bronze age societies did not believe all debts should be paid -- 1/29/19
Today's selection -- from And Forgive Them Their Debts by Michael Hudson. The jubilee -- a period when ancient rulers forgave debt -- was a regular occurrence in Bronze Age societies. Rulers benefited by freeing debtors from debt bondage so the peasantry was "free" to work on public works projects or in the military. People sold into debt-bondage were returned to their families. To our modern sensibilities the idea of blanket debt forgiveness by the state is alien. The Rosetta stone itself provides evidence of this practice. A second, perhaps more powerful reason for debt forgiveness was that it stripped power from the lenders, who were generally the aristocracy, and helped insure the primacy and power of the ruler against that aristocracy:
"Unlike today's business cycle economists, Bronze Age societies ... did [not] believe that all debts should be paid. Their laws recognized that floods and droughts, military conflict or other causes prevented cultivators from harvesting enough to pay the debts they had run up during the crop year.
"Palaces and temples were the major creditors, and their guiding objective was to maintain a free citizenry to serve in the military and provide the seasonal corvée labor [labor in lieu of taxes] duties attached to land tenure. ... Rulers saw that if cultivators had to work off their debts to private creditors, they would not be available to perform their public corvée work duties, not to mention fight in the army.
"By liberating distressed individuals who had fallen into debt bondage, and returning to cultivators the lands they had forfeited for debt or sold under economic duress, these royal acts maintained a free peasantry willing to fight for its lands and work on public building projects and canals. Cuneiform references to such debt cancellations have been excavated in Lagash, Assur, Isin, Larsa, Babylon and other Near Eastern cities as far west as Asia Minor.
"By clearing away the buildup of personal debts, rulers saved society from the social chaos that would have resulted from personal insolvency, debt bondage and military defection. ...
"[T]he Liberty Bell in Philadelphia ... is inscribed with a quotation from Leviticus 25.10: 'Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.' The full verse refers to freedom from debt bondage when it exhorts the Israelites to 'hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a Jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his family' (and also every woman, child and house slave who had been pledged). Lands were restored to their traditional holders clear of debt encumbrances. Sounding the ram's horn on the Day of Atonement of this fiftieth year signaled the renewal of economic order and equity by undoing the corrosive effects of indebtedness that had built up since the last Jubilee.
"The Hebrew word translated as 'liberty' in the Leviticus text is deror. It is cognate to andurārum in Akkadian, a related Semitic language of early Babylonia. The root meaning of both words is to move freely like running water -- in this case like bondservants liberated to rejoin their families. As early as 2400 BC the Sumerian term amargi signified the return to the mother. ...
"Until the 1970s translators construed these terms as meaning freedom in an abstract sense. The idea of creditors not being paid seemed so radical that academics doubted that debts could really have been cancelled without deranging social life, or perhaps triggering a political backlash by the well-to-do against rulers annulling their claims for payment.
"What helped settle matters was the Rosetta stone. Nearly everyone knows that this trilingual Egyptian inscription provided the key for reading and understanding hieroglyphics after it was dug up by Napoleon's troops in 1799. What is almost always overlooked is what the stone reports. It was a debt amnesty by a young ruler from the Ptolemaic dynasty (a lineage founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals in 314 BC). The stone's inscription commemorates the cancellation of back taxes and other debts by the 13-year old Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 197 BC, evidently indoctrinated by Egypt's priesthood, into the ways of emulating former pharaohs.
"In one language after another, initial doubts have been dispelled: The economic liberty referred to was an amnesty on arrears of back taxes and other personal debts. Rulers cancelled these arrears to liberate citizens and their family members pledged to creditors for debt, and to restore the customary land-tenure rights that had been forfeited to creditors. There can be no doubt that these edicts were implemented. Over the course of Hammurabi's Babylonian dynasty (1894-1600 BC) they grew into quite elaborate promulgations, capped by his great-great-grandson Ammisaduqa in 1646 BC.
"Proclamation of these clean slates became so central a royal function that the phrase 'to issue a "royal edict" (simdat šarrim) usually referred specifically to a debt cancellation. The act typically was commemorated in the year-name for the ruler's second year, reflecting what they had done in their initial year upon taking the throne. These texts have been excavated mainly from temple foundations, where Urukagina (2352-2342 BC) and Gudea of Lagash (c. 2150) buried them on the occasion of inaugurating temples or celebrating their coronation. ...
"By the first millennium BC, however, kings had lost the power to overrule local aristocracies. Where they survived, they ruled on behalf of the wealthy. From Solomon and his son Rehoboam through Ahab and most subsequent rulers, the Bible depicts most Israelite kings as burdening the people with taxes, not freeing them from debts or palace demands. That is why the Biblical prophets shifted the moral center of lawgiving out of the hands of kings, making debt cancellation and land reform automatic and obligatory as a sacred covenant under Mosaic Law, handed down by the Lord."