A lot of the political discourse in American and in Europe revolves around economic models. The bold faced names in the discussion are capitalism and socialism. To be fair, no matter what, the United States will have a hybrid version because we will never get to a place where the system is completely capitalistic without taxation and social programs for the poor nor will we ever have a system of 100% taxation and governmental distribution of wealth.
In America, we are somewhere in the middle. Which is why I find it humorous when people call President Obama a socialist or Romney is touted as a true capitalist. It makes for good sound bites but the truth is that they are fairly close to one another economically. They might be on opposite extremes on the center. But they are not on opposite extremes of the spectrum the way Ayn Rand and Karl Marx are.
One fun argument is what the Bible has to say about these contemporary economic systems. Pretty much any view can be shoehorned into some passage from the Bible. So it is not a strong argument when one invokes scripture seeing as it so open to interpretation. (See: WWJD?)
However, Jewish Law does not follow the literal translation of scripture. Instead, Jewish Law follows the interpretations and codifications of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period and the analysis and expansion of those laws during the Talmudic period. These are “The Rabbis” that are referred to when people say things like “the rabbis said…”. In Hebrew they are known by their Hebrew acronym, Chazal.
The thing with Chazal is that they actually enacted specific legislation and we know the specific rules that they enforced. They are written in black and white in the Talmud. At Kavvanah Blog Rabbi Isidore Epstein’s introductory essay to the Talmud was posted and among many other fascinating issues, the essay addresses this particular point.
Rabbi Epstein enumerates dozens of regulatory laws in the Talmud. These are laws that were enacted and enforced by Chazal in a governmental capacity. Anyone who has studied the Talmud is familiar with many of these laws. But to see them rattled off one by one and analyzed through the lens of a 20th century scholar is very eye opening.
Here are some examples of Jewish Laws:
Guarantee of public trees from which anyone could pluck
Highly regulated weights and measures
Agencies that regulated quality control of food and other goods
Common rights on real property that was owned
Price control over the sale of chattel
Rights for workers, including going beyond the letter of the law for their benefit
Protection of tenants
Competitive practices when there was no need for additional
Charity taxes that were distributed to the poor
This short list does not do it justice. I think it impossible to read the essay and not draw the conclusion that Chazal endorsed a pretty severe form of socialism. That is not to say that they would endorse the same system for the United States of America in 2012. But it is to say, that the most traditional form of economic policy in orthodox Judaism is pretty close to socialism.
I do note that there were protective policies in place that were designed to prevent over-reliance on the social benefits of Rabbinic Judaism and some policies were skewed more to the side of capitalism. However, it is almost impossible to find ideas like caveat emptor or “the marketplace will decide what is fair or moral” in their system of commerce.
At the very least, the essay shows that many aspects of a social economy were considered moral and preferable to Chazal.
The essay is a must-read for its economic theory as well as its broader implications that are discussed more fully on Kavvanah. I cannot recommend reading the essay enough.