Arnold Kling  

Libertarian Seder Questions

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With Passover coming, something to ponder. We know that Pharoah was part of a long line of autocrats that ruled Egypt. Passover is sometimes called a "festival of freedom." In that case,

1. Why did the Egyptians not attempt to escape to freedom with Moses?

2. Why did the Hebrews not escape much sooner?

One answer to (1) might be that Egyptians were not as desperate to leave. They were not as brutally enslaved as the Hebrews.

One answer to (2) might be that the Hebrews were not so badly off under previous Pharoahs. The story reads that there arose a cruel Pharoah who made life unbearable for the Hebrews. That implies that previous Pharoahs were not so unbearable.

Both of these answers pose problems for libertarians. They suggest that for most people, freedom is relative, not absolute. Moreover, it is bound up with other issues, such as economic well-being and relative status. Perhaps the Egyptians did not feel unfree, because others were even more clearly enslaved. Perhaps the Hebrews tolerated the rule of Pharoahs as long as the dictatorship was relatively benevolent. Perhaps there are many conditions under which large numbers of people will not choose freedom.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Alex J. writes:

I'm a libertarian, and I have no qualms accepting that freedom is but one good among many.

Without divine intervention, the Hebrews' choice was not between slavery to the Egyptians and freedom. It was between slavery to the Egyptians and trying to scrape out some corner of desert and taking their chances with the nomads or the Assyrians or what have you.

roo writes:

The questions would offer much more insight if it was human and not divine action being celebrated.

Shangwen writes:

I'm with Alex. I spent six weeks last year visiting family in China, Singapore, and Thailand. Those are hardly beacons of liberty, but even if you are educated and can afford to leave, chances are you won't. You can have a much nicer life than many westerners can in the west.

In Singapore I have a cousin who was denied government-subsidized housing because he married outside his ethnic group, and his work is censored, though he is highly paid. One day on the highway, he was talking about the severe penalties for not wearing a seatbelt, though you can see one pickup truck after another with Indian guest laborers sitting unsecured in the back as they do 120 km/h to building sites. Your question reminded me of them. They were better off doing that drive every day than being idle and poor in India.

Dan writes:

While Alex J makes a good point, it doesn't answer the broader question of why peoples routinely "choose" to live under governments that unnnecessarily restrict freedom.

I suspect that until the modern era, the answer was that people normally "chose" protection in exchange for some form of serfdom. We see this frequently in Exodus as the Isrealites complain to Moses about being freed from Egypt only to die in the desert. Protection comes with its costs. Obviously, many were conquered and enslaved, so, in ancient times, the choices were severely restricted - especially in the "civilized" areas of the world.

Addie writes:

Men are willing to tolerate restrictions on freedom when because economic well-being is often more important in the short term. America has a government that restricts freedom yet you don't see people "escaping" to Hong Kong for marginal increases in freedom at the cost of lower standards of living. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for more liberty and doesn't take away from the merits of libertarian goals. We libertarians argue that increased freedom is good because it's more moral than coercion and it naturally results in an increased standard of living than a coercive society.

I am not Jewish so I don't have a perfect understanding of the Haggadah, but doesn't it say something about the Israelites becoming so numerous that their numbers worried the Pharaoh? This would seem to indicate that the Israelites were perhaps thriving, even under slavery, until they were seen as a possible threat to Pharaoh's government.

In my mind, today's Egypt and Middle East are somewhat similar. Many modern Middle Eastern states have large, under-employed, young populations trapped in a low-wage existence that threatens the state's (Pharaoh's) stability.

This lead to the Pharaoh ordering that male children be killed ("placed in the river"), leading to the story of Moses. The least among them becomes a leader, etc., etc.

Perhaps life under Pharaoh, even as a slave, was preferable until Pharaoh's oppression become too much, hence the first Tea Party protests.

Gabriel rossman writes:

I believe you're asking the wrong question as it is premised on an anachronistic reading of the word "freedom." Us modern people, especially libertarians, tend to view freedom as an issue of individual freedom. In the ancient world people were more likely to use freedom to mean something like "communal self-rule." Even when the two meanings were conflated, the self-rule meaning was dominant. For instance, the assassins of Caesar used iconography of a freed slave to represent their freeing of the state from tyranny.

MikeDC writes:

I can't speak for other Libertarians, but for me the relativity of freedom is a given.

Soquel's got the answer to question 2. I think the answer to question 1 is bound up in that answer as well. Pharoh promised Egyptians prosperity at the expense of the Hebrews. For a modern interpretation of this theme, see Hitler, Adolph.

These are good questions, but really the most interesting bit of political theory in the bible the ending of the Exodus story; God makes the Hebrews wonder in the desert for 40 years because apparently those who grew up, were treated as, and thought as slaves were not fit for self-rule. Ouch.

John Goodman writes:

Of course freedom is relative. If it were not, we would all go live on a desert island somewhere.

Joseph Sunde writes:

Kenneth Minogue's recent book, The Servile Mind, poses some interesting insights on this, with the general thrust being that we are naturally prone to servility (a nice word for slavery), not freedom. For Minogue, the West is under a delusion, and there is, in fact, widespread ambivalence about freedom.

In the Christian tradition to which I subscribe, I understand this under the Apostle Paul's notion of everyone being a slave to the flesh, with the only hope being freedom through the Spirit (via an entirely unique, transcendent "slavery" to God). Yes, he does talk about being a "slave for Christ," which is shocking language for sure. This whole "Fall of Man" thing, however, is nothing new. Depraved, corrupted, and "born into sin" are themes Christians are all familiar with. Why, then, are we prone to join George W. Bush in invading countries under the pretense that "everyone wants freedom!"

The question, I would say, is not whether you will be owned, but who will own you (with the self or the "flesh" remaining an option). This does not mean liberty in the natural sense is diminished or removed. Rather, the view assumes that by attaining a proper view of God, the self, and the big-picture vision (e.g. The Promised Land) -- and by submitting or enslaving yourself to that vision -- the safety, security, and blablabla become no longer appealing or real. The *real* freedom, as illuminated through a proper orientation of *real* and *proper* ownership, involves risk, drama, pain and suffering, and perhaps a little crossing-the-Red-Sea faith and action.

Yet there is a *natural* resistance to this, which is where I sympathize with Minogue's view, which he poses in entirely secular terms (take note, you who dismissed me at the mention of "God" or "Christian"). When we are in the desert, as the Israelites were, we whine and mope and look back to our nice and cozy "safety net," (quotes intended) dreaming of the good old days when we could eat onions and other fun stuff(seriously, the Israelites missed Egyptian onions). Instead, we should be *striving* for freedom, and not just when it's easy.

But yeah...that's sorta kinda "out there."

Bob Murphy writes:

I don't understand this blog post. Is Arnold taking the Biblical accounts literally? If so, then isn't the answer to (1) that the Egyptians were still mourning the death of their firstborn (and shooing frogs out of their houses), and the answer to (2) that the Lord didn't perform a bunch of miracles to help them escape earlier?

(Note I'm not being sarcastic: I believe in the Bible.)

Julien Couvreur writes:

Arnold, you bring you a valid question.
We probably don't have to go as far back as the Hebrews fleeing of Egypt to discuss this. All libertarians today live in countries where their freedom is limited by government.

But that does not necessarily mean that freedom is relative. Instead, it means that the cost of enforcing your natural rights may be too high.

As an analogy, we can say that murder and rape are considered absolute "bads", but we don't spend infinite resources to combat such violations of rights.

I'm not saying that freedom *is* an absolute, simply that we cannot conclude from people's actions that it is not an absolute.

Pharaoh writes:

First, of course, the historicity of the Exodus is a highly debatable (and debated) subject. The Bible says it happened, other evidence is hard to come by even when it shouldn't be. The Bible also says that there was a flood that covered the whole Earth, and that the world was saved by a an arc that contained all the land animals that we know today...and presumably requires that kangaroos have hopped from the middle east to Australia with the koala's on their backs (and platypuses in their pouches).

Second, why would the Egyptians leave Egypt to live amongst the people who just beset them with plagues, including the murder of all of the Egyptians' first born sons? At lease Pharaoh wasn't doing that (so far as history records).

Third, in the same vein, the Hebrews were not exactly "tolerant" and would be committing wholesale genocide on people of differing faiths and ethnicities a few decades later. Unless he wanted to convert to Judaism, why would an Egyptian want to join up with them?

Fourth, I think the clear reason the Hebrews hadn't left was that they lacked a leader and the blessings of the Lord that made their eventual escape possible. Had they left earlier, before the plagues, Pharaoh (or his predecessors) would have stopped them. Had they left without Moses, Pharaoh still may have stopped them, plagues notwithstanding.

Eli writes:

To answer #1, many left with the Hebrews. See Exodus 12:38.

57 writes:

Freedom is clearly relative. People rarely put their lives on the line over every injustice.

Besides the biblical reasons Bob Murphy mentions above, factors that would keep others from fleeing would be the lack of a destination (the Hebrews did wander for 40 years after all), and of course the chance of being caught and brutally punished by the Pharoah.

Additionally, the Hebrews might not have appreciated an Egyptian trying to escape with them. Cultural differences were probably pretty large between the two groups, and I don't think anyone would want to be the only family of Egyptians that left with the Hebrews, nor the only family of Hebrews that stayed with the Egyptians.

phil writes:

Side point:

Shangwen: as far as I know, the eligibility rules for public housing in Singapore does not include anything about the ethnicity of one's spouse. Maybe your cousin meant the citizenship or residence status of his spouse?

DavidinOC writes:

Exodus 1:12- "The more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out..." So despite the oppression they were able to endure.

Exodus 1:17 et seq. notes the resistance to Pharoah by Hebrew midwives.

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