Adapting Ancient Ethical Principles in Modern Times

Girl swinging under an umbrella made of dollar bills.

What if every baby had a state-mandated trust fund? Our society’s wealth could provide an umbrella of safety and a feeling of freedom for every child. Credit: Olivia Wise (

The biblical dream of Jubilee—the periodic forgiveness of all debts and equal redistribution of land—has the power to inspire contemporary activism, but it would be misguided for us to try to revive biblical Jubilee laws in a literal way. By focusing on the ethical intent behind these laws, rather than on their prescriptive content, we can generate creative new ideas for wealth redistribution in our current era—ideas such as modifying estate tax rules or creating trust funds to accomplish the ethical aims of Jubilee.

Simplistic Rules Won’t Serve Us

There are various reasons why the Bible’s edicts on debt and redistribution could not be implemented in the modern world. In fact, it is difficult to see how even the relatively simple societies described in the Bible could implement ideas such as the complete elimination of interest, total forgiveness of debt, equal redistribution of land, and the shutting down of economic activity for a year. For any society to periodically shut down and radically restructure financial accounts and property rights every few years would be impossibly disruptive. The enforcement of such narrowly defined prescriptions in complex, densely populated, and interconnected contemporary societies would require a brutal police state and generate corruption, hardship, and violence beyond any conceivable benefit.

Nevertheless, the ethical principles behind the Jubilee laws are relevant to all societies in all times and are well worth serious consideration. Simply stated, a healthy society must maintain an equitable distribution of wealth, assure all people access to a means of making their living, and address our periodic need for time away from labor for personal reflection and renewal.

The key here is a significant difference between sound principles and the blind imposition of simplistic rules.

Periodic Wealth Redistribution

How might we update the Bible’s call for the periodic redistribution of wealth? Where wealth has become excessively concentrated, as in the contemporary United States, a form of Jubilee would make good sense—not at a single moment in time, but at the end of each lifetime. To this end, there is considerable merit in the proposal put forward by Jonathan Rowe in “Every Baby a Trust Fund Baby,” an article in the January 2001 issue of The American Prospect.

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