Thoughts on Sanders: Judaism and the Culture of Capitalism — The Commentator

At a recent Yeshiva College Tzedek Society event, I heard Rabbi Saul Berman speak about income inequality. The Jewish nation’s political economy, he pointed out, began with an equal distribution of economic resources. Every family received a plot of land of equal worth. Structural checks in Torah law helped preserve social equality: yovel ensured that all land sales were temporary, so that no family could fall into systemic poverty and class lines could never harden.

Economic inequality seems to be the issue of the day. I, as I’m sure others do, find myself torn between my sympathy for the economic justice advocated by Bernie Sanders on the one hand and ambivalence toward the feasibility of his policies on the other. Four prominent economists recently criticized Sanders, including Alan Krueger, economic adviser to the Obama Administration, and Paul Krugman, regular contributor to the New York Times. Both are outspoken advocates of progressive economic policies, but find Sanders’ economic plans far too costly. But for me, it’s more than that. Let me acknowledge the elephant in the room. It’s no secret that the Jewish community largely counts among the wealthy of American society. For the Orthodox community this is of necessity: religious education, Shabbat and holidays, large families, and a plethora of other expenses associated with a religious lifestyle demand a lot of money to maintain. Granted, not all Jews are rich. But for many, especially in the Modern Orthodox community, maintaining a “middle-class” lifestyle alongside a religious life requires income normally associated with the affluent. Regardless of my views on income redistribution, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that siding with progressive tax policies is betraying my community.

That’s an issue everyone will have to work out for themselves. What interests me now are the voices criticizing Sanders coming from an unexpected quarter. New York Times Opinion writers Thomas Friedman and David Brooks have come out as surprisingly strident against Sanders’ vision of social democracy. Their argument, in essence, is that American success has always been rooted in an economy that favored individual entrepreneurship and risk taking — that this ethos and the corresponding tax reality is what allowed innovative industries and technologies to flourish. In his recent piece, “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’ Danish Dream”, Brooks writes:

Sanders would change the incentive structure for the country’s most successful people. He proposes raising the top tax rate to 52 percent. As Josh Barro noted in The Times, when you add in state, local and other taxes, top earners would be paying a combined tax rate over 73 percent…

It’s possible that entrepreneurs, company founders and others would pay these rates without changing their behavior, but I wouldn’t count on it. When you make risk-taking less rewarding, you get fewer risk-takers, which is exactly what you see across the Atlantic. When you raise taxes that high, the Elon Musks of the world find other places to build their companies.

The argument is not that social democracy would destroy America, or that Sanders’ vision isn’t driven by real, pressing needs. But Friedman and Brooks balk at the idea of refashioning the economic ethos of American society. As Brooks says, “There’s nothing wrong with living in northern Europe. I’ve lived there myself. It’s just not the homeland we’ve always known.”

Capitalist freedom an important part of the American ethos. It resonates deeply with the American values of rugged individualism, with the proud grit of immigrants and frontiersmen. Indeed, its power as a cultural force can be seen as early as the Constitutional debates of the 1780s, when Anti-Federalist writer Samuel Bryan wrote in The Independent Gazetteer :

[I]t is here that the human mind, untrammeled by the restraint of arbitrary power, expands every faculty: as the field to fame and riches is open to all, it stimulates universal exertion…the unfortunate and oppressed of all nations fly to this grand asylum, where liberty is ever protected, and industry is crowned with success.

In peculiar ways, the message of capitalist liberty has a special resonance with the Jewish community. Jonathan Sarna has identified something he calls the “cult of synthesis” in the Jewish American experience. America was the first country where religion was not an overt limitation on Jewish opportunity. Jews coming here were dazzled by the possibility of belonging — really belonging. A sense crept in — and more than crept in, was cultivated by American rabbis and lay leaders alike — that being American was somehow a natural complement to being Jewish. American values were equated with Jewish values. Sarna sums this idea up with a quote from the 1970 American Jewish Year Book : “[F]or a Jew, the better an American one is, the better Jew one is.” While the author of the article — Charles Leibman — is writing from the perspective of Reconstructivist Judaism, Sarna argues that the sense that there is a natural merge between American values and Jewish values exists across denominational lines.

In my impression, many Orthodox Jews today are conscious of having identities that are greatly distinct from the American mainstream. This is especially true as the Orthodox world becomes more religiously right-wing, as more and more Orthodox men and women spend time in yeshivot abroad, and as American society becomes simultaneously more secularized. Nonetheless, I wonder to what extent our continued identification with capitalist freedom is a carry-over from our tradition of cultural synthesis. As one particularly rabbinic family member, who I’ve often heard preach on the value of being un-American, surprised me with: “I’m a patriot.”

But like Rabbi Berman pointed out, Judaism has an ambiguous relationship with capitalist freedom. Ownership of land in the Jewish economy is not absolute: yovel means that the fundamental ownership of land is not yours to sell, and means that the poor have a stake in private real estate. Israelite land is beholden to supporting the priests and Levites that serve the community. This is in addition to the biblical obligation for charity. Americans today are reconsidering their society’s economic structure, weighing the values and benefits of individual entrepreneurship against guarantees of collective economic security. American Jews, naturally, are doing the same. But they can also consider what their ancestral traditions have to say about the culture of capitalism.

Originally published at https://yucommentator.org on February 29, 2016.