Yosef's actions during his tenure as Egypt's Minister of the Treasury are not based on humanitarian values, nor is he an impartial arbiter. Yosef gives the Egyptian people food in exchange for all their possessions; he provides them with life in exchange for their economic freedom. At the end of the process the people of Egypt are left with nothing; they are completely dependent on the decisions of the monarchy. After their fields have been appropriated to settle their debts they are displaced, removed from their land and transferred to the cities. Finally, Yosef offers the people the opportunity to work the king's land as sharecroppers- a fifth of the produce is designated for the king's storehouses and they can keep the rest.
The commentaries tend to highlight the positive aspects of Yosef's arrangement. According to the midrash Yosef could have bought the land for his personal needs, yet he refrained: "And even so he did not buy them for his needs, but for Pharaoh." (Midrash Sechel Tov, 47) Ramban points out that Yosef did not buy the Egyptians themselves as slaves, but rather let them remain free people. (Ramban 47, 19) Yet this point of view is not so clear from the text itself.
On the one hand it says, "Yosef bought all the land of Egypt..." (20), and does not mention that he bought the people as slaves. Yet in another verse Yosef tells the people, "For today I have bought you and your land for Pharaoh..." (23) Ramban adds that the division of the produce was quite generous. Yosef could have given the sharecroppers a fifth of what he did, and taken a much larger cut for the king's storehouses. (Ramban ibid.)
Yet here too it is unclear- we do not know the extent of the expense to the sharecroppers, how much they had to pay their workers or how much they earned- so we can't really know if Yosef's offer was all that generous. Either way, the two parties to the deal were clearly not equal; there was no one to protect the rights of the workers who were forced into this arrangement by their inferior and dependent status.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch adds his own positive spin onto Yosef's actions. He explains that Yosef's policy of forced emigration was actually a kindness, since Yosef moved the entire community to the same area in the cities. If anything, Yosef cared enough to make sure the social circles remained intact. People were moved to their new location along with their neighbors and support systems and this softened the shock of the move and minimized some of the problems that generally plague immigrant societies. (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch 47, 21)
The repeated attempts of the midrash and commentaries to find the good in Yosef's actions make it hard to ignore the inherent problems with his behavior. The arrangement is harsh, and it is forced upon the Egyptians by those that rule over them and are supposed to ensure their safety and welfare. The decision was made by the one who foresaw the crisis and he made sure that the solution would fill the state's coffers instead of encouraging the people to save- or even forcing them to do so. This arrangement is against every basic right we accept today: the right to property, the right to live in dignity, the right to freedom... Whether or not Yosef personally profited from the arrangement is mostly irrelevant; it is clear that Yosef is comfortable and well-off. Even if he did not receive a percentage of the profits his salary is still higher than most, probably higher than everyone else's. While he came to it honestly, by filling the state's coffers, it is hard to ignore the fact that the only group to profit from this arrangement is his close family. They received a nice portion of land and they continue to make a living at the expense of the rest of the state.
Yosef's government is totalitarian; it is not a good model of leadership. At the same time the various commentaries also point out another important nuance of the situation. The line between government corruption and benevolence is the thinnest of the thin. Every government has the strength to make life better for others, and therefore they enjoy certain privileges.
Chazal explore these privileges of leadership and relate to them in a variety of ways. The bottom line is that every position of power comes with certain economic benefits. For example, while Israelites do not have any rights to the terumah from their produce and they must give it to the Kohen, they maintain the right to choose which Kohen gets the terumah. This gives the Israelite a bit of power and authority and makes the Kohanim a bit more dependent, since they have to compete to receive the terumah.
This power can also be translated into economic benefit. Rashi explains that one Israelite can tell another to give their terumah to their daughter's son, who is a Kohen, and in exchange he will pay him to do so. (Rashi Pesachim 47b) In this case the Israelite can profit from the terumah in his possession, even though it is not technically his money, and the money actually ends up going to the proper address.
One could take this to a level beyond that of Rashi. The Israelite could initiate the exchange and demand that he get something in return for his terumah, and threaten that if he does not he will give it to another Kohen who is willing to pay the price. This privilege is the right of the Israelite, and it is classified as a "tovat hana'a" (benefit) that he has from terumah.
Another source relates that during times of famine Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, who was wealthy, would only support Torah scholars. He preferred this elite class over the rest of the people. On the other hand these sources discuss economic benefits that people receive from their own money, and not from public funds. This also seems to be the justification for Yosef's behavior. Egypt is a monarchy. The idea that the entirety of the land belongs to the king is legitimate in such a time and place. In this situation rulers act as though the state's treasury is their own. Nevertheless, we ourselves should aspire to be like Moshe when he states, "I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I harmed any one of them." (Bamidbar 16, 15)
Note: All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit www.lss.org/beitmorasha. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns.