Thursday, October 22, 2015

Unholy Price Controls

I've been reading New Testament scholar David deSilva's book on Revelation titled Unholy Allegiances. In it, he discusses John's anti-imperial rhetoric within the Book of Revelation. But what jumped out at me recently was his discussion of Revelation 6:
We should remember that part of what Rome enjoyed came to her by way of trade, but another large part came by way of tribute—the enormous sums of money that each province collected and sent to Rome for the support of Rome’s army, Rome’s empire-wide building and military operations, and Rome’s lifestyle. The Roman economy included the provision of free grain and oil for the city of Rome’s 200,000 families on the “dole”—a perk of living in the capital of the empire. As John watches the cargoes of “wine and oil and fine flour and grain” streaming toward Rome (Rev 18: 13), he watches the prices of staples like barley and wheat rise in the provinces where the grains are grown. Rome purchased these grains inexpensively from the provinces in fixed minimum quantities and at fixed prices. This meant that the residents of the provinces often had to pay inflated prices for the insufficient amounts of grain that were left, and in times of shortage went without. The situation was made worse as local landowners used more and more of their land to produce crops that brought in a better financial yield per arable acre. Market demands made the production of oil and wine far more attractive, often leading to scarcity in the essentials of wheat and barley in the provinces. Revelation 6: 5–6 reflects a situation in which the prices of staples are grossly inflated, while production of oil and wine proceeds unabated. 

When [the Lamb] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, "A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don't damage the olive oil and the wine." (Rev 6:5-6 CEB) 

John calls attention to the parasitic side of the Roman imperial economy, countering any feelings of gratitude toward Rome by drawing attention to the pervasive self-interest that underlies Roman rule.[1]

Price controls are not a thing of the past. "The political rationales for such laws," writes economist Thomas Sowell, "have varied from place to place and from time to time, but there is seldom a lack of rationales whenever it becomes politically expedient to hold down some people's prices in the interest of other people whose political support seems more important."[2] It is interesting how imperial price controls were condemned by ancient apostles because of their exploitation of the poor. Now, they are sold by politicians as benefiting the poor (or perhaps the "middle class").

Unfortunately, they are as unholy as they ever were.

1. David A. deSilva, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation's Warning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2013), Kindle edition. Ch. 3, "Roman imperialism: The untold story."

2. Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 39.

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