The Biblical Road to Serfdom


David Plotz has been blogging the Bible over at Slate. In a recent entry, he analyzes Joseph from the book of Genesis' economic policies during his years as Pharoah's viceroy. Plotz (possibly with a good dose of facetiousness) blames Joseph's Mao-like behavior as he "abolishes private property, turns freeholders into serfs, and transforms a decentralized farm economy into a command-economy dictatorship" for laying the groundwork for "the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt. Once you create a voracious state apparatus, it must be fed. Is it a surprise that slavery became part of its diet? In a less totalitarian state, perhaps slavery wouldn't have been as necessary or as feasible."

While that account of the origins of Egyptian slavery doesn't hold up as history–but then again, neither does the story of Joseph's viceroyhood in Egypt in general–it is true that the Road to Serfdom is one of the most ancient of roads.

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  1. Brian Doherty,

    A lot of what we think about Egypian society, etc. comes from Herodotus and in many cases he was apparently flat wrong.

  2. As an amateur historian I wish that Hayek would have used a different word than serfdom given that European serfdom evolved after the collapse of the state, that is the Roman Empire. without the authority of the State, the countriside fell prey to rival bands of warlords, and the inhabitants entered into a contract of protection with the more powerful warlord around, a contract which said than in exchange for protection he would get a share of their harvests, their free labor when he wanted it, and the use of their women when he was in the mood.

    He really ought to have called it something else…

  3. Adriana,

    Well, hmm, there are some problems with your analysis. Serfdom was a result of policies of the Empire, and not directly due to its collapse. More specifically, the tax, mercantalist, etc. policies of the Empire. In other words, serfdom was on its way long before there were any general outward signs the Empire’s collapse (or at least the sorts of signs – namely having to do with security – that you mention). In other words, Hayek’s use of the term is quite apt.

  4. So, if the process of serfdom was begun in the Empire, why didn’t it end with its collapse, but rather it expanded? Why did the serfs belong to the local lord, no a mythical state that had disappeared?

  5. Adriana,

    Because that is what survived the Empire’s collapse. Just like Latin survived. By the end of the 2nd century CE serfdom was on its way to development.

  6. But once there was no longer an empire, with complete breakdown of law and enforcement, why didn’t the insitution collapse? I can understand people putting up with a lot of crap in exchange for the protection. But why once the protection was gone?

  7. Adriana,

    A complete breakdown of law and enforcement didn’t happen though. As to protection being gone, it wasn’t gone everywhere. Of course there is also the problem that serfdom was never practiced universally in those regions of Europe which made up the empire. The institution was nearly non-existant in Spain and the future Netherlands. Anyway, to blame the growth of serfdom on the fall of the Roman Empire simply ignores its growth centuries before its collapse. No, serfdom arose from the economic policies of the Empire.

  8. Phileutererus (may I call you Phil)?

    I re-checked my history books and they point out that the Roman Empire took a long time to fall, and it was decaying and breaking down for at least one century before it fell down. There were raids from GErmanic tribes, uprisings, and general breakdown of law and order. Some authors point out that the persecution of Christians was undertaken to provide scapegoats for all those calamities.

    Thus we have the growth of serfdom going hand-in-hand with the breakdown of the State.

    Counterintituively we can see why it is so. People yearn most for security in insecure times, and accept loss of freedom much more willingly when they think that the alternative is worse. Certainly being tied to the land does not look so bad when you no longer travel to the nearest town without being set upon, robbed, and murdered. It is only when moving to a better place looks like a sensible proposition that you resent being forbidden to do it.

    An English visitor tells of her talk with Spanish industrailists in Franco’s Spain. He complained about the rules and regulations that the governmetn enforced, but when asked if he would want freedom, he said that,while under a freer regime he would make more money, he did not think it would last very long “not even five years this time”, referring to the five years between the proclamation of the II Republic and the Civil War. So, he grumbled, but he thought he was better off obeying Franco…

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