Of late, critiques of capitalism have proliferated on both left and right, so that it is commonplace to write and speak of its failure as a foregone conclusion. Jeremy Rosen, skeptical of such assumptions, turns to traditional Jewish texts, among them a passage from the talmudic tractate Avot that contrasts four attitudes to private property:
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is a balanced attitude. But some say that was the attitude of the men of Sodom.
“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” is that of a simpleton.
“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” is that of a saint.
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” is that of a wicked person.
The first line asserts an individual’s freedom to accumulate wealth. But this could also imply selfishness and disregard for the others. When used that way it was regarded as morally corrupt, like the city of Sodom. The second one illustrates stupidity. If we are going to approve of material possessions, and the right to accumulate, then it stands to reason that each person should be able to choose how, and how much, they want to accumulate. To have people decide for each other is just silly. That is what gangsters, dictators, and ideologues do.
The third proposition says that a rejection of materialism is saintly. But it does not necessarily disapprove of those who cannot adopt such a selfless attitude. And finally, accumulating for oneself by taking what belongs to others is obviously the worst ethical position. One might argue that socialist dictatorships do this as much as capitalist governments: they decide how much you can keep.
In this passage, as in many others, the [Jewish tradition] implies that there is no perfect political solution. In the Bible, there are different models of leadership, governance, and economic systems. Each state—each community—needs to adapt to survive and thrive. A solution that works at one moment in time, or in one situation, may not be the right one forever. Flexibility is essential. Otherwise, systems atrophy. The beauty of democracy, despite its limitations, is that it allows for change.