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Joseph's Welfare System

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Poverty and Injustice

Those Christians who would like to use the Bible to support state welfare programs have a difficult task ahead of them. Of course, there have been many attempts. Most seem to rely on passages such as Psalm 72:1-4, exhorting the king to deliver justice to the poor. The error in this interpretation, of course, is in equating "bringing justice" with redistribution of wealth. The underlying assumption, usually left unstated, is that the distribution of wealth that arises from normal property transfers (especially market transactions and inheritances) is unjust because some people wind up with more than others. Inequality and injustice are equated.

To the Christian, however, the concept of justice cannot be separated from God's ethical standards. In evaluating any process, the basic question to be asked is, "Has God's law been violated here? That determines whether the situation is unjust or not. More to our point here, has a wealthy person obtained his wealth by robbing others, or has he obtained it righteously? Most wealthy people today have attained their wealthy status through market transactions or through inheritance. Market transactions involve, in essence, two parties coming to a voluntary agreement on a trade. If there is no misrepresentation of the item sold (i.e., fraud), how can anyone claim that theft has occurred? Inheritance is a transfer of property from (usually) a parent to a child-it is a gift, and no theft exists there, either.

One way to argue that justly attained wealth might still imply injustice is to state that the poor have a claim of some sort on the belongings of the wealthy. Yet, though the poor can rightly point to Scriptural commands to the wealthy (and all others) to give generously, a general eligibility to receive charity does not imply a personal claim on the property of any other particular individual. Perhaps a certain person is in a position to give, and should give, to the poor. Yet until that person voluntarily relinquishes control over his property, it is his alone (Acts 5:4). God will hold the ungenerous person guilty, but having above-average wealth does not imply a lack of generosity.

The justice a king can render to the poor is the justice of evenhandedly protecting the rights of the property they have against powerful oppressors (Psalm 72:4). What a relief to the poor to know that the king will prevent that rich fellow with the expensive lawyer from snatching their property! This protection of property rights leads to a reduction in poverty as well. People are more willing to work and be productive if they know that the fruits of their labor will remain theirs to dispose of as they choose. Redistribution of wealth, on the other hand, reduces the incentive to produce and creates poverty.

The Example of Joseph

If an argument for the injustice of unequal wealth fails, Christian welfare advocates might resort to another favorite—the example of the Egyptian "welfare" system administered by Joseph during an extended famine. As Genesis 41:33-57 and 47:13-26 tell us, Joseph dealt with the seven-year Egyptian famine by confiscating grain and then selling it back to the Egyptian people.

Tim Keller, in his book Ministries of Mercy, characterizes Joseph's actions as a "hunger relief program," and concludes that "the state has a responsibility to help its poorest members."1 The clear implication is that the "help" or "mercy" extended to the poor is not simply impartial judgment or protection against oppressors, but the coerced transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor.

As with many historical events related in Scripture, we cannot infer that all Joseph's actions are normative for us. Joseph was given the interpretation of Pharaoh's dream by God, but he added to it his own policy recommendations. Perhaps all that he did was correct; perhaps only some of it was correct; perhaps none of it was. We must be informed by the rest of the Bible to ascertain the righteousness of his response to the famine.

Joseph's system included a 20 percent tax on grain in the years before the famine. Perhaps he paid for the grain that went into the storehouses, but there is no indication that he did. When the famine began, Joseph began to sell the grain back to the Egyptians. When they spent all the money they had, Genesis 47 tells us, they bought grain with their livestock. That gained the people another year. In the latter years of the famine, they sold their land to Pharaoh, except for the government-subsidized pagan priesthood. Finally, the Egyptians sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh. When the famine was over, Joseph instituted a permanent 20 percent tax on harvests. (Later, the prophet Samuel would refer to a 10 percent tax as oppressive [I Samuel 8:10-18].) Under Joseph, the Egyptians had become a nation of serfs, while Pharaoh and his priests gained wealth and power.

In some ways our modern welfare system resembles Joseph's. As the state attempts to replace other institutions in society as the agent of charity, heavy taxes are used to relieve the immediate suffering of the poor. The recipients of the welfare grant the state immense powers in exchange. Property taxes and land-use restrictions (like zoning and environmental regulations) deny an individual a complete set of property rights in land. In the United States, where tax rates are lower than in many nations, taxes of all forms take far more than the Egyptian 20 percent of household income (counting Social Security "contributions" as a tax). Certainly we are freer than the post-famine Egyptian slaves to the state, but the trend has been in the wrong direction.

There are ways to provide for the poor other than transfers coerced by the civil government. First, there are the individual's own preparations for potential problems. Perhaps Joseph should have warned the Egyptians to make their own preparations rather than pursue a policy based on confiscation. This would probably have resulted in greater production of grain, since people tend to produce more when they are allowed to keep the fruits of their labor. Second, there is the family. As a central institution in society, the family should be prepared to assist its members in tough times. The church is also able to provide relief, and the practice of the early church (Acts 6:1-6; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5) demonstrates that this is a major part of the church's work. Finally, other voluntary charitable organizations can ease the burden on the poor. If resorting to the state is not an option, people have a strong incentive to maintain good relationships with their families, their churches, and other individuals. Welfare programs, during and since Joseph's time, enrich and empower the state to the detriment of all other institutions in society.


1. Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, pp. 82, 124.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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