to adopt our social justice system to a society which is far removed from it's food source", we should perhaps try to recreate an agrarian society based on individual land ownership and self sufficiency.  The difference between now and the past would be that instead of taking 90% of a person's time, farming would now take only 5% of a person's time thanks to modern technology, with the rest of his time free (for pursuit of spirituality or betterment of the world).

What do you think?  I would like to find people to whom this approach makes sense and see what steps could be taken to make it happen.

ANSWER BY Reb Akiva…

An interesting topic Moshe.  First some realities of farming…

“50% of the world labour force is employed in agriculture. Distribution in the late 1980’s ranged from 64% of the economically active in Africa to less than 4% in America and Canada. In Asia the figure was 61%; South America, 24%; Eastern Europe and Russia 15%; Western Europe 7%.”

So how is it that it takes 64% of the people farming to feed the population in Africa and Asia, but only 4% in the United States?

“Nowadays one person can farm hundreds of acres of arable land, whereas fifty years ago they might only be able to farm twenty acres.  In the United States, each farmer in 2000 produced on average 12 times as much farm output per hour worked as a farmer did in 1950.”

The key question becomes, where has all this productivity come from?  Answer:

  • Mechanization – Automating many processes, increased size of farm equipment, technology and engineering applied to agriculture.
  • High yield varieties – R&D, breeding and genetic selection of seed stocks and animals.
  • Fertilizers & Liming of Acid Soils – Enabling deficient soil, and optimizing even good soil.
  • Irrigation – Constant water monitoring and control.
  • Pesticides & Herbicides – Killing off competitors.
  • Increased plant density – This is enabled by the mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, etc.
  • Animal feed made more digestible by processing – Increased animal raising efficiency by targeted foods.
  • Keeping animals indoors in cold weather – Climate control for the animals makes them grow faster.

My point in presenting this data… while anyone can grow a garden, that highly efficient 4% agriculture has become high tech, high productivity, with associated HIGH COST OF INVESTMENT.  That investment is both in education of the farmer (average farmer now has a BA degree in agriculture), irrigation, fertilization, and many large machines for automation. 

In Israel the Kibbutz and Moshav attempted to address some of this by having collective sharing of equipment (and in the Kibbutz of investment).  In the model you are talking about, the individual plots don’t facilitate the collective investment and equipment necessary to achieve the high productivity.  Nor do they provide the knowledge base, productive farming now being a degree level venture.

So while farming is discussed as a very spiritual profession… shepherds having time on the land with their animals, farmers depending on so many factors out of their control that prayer is natural, to achieve today’s productivity rate requires economies of scale that private farming does not provide.

Therefore I think the idea has a solid spiritual basis but is impractical.

On the other hand, distributing the ownership of the Land of Israel to the Jews of Israel, such that each family control plots that could be rented out for farming, or housing, or business, etc, would provide a solid economic foundation to every family.  So perhaps the idea could be not “everyone should have food security via farming” but rather “everyone family should have economic security by renting out their family land for productive use”.


Josh said...

Interesting. So if everyone had land in the olden days, then why was their poverty and the need for peah and such?

And another thing - we see these days that the Jewish mind, in general, does not settle for menial work as given, and always seems to look for better more efficient ways to do things or to manage others to do the actual work instead. Management is a very important trait if one is to manage many people and area beyond their natural family plot. So were Jews really satisfied to work only on their family plot, or did they already look at how to maximize production for more profit (free time)?

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