Bureaucrats and Solomon’s Last Rant

“If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others still higher. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields” (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9).

One of the biggest arguments against any kind of idealization of government redistribution of incomes is the Old Testament itself and the writings of the prophets such as Isaiah and Micah in particular. It should be noticeable that while the prophets do decry wealth, the wealth that they decry is not all wealth, but wealth from illegitimate means – wealth taken from others through fraud and oppression – in other words, ill gotten gain. And they definitely do have no illusions about the integrity of government officials in their own time.

Solomon himself included a terse and apt description of this in the book of the Bible that might be entitled, “Solomon’s Last Rant.” The passage in Ecclesiastes above is the general experience of the middle and lower classes under the empire states of the ancient Near East. The empires of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, as the later empires of the Macedonians and the Romans, exacted taxes, tolls and tributes through a series of officials that went all the way up to the supreme ruler – the king or emperor. The tremendous sums that were exacted came from the taxation of the subject peoples. For Israelites, this would have meant additional levies beyond the tithe that they normally gave to the support of the Temple, the priests and the Levites. Depending on the honesty and rapacity of the officials of the empire, these taxes could be quite onerous, and result in a tremendous transfer of wealth from the small farmers, artisans and merchants that were a large part of the peoples in an ancient empire-state.

This is something that is definitely mentioned in Biblical accounts: that poverty can result from government oppression, and especially, a corrupt government where the officials exact their cuts from the productivity of the population. The corruptibility of government officials, due to the corruptibility of their human nature, should be a definite caution to any Bible believing Christian that would see governmental redistribution as a solution to human need and poverty. That governmental officials might find the money that they exact in the course of their office something that they would skim off for their own advantage rather than something that they might use for the good of the population should not be something that Christians find either astonishing or even improbable.

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