Today in The Federalist, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg looks ahead to Pope Francis’ American visit. Gregg, of course, cannot predict the future, but he can respond to others’ speculation; in particular, he takes issue with Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs, in America magazine
argued that another old-style Jesuit—Pope Francis—will be coming to an America uninterested in virtue, mired in consumerism, and fast becoming a hyper-individualistic society obsessed with rights.
Turning on the television soon confirms there’s some truth in Sachs’ analysis. Witness the relentless advertising that tells you that you’re not fully human unless you have the very latest whatever. Yet materialism and consumerism are just as widespread in, for instance, social-democratic Western Europe, klepocratic Russia, Communist China, and crony corporatist Latin America. Hence, it can hardly be described as a particularly American problem.
Sachs’ disdain for the values upon which America was founded disturbs Gregg, especially since Sachs sees America as a place of radical individualism. Sachs goes so far as to say American society is “wounded,” with a “flawed” vision of humanity. To rebut this, Gregg turns to Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Carroll and many other Founders didn’t doubt that a virtuous citizenry was a prerequisite to the stability of a free republic. Commenting on the proposed federal Constitution, Carroll warned that once virtue ceases to prevail either as a reality or ideal in free societies, the laws would become “dead letters, their spirit and tendency being inconsistent with the general habits and disposition of such a People.”
Moreover, Carroll added, the potential for despotism becomes real in such circumstances. “Such,” he argued, “has been the destiny of every People, once free, but who knew not how to enjoy the blessings of freedom; who, suffering their liberty to become licentiousness . . . passed laws subversive of every principle of law and justice to glut their resentments and avarice.”
Gregg goes on to note that both St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI clearly understood that America was not founded on the radical individualism that Sachs purports.
What’s even more ironic—and goes unmentioned by Sachs—is that his apparently hyper-individualistic selfish Americans are by far the most generous people in the world when it comes to freely giving their resources to those in need, at home and abroad. Nor does Sachs seem aware that Americans who do so are overwhelmingly politically conservative and religiously observant. For all their talk about caring for others, liberals and skeptics suffer, apparently, from serious generosity deficits.
Sachs is a scholar, and Gregg notes that, as such, Sachs should not fall prey to simplistic and ultimately false notions about American history.
In Becoming Europe, Samuel Gregg examines economic culture - the values and institutions that inform our economic priorities - to explain how European economic life has drifted in the direction of what Alexis de Tocqueville called "soft despotism", and the ways in which similar trends are manifesting themselves in the United States.