(This article first appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Tikkun Magazine.)
Ancient Wisdom and the Modern Knowledge Economy
By Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly
Today the top 1 percent garners more income than the bottom 120 million Americans taken together. The top 1 percent owns nearly half of all individually held investment capital—roughly as much as the entire bottom 99 percent taken together. Traditional religious tenets in general—and Jewish tradition in particular—offer a powerful challenge to such inequities. What is striking is that new economic and historical studies provide new affirmation of ancient moral wisdom in ways particularly appropriate—and of great political relevance—to today’s knowledge economy.
Consider Leviticus 25, which provides for a jubilee every fifty years to restore broadly distributed ownership of the commonly inherited land. “In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property…. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev. 25:13, 25:23). Under this law, a property right is always a temporary entitlement. While it may be traded and the land sold, “in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned” (Lev. 25:28). God’s original gift of the land, Leviticus 25 holds, instills in all productive resources the moral imperative of common access if not equal benefits. Extreme inequalities of ownership and economic well-being can only mean that we have defaulted on the debt owed God for his original gift of Creation.
Although land was once the primary basis of all wealth, modern studies show that knowledge is now the primary driver of economic growth, and further, that this makes traditional moral arguments more, not less, relevant today. To understand why—and what it means both morally and politically—we need to grasp some basic facts about economic growth and how we accumulate wealth.