Acton Institute Powerblog

More on Constitutions and Culture

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As noted already at the PowerBlog today, Sam Gregg has a fine piece on the complex relationship between law and morality, or constitutions and culture, over at Public Discourse.

As a follow-up (read the piece first), I’d like to point to an interesting aspect of James Buchanan’s advocacy of a balanced-budget amendment. As Gregg notes, Buchanan is an example of someone who thought that “America’s constitution required amending to bestow genuine independence upon a monetary authority,” or advocated for the “constitutionalization” of money. A related effort would be Buchanan’s efforts in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the American Constitution, as explored by James Alvey in his piece, “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.”

As Alvey writes, “Buchanan became actively involved in the campaign to secure a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and indeed this was almost the only area on which he was active as a policy advocate.” Alvey notes that Buchanan’s analysis of the rise of the problem follows the view of Hayek on the relationship between moral rules (culture) and legal institutions. That is, once the Victorian moral disapproval of debt was transformed and institutionalized into approbation of debt via a Keynesian moral revolution, “there is little hope for any restoration” of the moral rules that “evolve slowly and without deliberate construction.” In such a case, appeals to other legal institutions or constitutional limits (e.g. balanced-budget provisions or the “constitutionalization” of money) become measures of last resort.

These measures are not foolproof, as Gregg points out, and neither are they incorruptible. But they are, on this view, indicative of a failure of moral culture in these areas, and are perhaps the best of available options for preservation of social stability in the short-term. But something that neither Hayek’s nor Buchanan’s account of the rise of moral cultures as the evolution of “moral rules” does is provide adequate insight into the role of morally-formative institutions (other than legal institutions) for the possibility of “restoration.”

As Gregg concludes, “If America is not to head down a social democratic path, reliance on the Constitution is not enough. To use a Romney-esque phrase, culture matters — perhaps especially in the economy.” This means that institutions like the church and the family, and perhaps these two primarily, are the loci of cultural renewal and restoration. They are also the vanguards, and indeed the bellwethers, of civilization. This is a sobering thought, indeed.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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