How would we live if we knew that sometime in our life, all of our debt would be cancelled? If there was a known date in the future when everything we owe to anyone else would be forgotten, and when we would be obliged to forgive anything anyone owed us?
That is the gist of the Year of Jubilee, which you can read all about in Leviticus 25 if you should so desire. Every fifty years, debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, land is returned to its original owners, the slate is wiped clean.
This makes a lot of sense. Unless you are living in a fictional paradise, poverty can come from things other than laziness, incompetence, and government intervention: accidents happen, people get sick, and land is not always abundant. When such things happen – and they do, over and over – the poor sell off their land, or simply borrow money from the rich. This eases their current situation but reduces their income, leaving them more vulnerable to the next disaster.
Thus, most Jubilee laws come with words about how they protect widows and orphans, and the poor from the rich. They rebalance society, they – I've never felt my lack of an economic education more keenly than now – restore to the workers the ownership of the means of production.
That said, it's not clear whether the law was ever implemented. The Biblical record is silent (to my knowledge), and we're not exactly drowning in extra-biblical sources for ancient Israeli history. To my modern sensibility, the idea is unsettling. Wouldn't people just go on massive credit card sprees? Would it become impossible to get a mortgage in year forty-nine? As an Australian, it's even slightly alarming. Just who are the original owners to whom land should be returned?
At least one guy on the Internet claims there are evidences of similar laws & decrees elsewhere in the Near East, and thus that even if Israel never implemented a Jubilee, it's likely that Babylon and Sumer did.
David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years (the most thought-provoking book I read in 2012), argues that we should institute a Jubilee now, for both international debt and consumer debt. To those who say "surely one has to pay ones debts", he points out that part of the deal of lending money out at interest is that you might not ever get your money back. When you spot a struggling third world country a couple of billion, only to see them have a military coup followed by years of famine, well, perhaps it's time to write that one off, rather than demand interest payments from the destitute nation for the next few decades. Oh to be able to run an experimental fork of the world economy.
If we just did it for consumer debt in a rich nation, such as Britain, and we somehow figured out to whom land ought to return – a tricky question that Graeber avoids – what would happen next?
My imagination fails me. Cynically, I think there'd be a temporary dip in the finance sector until the City boys figured out how to create an instrument that lasted over the Jubilee. In a sense, a debt is just a precisely defined obligation, just information. It's not a coincidence that the earliest writing we have are records of credit. To erase debt in Sumer, they literally washed the tablets, smoothing the cuneiform dimples from it until it was just clay. Getting rid of information these days is trickier.
Got any thoughts yourself? I'm very interested in this topic but, as mentioned, have no idea what I'm talking about. Feel free to comment here or on G+.