Joseph and the Famine: Does God Favor Economic Centralization?

Does the story of Joseph and the famine provide a Biblical argument for centrally managed economies?

The claim is often made, most recently by Shawn Ruby:

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.

In a lengthy response, Daniel Kaganovich and Jeremy England offer a solid rebuttal, noting that Ruby fails to grasp the full scope of the story. As we know, despite Joseph’s actions leading to the restoration of his family, the Israelites find themselves in a state of severe dependency. Having nothing left to trade, they are left with no choice but to offer up their freedom. “You have saved our lives,” they say. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”

And so the years of slavery began.

From Kaganovich and England:

“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…

…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.

This analysis of the end-game result brings up a crucial point: State monopolies are problematic (generational slavery isn’t so great). Yet the fact that things don’t work out causes a host of other questions to emerge. In theory, I share Russ Roberts’s corresponding observation that going public with this information would have allowed private speculators to sort things out much better (assuming, of course, the fantastical notion that Ancient Egypt had an advanced system of democracy and property rights). What’s harder for me to understand is how God is still the one behind all this. Or is he?

I’ve read several analyses on this topic from both sides of the economic debate, and there’s an overriding tension that is routinely left unanswered. The Keynesians argue that God favors centralization while ignoring the fact that this particular instance led to food shortages and enslavement. Alternatively, the supply-siders embrace the narrative of disaster, but tend to ignore the divine context. God was the one who sent Joseph his dream in the first place.

There are, of course, ways around this on both sides of the economic debate, but none of these alternatives are neat and tidy. Thus, permit me to ponder two detailed questions on the question of God’s role (or absence) in spurring on Israelite slavery.

First, there’s the question of whether Joseph’s actions were the primary drivers of the famine. Kaganovich and England assume this hypothesis, as do many others, suggesting that Joseph’s economic plan is to blame for the famine. Given that food shortages are a common outcomes of such schemes (see China and the Soviet Union), this position is understandable. Yet we should remember that the story begins with God telling Pharaoh and Joseph about the famine. For Joseph to be the active instigator, he was either (1) making up his own interpretation for opportunistic purposes, or (2) God, in his infinite wisdom, thought he’d make it even easier for Joseph to mess things up. If you, like me, prefer the more traditional interpretation: God was stating the facts as they were, giving Joseph and Pharaoh some awesome speculation info, distinctly removed from how or whether they might respond.

Second is the question of whether the economic plan itself came from God. Assuming Joseph clearly heard from God as far as the information is concerned, where does he get the idea that centralization is the best way to proceed? I’d prefer to be satisfied by some argument about Joseph being constrained by the political systems and ideologies of his time—the fact that this was before the emergence of democratic capitalism, F.A. Hayek and the like—but we must remember that this is God we’re talking about—the giver of dreams. How could Joseph, a man with a keen gift of prophecy and discernment, make such a quick U-turn in subverting the right voice for the wrong one, and on something so significant? Joseph is human, after all, but I don’t think it’s so easy to throw out the possibility that Joseph was listening to the right voice. God was with him in the pit. God was with him in the prison. Was he not with him during the Famine Committee meetings?

Thus, the overriding question seems to be this: Why did Joseph institute a plan that would eventually lead to economic slavery, and why would, or how could, God give Pharaoh a vision that would lead to such a plan?

In discussions of which economic system God might prefer—or, if you prefer, which is most optimal for achieving the basic aims of the Gospel—such an intellectual pursuit will consistently require a healthy injection of faith and humility, a comfortability with the possibility that God could turn our own intellectual reasoning on its head. We can be more certain of some things than others, but when we hit ripples like these, we need to be careful to avoid bulldozing on through without first yielding to the Creator, taking time to reflect on paradox and mystery.

God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and yet his ways are still higher than our ways. We should take time to retain mystery and imagination in our reflections about economics, even as we grow in rational understandings of the best way to promote human flourishing.

For more interesting analysis on the economics of the story of Joseph, see Values & Capitalism’s “Mere Environmentalism“by Steven Hayward.

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