Joseph and the Egyptian Road to Serfdom

There is a very interesting article by Dan Kaganovich and Jeremy England  on Joseph’s centrally managed emergency response to the Years of Famine, and how he led Egypt down the road to serfdom.

A response here makes the additional point that Joseph had inside information about the upcoming famine which no one else knew about. I don’t think this is true, or relevant. Initially Joseph was the only one who knew, but his massive new emergency tax and new storehouses would have given away the secret. Even if it is true that Joseph was the only one with any interest in preparing for the famine, he still could have organized local storage committees, which would have decentralized the program.

I am not sure about the assertion of Kaganovich and England that the famine was a manufactured crises. The free market is quite resilient, and it is always a better solution than central planning, but a seven-year drought will destroy any agricultural economy. On the other hand, the Egyptians were selling themselves by the end of year two, and it is likely that a free market, even without any advance warning, would have had enough reserves to hold out longer than that.

Another factor which we do not have much information about is the existing Egyptian culture. If there was no free market before Joseph came along, then a decentralized solution would not have been an option. Now was not the time to begin inculcating a libertarian attitude in the Egyptian culture. Being a primitive, agricultural society, I would expect that they did have an independent attitude, but they were probably very weak on the long-term planning, and they probably did not have much experience with sophisticated independent organizations. It is very possible that central planning under Joseph’s oversight was the best option to ensure that a sufficient amount of grain would be saved.

While I think central planning is always a bad idea, central organization is often effective, and is a better bet when something must get done. Joseph did not plan the economy. He had one temporary program with a specific goal which was centrally managed, and which was ultimately quite effective in reaching its stated goals. It is a mistake to confuse central organization with central planning, and here Joseph’s approach, even if it can be criticized, was fit for achieving the main goal. This is especially true here that there was a specific and temporary need. There was no reason that the private economy could be expected to build all the necessary organization for a short-term risk-management project.

Joseph could have decentralized his program without leaving it all to the free market. He could have allowed each province to take care of its own grain stores, and allowed private storehouses. This would have increased efficiency without jeopardizing the main concerns, and without concentrating all the power at the top.

It also does not look like Joseph was trying to make all of Egypt his serfs. After they gave him their land and themselves as slaves, he returns the land to them (with a permanent tax) and leaves them free men. It is possible he was trying to consolidate Pharaoh’s rule, though it is not clear to me how much he would have gained. The extra taxes were also nice for Pharaoh, but nothing in the story suggests that Joseph had any motivation to spend so much effort just to increase the tax rate.

I would suggest that possibly Joseph was trying to demonstrate to the Egyptians the threat of central government, by letting them see how the path to serfdom developed. He wanted them to be aware of what his centrally organized plan was doing to them, and when they failed to protest, he let it go to its natural conclusion. He confiscated large amounts of grain for long-term storage, challenging the Egyptians to demand some commitment to return it to them in the future. They failed to complain, and Joseph continued collecting. He built large storehouses in the cities. He did not try to keep his stores out of sight. He placed it deliberately in front of them, and had the local people guarding it. He was almost challenging them to demand control of their local storage and distribution, but they did not. When the famine came he sold it back, and there is no record they protested. Joseph allowed them to follow the path to serfdom, without any coercion.

Joseph demonstrated to the Egyptians how easy it was for them to let themselves be enslaved. He made sure they would be able to look back at the end and see the road to serfdom they had voluntarily followed. After buying them all as slaves he transferred them to other cities, and then freed them and returned the land to them, leaving a significant task. They would not easily forget their experience, with their new locations and taxes to remind them of their mistakes. Joseph’s central planning seems to have been meant as a lesson through experience rather than a trap.

There is no indication that the lesson was learned.

Anonymous Soldiers – The Anthem of the Lehi

The anthem of the Lehi paramilitary group was written by its founder, Yair (Avraham Stern). The song celebrates the risk and dedication of the fighters, and the goals of the group.

Parts of the Lehi’s anthem accurately reflect the reality of its existence, while some of it is trying to create an artificial sense of being part of very different project. The fear of dying in the struggle was quite real, but the idea that in their place thousands of others would come was an illusion. Yair either had unrealistic aspirations for the Lehi, or he was trying to build his men’s dedication by presenting a dream instead of the reality.

The Lehi was a small group, by it its nature, would always be a small group. It was an illegal organization, classified by the British (and pretty much everyone besides themselves) as a terrorist organization, and was actively pursued by the British. Plenty of people who shared the Lehi’s ideas would have still opted to join the Irgun organization which was noticeably less risky, or they would even go the the Haganah, which was officially recognized. The Haganah was left-wing and ideologically far from the Lehi, but it promised a chance to fight for the establishment of the state without the risk of being exiled or executed by the British.

The Lehi, together with Begin’s Irgun, would be the ones to force the British out of Palestine. They would open the way for the Haganah to fight against the Arab armies, but they themselves would never be large enough to fight a large-scale traditional battle. The Lehi in particular could not aspire to conquest, but only to liberation.

Anonymous soldiers, we are here without uniforms
And fright and fear of death surround us
We have all joined for life
Only death will release us from our duty
חיילים אלמונים הננו בלי מדים,
וסביבנו אימה וצלמוות.
כולנו גויסנו לכל החיים,
משורה משחרר רק המות.

This stanza nicely captures the essence of its operations – anonymous soldiers who had to fear for their lives. It is a fitting opening, describing the risks, and necessary dedication, of its members. The second half of the stanza is classical indoctrination. The soldiers must constantly be reminding themselves of the extent of their dedication, creating a sense that they are part of something permanent, and it is up to them to ensure this permanence. This idea of lifelong dedication did not even make sense, since the Lehi was established to fight for specific goals, and after the establishment of the state it would be irrelevant to maintain the organization.

On the red days of pogroms and blood,
On the dark nights of despair,
In cities and towns we will raise our flag
emblazoned with defense and conquest
בימים אדומים של פרעות ודמים,
בלילות השחורים של יאוש.
בערים, בכפרים את דיגלנו נרים,
ועליו, הגנה וכיבוש

Here again the message is split between reality and a dream. Red days of violence and dark nights of despair poetically express life in the Lehi as well as the story of the Jewish diaspora which motivated the Lehi in their fight. The continuation of the refrain is perhaps Yair’s dream of a large army liberating the cities of Palestine, but it is not what the Lehi was doing. A more fitting conclusion to the refrain would have referred to the soldiers taking their part in the fight to dispel the darkness.

We were not drafted with force, like so many slaves
to spill our blood on foreign lands
Our desire is to always be free men
Our dream is to die for our land
לא גויסנו בשוט כהמון עבדים,
כדי לשפוך בנכר את דמנו.
רצוננו: להיות לעולם בני חורין,
חלומנו: למות בעד ארצנו.

This stanza reminds the soldiers of their autonomous decision to join, and the reason for the fight. This stanza seems to be a response to the previous one which declared that their membership is for life, and now the song reaffirms their independence by reminding them they freely joined to fight for their own natural interests. The negative phrasing – “we were not drafted to fight on foreign land” instead of “we are fighting for our homeland” builds their honor by contrasting the military service which would have been demanded of them in past, and stresses the historical change rather than only focusing on the homeland.

The dream to die for one’s land is a lie which has been used throughout history to encourage people to risk their lives. As Patton said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other man die for his.” The dream is to fight for one’s land and then to live there a free man, not to die in the fighting. A more inspiring and accurate phrasing would have also switched the desires and dreams of the last two lines: “Our dream is to be free, forever / We want to fight for our land.”

If we will fall in the streets and the homes
They will bury us silently at night
In our places thousands of others will come
To fight and to conquer, forever
אם אנחנו ניפול ברחובות, בבתים,
יקברונו בלילה בלאט;
במקומנו יבואו אלפי אחרים,
ללחום ולכבוש עדי עד.

The song again reminds us of the risks the fighters took, and that they could not even expect glory in their deaths. The song then reassures them of the value of their dedication by promising them they are part of something much bigger which will only be strengthened by their death. This was of course unrealistic. The Lehi was hurt by each fighter who fell, and they could not count on thousands of others to take their place. Acknowledging this would have perhaps made them feel that their sacrifices were futile or unappreciated. A better phrasing should have laid claim to their share in the liberation of the land, along the lines of “we would always be remembered, by those who can live because we were prepared to die.”

With the tears of mothers, bereft of their children
And the blood of pure babies
With mortar we will join the bodies with the bricks
And raise up the building of our birthright
בדימעות אימהות שכולות מבנים,
ובדם תינוקות טהורים –
במלט נדביק הגופות ללבנים,
ובנין המולדת נקים.

This stanza acknowledges the human cost of the struggle, and glorifies it by making every tear and every drop of blood a brick in the rebuilding of the land. The stanza is uncomfortably direct in saying up front what is most comfortably said only at the funerals for the fallen. The song does not avoid the question of the toll that the struggle will take on others, the mothers and babies who will suffer from a fight they are not actively part of, and justifies the costs that everyone will have to bear in the struggle. The lyrics are overly callous, trying to force the soldiers to ignore their own feelings. The sentiment is valid, and no one could fight without being prepared to take this responsibility, but the way it is phrased reflects a general failing of this song, and presumably of Yair’s views. The song celebrates sacrifice rather than freedom, and assumes that the freedom the soldiers fight for will only be enjoyed by others. The anthem of a liberating army should presume victory along with the survival of the soldiers, and promise them the first rewards of the battle.