A Jubilee Year: What Leviticus Can Teach Us Today

“Go home. Be with your family. Live simply and with integrity. Consume only what you need. Be generous with each other.”

That is the gist of much of Leviticus 25, where God issues instructions for the Jubilee. The jubilee is a kind of year-long Sabbath, occurring after “seven weeks of years, seven times seven years”—i.e., every 50th year. But in addition to the typical Sabbath’s rest and worship, the Jubilee is also a time of mercy and compassion: enslaved people are freed, debts are forgiven, and economic relations are subordinated to fundamental human needs. God assures Moses that the land will be capable of feeding and sheltering the people and so they must, “observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely.”[1]

Of all the books of the Bible, Leviticus is among those that most closely approach the prolixity of a legal code. Its focus is ritual, religious authority, and right conduct. As a result, I rarely look to Leviticus for inspiration. The creative energy is concentrated in Genesis. The revolutionary zeal is in Exodus. Job describes the drama of faith and doubt. But now, while we all shelter in our homes, with our families, surrounded by the uncertainty of a spreading virus and a contracting economy, I wonder what it would take to adapt the jubilee to the present day. We are watching so many livelihoods, communities, and institutions collapse under the weight of contractual (debtor-creditor) relationships that in normal times are the ostensible engines of our economy.[2] How would a modern jubilee address this? The God of Leviticus is not around to authorize or set the terms of such a transformation of economic relations, but civil authorities have contemplated such a move before.

The Defense Production Act (DPA) has been in the news recently as a means of expanding domestic manufacturing capacity of ventilators and personal protective equipment. The DPA is now mostly concerned with industrial production but when it was first enacted in 1950, it included broad powers to shape national economic policy, including through credit controls and regulation. The reach of those broad economic powers was tested when President Truman issued his executive order nationalizing the steel industry. He was trying to avert a steelworker strike that threatened to cripple the national supply of steel in the middle of the Korean War. His executive order was quickly ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, a landmark case limiting the Executive Branch’s power. Perhaps because of the Court’s various allusions to the Weimar Republic in the Youngstown opinions, Congress allowed the more expansive powers of the DPA to lapse shortly thereafter. But Youngstown stood for the proposition that the executive cannot exercise such authorities unilaterally, not that emergency economic powers are wholly incompatible with constitutional law or democratic governance.

The Court suggested that the President and Congress, acting together, have broad latitude to respond to emergencies as they see fit. We are currently in the kind of emergency that should engender iconoclastic thinking and uncommon unity of purpose. What began as a public health crisis has now become an economic one. The precarity of so many American livelihoods has us wondering which will be deadlier: the virus itself or its downstream material and psychological effects. Nobody could reasonably have been expected to contract for this contingency and almost no one will benefit from the cascade of unmet financial obligations rippling through the economy, not even creditors. The typical counter-arguments about moral hazard or systemic risk are not as persuasive given the fact that so many contractual obligations have been rendered incoherent and counter-productive by this unprecedented economic shutdown. Until people can safely and productively enter the public square again, why not declare a jubilee of sorts and stop this economy-wide prisoner’s dilemma of evictions, debt collection, and margin calls?

Instead, the government could say: “For now, just go home, be with your family, live simply and with integrity, consume only what you need, and be generous with each other.”

Ian Ramsey-North is a rising second-year student who loves to hear from readers. Email him at ramseyno@bc.edu.

[1] Leviticus 25:18.

[2] In our daily lives, and in the lives of the majority of Americans who do not benefit substantially from the innovations of modern finance, a dollar is a discrete and fixed unit. Something earned and something spent. In the hands of a nimble creditor, however, one dollar can live multiple lives, leveraged and allocated across a variety of financial commitments. This is the value proposition of our increasingly elaborate financial system. But that financial alchemy relies on the magic ingredients of trust and force. A creditor can safely and simultaneously commit the same dollar to multiple contracts as long as each party trusts that the real dollar will actually show up when it is supposed to. But if that trust is misplaced, the scheme can still hold up as long as the government backs it with either its own dollars, or its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. When all of that trust and force fails to keep the peace, one over-extended dollar becomes shockingly destructive.

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