Category: Acton Commentary

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here.

Europe, Immigration, and Merkel’s Christian Values

By Samuel Gregg

It’s not often senior European political leaders make politically-incorrect statements, but Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently made a habit of it. The subject has been the touchy question of Muslim immigration and the challenges it poses for European identity. Not only has Merkel upset the European political class (especially the Left and the Greens) by saying what everyone knows—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”—but she also argued that the issue was not “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity.”

“We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” Merkel claimed in a recent speech. She then stressed that Germany needs to reflect more upon “the values that guide us, about our Judeo-Christian tradition.” It was one way, Merkel maintained, of bringing “about cohesion in our society.”

Merkel: Multikulti not working for Germans

On one level, Merkel is surely stating the blindingly obvious. How can Europeans ask Muslim immigrants to integrate into European society and respect European values without Europeans themselves being clear in their own minds about what values are at the core of European identity and where these values come from?

And as much as significant portions of European society would like to deny it, it’s simply a historical fact that the idea of Europe and European values such as liberty, equality before the law, and solidarity did not suddenly appear ex nihilo in the late seventeenth-century with the various Enlightenments. Central to the formation of European identity and such values was the synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem achieved by Christianity following the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in 476 A.D.

Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that the antecedents of most of the various freedoms and genuine achievements of the various Enlightenments are to be found in Christianity. There is increasing recognition, for example, that the idea of human rights was first given concrete expression by medieval canon lawyers.

Yet it is hardly a secret that the Judeo-Christian heritage sits very loosely on many European societies. We find this in a type of secular-fundamentalism—exemplified by Spain’s current Socialist government—that has become fashionable among sections of the European Left. But the ambiguity also manifests itself in the persistence of historical legends that diminish, distort, and denigrate Christianity’s contributions to European civilization.

A good example is the mythology of the so-called “Dark Ages” that permeates popular and elite discussion of European history. Most of the moral, political, and legal foundations of modern market economies, for instance, were established in Europe well before the sixteenth century. Likewise the scientific method was born in the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers such as Albertus Magnus made crucial contributions to the development of the natural sciences. Yet despite these facts, many persist in claiming that market economies are essentially a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, or that Christianity is essentially “anti-science.”

But the problem is not only with secular opinion. Since the 1950s, many European Christians have gradually reduced their Christian faith to a vacuous humanitarianism worthy of the best EU-funded NGO. One difficulty with “liberal Christianity” (or whatever’s left of it) is that it isn’t especially interested in affirming any Christian values that go beyond sentimental platitudes about tolerance and equality which are routinely emptied of any specific Christian content. It’s goodbye Thomas Aquinas, hello John Rawls.

This makes it even more ironic that increasing numbers of secular European thinkers believe Europe can only reinvigorate its distinct identity and values through reengaging its Judeo-Christian heritage. This is certainly the conclusion of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas.

A self-described “methodological atheist,” Habermas has been insisting for some time that Europe no longer has the luxury of wallowing in historical denial. As Habermas wrote in his 2006 book, A Time of Transitions: “Christianity, and nothing else [is] the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

It follows that any serious discussion of Europe’s Christian values in the context of contemporary immigration and identity debates will require many Europeans to go beyond their often-truncated understandings of European history and Christianity. There’s something paradoxical about this being facilitated by the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Europe. But such an engagement is arguably being made even more urgent by the economic reality that Europe will need even more immigrants if its present demographic winter persists for any significant period of time.

What Chancellor Merkel herself understands by “the Christian view of mankind” was not clear from her remarks. Nor is it evident that particular Christian ideas are always compatible with some Muslim positions. Despite the interfaith babble to the contrary, there are some fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam, many of which have implications for subjects ranging from religious liberty to the nature of the state. Merkel, however, is undoubtedly correct to insist that any discussion of immigration in Europe should involve Europeans worrying a little less about Islam and paying far more attention to knowing the truth about their own heritage and Christianity’s place in it.

The truth doesn’t just set us free. There’s no future without it.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

In today’s Acton Commentary I explore “The Legalism of Political Christianity.”

This quote from Ernest Lefever (not included in the piece but which does appear in my book) represents the basic position well:

It is dangerous for any Christian body to identify itself fully with any specific political cause or order, whether the prevailing one or a challenge to it. In identifying with a secular power or agency, the church runs the risk of losing its critical distance and of subverting its prophetic function, its capacity to judge all movements and systems by universal Christian standards.

For more reading of related interest, see the review survey at The Gospel Coalition of three recent books on politics from evangelical publishers.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
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A new article from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter here.

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A Tale of Two Europes

By Samuel Gregg

The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.

These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.

While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.

No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.

Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)

I introduced this week’s Acton Commentary yesterday with some thoughts about “The Audacity of Austerity.” In today’s “‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter,” I take to task the attitude embodied by Paul Krugman’s vilification of proponents of austerity measures.

Most recently Krugman called such advocates “debt moralizers,” implicitly drawing the connection between austerity measures and “puritanical” virtues like thrift. In this Krugman follows in the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed has much to answer for in forming the popular, and mistaken, understanding of the Puritans and joyless, dour, and rigid.

But the joke is, of course, that in denouncing the “debt moralizers” Krugman is himself “moralizing.” It just so happens that instead of moralizing against wanton debt and deficit spending, he is moralizing against commonsense “puritanical” wisdom. He is moralizing against those who dare to think that government bureaucrats and the public intelligentsia aren’t fit to rule the political economy by virtue of their “expertise.”

Krugman’s message amounts to the view that the hoi polloi don’t really know what’s best for them, and it is up to the few enlightened planners of civilization to run things properly.

If I might be allowed to make another literary comparison, in this Krugman is a bit like Shift, the Ape from The Last Battle, the concluding book of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. The book beings by describing the relationship between Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey (or Ass), and although both would say they are friends, the nature of the friendship is rather suspect, for “from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend.”

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Shift uses his superior way with words and quick wit to manipulate Puzzle into doing what he wants. All the while Shift reiterates the same message to Puzzle.

Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all. And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.” And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.

This all too often is the message from K Street (and Wall Street) to Main Street: We understand what needs to be done better than you. On the heels of yesterday’s election, it is up to the new legislators not to simply sigh on behalf of their constituents and go along with the way things always go inside the Beltway.

As I argue in today’s commentary, contrary to Krugman, we ought to think of the ‘A’ for austerity not as a scarlet letter but rather as a red badge of political courage.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
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The title of this post borrows from a phrase I employ in the conclusion of tomorrow’s Acton Commentary on the prospects for austerity in America after today’s mid-term elections. (I can’t claim to have coined the term, since about 4,270 other instances of the phrase show up in a Google search, but I like it nonetheless.)

Today I’ll simply highlight a few of the relevant stories that I’ve noted on this theme over recent weeks and months.

As Samuelson notes, austerity is by its very nature unpopular. Speaking of the dilemma facing governments, he writes, “Without unpopular spending cuts and tax increases, unmanageable deficits may choke their economies.”

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the treatment of austerity as a leitmotif in the writings of Paul Krugman, who most recently dubbed austerity proponents “moralizers.” The significance of this will be made more clear tomorrow in relation to my commentary, “‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter.”

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Barack von Bismarck

By Anthony Bradley

The November congressional elections are not so much a referendum on the Obama administration as a check on whether President Barack Obama’s implementation of a Bismarckian vision of government will continue.

Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister/German chancellor from 1862 to 1890, is the father of the welfare state. He advanced the vision that government should serve as a social services institution by taking earned wealth from the rich and from businesses to deliver services to those who are not as advantaged. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf campaign intended both to keep radical socialists at bay and undermine the church’s role in meeting the needs of local citizens by positioning government to be the primary source of social services. He initiated the ideal of an ever-expanding, beneficent government, which was subsequently imported to the United States in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, expanded further with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and currently drives the policies of the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not a 19th-century socialist, but his agenda is unquestionably Bismarckian.

The Iron Chancellor

In 1891, William Dawson, in Bismarck and State Socialism, explained that Bismarck believed it was the duty of the state to promote the welfare of all its members. On November 22, 1888, in response to Germany’s 1873 economic crisis, Bismarck proclaimed, “I regard it as the duty of the State to endeavor to ameliorate existing economic evils.” In Bismarck-like fashion, commenting on America’s economic crisis, President Obama declared in January 2009 that,  “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that are crippling our economy—where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.” In a Bismarckian world, “only” government can set the national economy right.

Regarding universal health insurance, on March 15th, 1884, Bismarck asked, “Is it the duty of the State, or is it not, to provide for its helpless citizens?” He answered, “I maintain that it is its duty.” It is the duty of the state to “the seek the cheapest form of insurance, and, not aiming at profit for itself, must keep primarily in view the benefit for the poor and needy.” Similarly, under the federal healthcare reform law, Congress forbids health insurance companies from raising insurance premiums until insurers submit to Obamacare officials “a justification for an unreasonable premium increase prior to the implementation of the increase.” In effect, government determines health insurance premiums.

On unemployment, Bismarck believed that government is ultimately responsible for finding jobs for those unemployed through no fault of their own, those lacking opportunity to work and thus prohibited from properly sustaining themselves. On March 15, 1884 Bismarck exclaimed, “If an establishment employing twenty thousand or more workpeople were to be ruined . . . we could not allow these men to hunger”—even if it means creating government jobs for national infrastructure improvements. “In such cases we build railways,” says Bismarck. “We carry out improvements which otherwise would be left to private initiative.” Likewise, in July, President Obama proclaimed, “I believe it’s critical we extend unemployment insurance for several more months, so that Americans who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own get the support they need to provide for their families and can maintain their health insurance until they’re rehired.” Then, in September, President Obama announced a six-year, $50 billion infrastructure proposal “to rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads,” “maintain 4,000 miles of our railways,” and “restore 150 miles of runways.” To keep America working, Obama is channeling Bismarck’s vision of government as creator of jobs.

By the 1890s, for several reasons, Germany was forced to abandon many of Bismarck’s specific reforms. However, Bismarck’s method of using of government as the ultimate provider of social services paid for by the earned wealth of others is the modus operandi of the Obama administration. The outcome of contests for congressional seats will determine whether the nation continues down the path chosen by Barack Obama, but blazed long ago by the visionary of the omnicompetent state, Otto von Bismarck.

Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Juan Williams’ Firing Might Produce Desired Results

By Bruce Edward Walker

It was a tough few days last week in Radio Wobegone. And it promises to get tougher in the days, weeks and months ahead. The base of operations for Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk is in serious hot water.

National Public Radio dismissed newsman Juan Williams for an on-air discussion he conducted with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in which Williams confessed discomfort when observing fellow airline passengers dressed in Muslim garb. Although the conversation occurred on another network, NPR’s reaction was swift: Williams was fired, and a hailstorm ensued.

Imagine if HBO’s Bill Maher had made a similar confession: That, as an atheist, he was disturbed to see Lake Wobegone’s Pastor Inkfist boarding a plane, wearing Lutheran clerical garb. Oh, wait, Maher takes potshots at clergy, church and religion, in general, whenever his lips are moving. True, the ABC Network fired Maher shortly after 9/11 – but his remarks were far more egregiously offensive than Williams’.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, since Maher is ostensibly a comic and Williams a newsman, but it does present a comparative basis on how thin-skinned and politically correct the suits at NPR have become. When it serves their purposes, that is.

You see, I don’t believe Williams’ comments caused his firing. His words only granted cover for his firing, a move long-desired by NPR’s leadership in light of Williams’ too-often straying from the leftwing party line. Whatever the reason, it is NPR’s method that is especially deplorable. One would be more inclined to understand the executives’ decision if only they would have considered their actions in relation to the dignity that their employees deserve. Pope Leo XIII, writing in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, provided a perfect vaccine against NPR’s current public relations debacle.

Leo wrote: “Should it happen that either a master or a workman believes himself injured, nothing would be more desirable than that a committee should be appointed, composed of reliable and capable members of the association, whose duty would be, conformably with the rules of the association, to settle the dispute.” In other words, Leo called for employers to demonstrate a basic level of respect for the people who comprise their company. Dismissing Williams out-of-hand without following such simple advice has left NPR open for legitimate negative criticism.

It has also raised the issue of cutting government subsidies for the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting enterprise. And it’s about time. Although relatively miniscule compared to other government-financed boondoggles, NPR should be allowed to sink or swim based on its own merits in the marketplace. Massive public fundraisers as well as corporate donations and sponsors foot the majority of NPR’s bills already. Liberal fat cat George Soros recently bequeathed $1.8 million of his personal fortune to NPR for the hiring of state-based reporters.

Indeed, NPR’s existence as a government-funded entity is an affront not only to secular free-market principles, but to Judeo-Christian views on subsidiarity as well. Succinctly stated, providing public monies to a direct competitor of private industry is morally wrong.

Williams, fortunately, was able to land on his feet. Fox News Network hired the revered analyst in the wake of his firing. NPR, however, may not be so lucky.

NPR’s hubris may yet be its undoing as a freeloader on the public dole. We can only hope.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Victor Claar’s new monograph, Fair Trade: It’s Prospects as a Poverty Solution, in the Acton Bookshoppe.

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Searching for Meaningful Work: Reflections on the 2010 Economics Nobel

By Victor V. Claar

This year’s Nobel economics prize was awarded to two Americans and a British-Cypriot for developing a theory that helps to explain why unemployment can persist even when job openings are available.

The economics prize is not one of the original awards established by Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, but is instead a relatively new prize. Established in 1969, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Nobel — its official name — is funded through proceeds from a 1968 donation by Sweden’s central bank.

This year’s winners — Americans Peter Diamond and Dale Mortensen, and British-Cypriot Christopher Pissarides — were honored with the $1.5 million prize for their illumination of the obstacles that may keep buyers and sellers from finding each other in some markets as efficiently as economic theory traditionally predicts.

In some markets — where information is low-cost and individual buyers and sellers are not particularly unique — parties can quickly find each other and engage in mutually-beneficial exchanges. Any buyer is happy to trade with any seller as long as the price seems reasonable to each.

But in other markets the fit matters more. And, as Diamond’s early work in the 1970s suggested, sometimes fit matters a lot. An extreme example is the “market” for spouses. Because marriage is a lifelong joint endeavor, men and women search extensively for partners with whom their eventual marital union may fully flourish as God intends.

And because searching for just the right person takes time, effort, and perhaps many first dates, plenty of eligible men and women remain single at any given moment. Web sites like match.com and eHarmony are popular with singles because those sites help reduce search costs by improving the amount of information available to singles about potential mates.

Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides have studied extensively markets with such search costs. When both buyers and sellers are unique, it requires considerable searching for each to find just the right fit. Even in a well-functioning housing market with plenty of available homes, buyers may struggle to find homes they like. So the buyers keep looking.

All three recipients of this year’s prize have carefully extended Diamond’s work to better understand why we may observe persistent unemployment in the labor market even when there are plenty of job openings available, and with interesting policy implications — especially for unemployment insurance programs. Their work shows that more generous unemployment insurance programs will unambiguously lead to longer average unemployment spells: a result with very strong empirical support.

There are two ways to interpret this policy conclusion, and neither is incorrect. On one hand, quite generous welfare benefits may — at the margin — backfire in the sense that they make finding employment less urgent than it would be otherwise, resulting in less search effort by job seekers. This interpretation provided part of the motivation behind the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the “welfare reform” bill), which shortened the amount of time individuals may receive welfare payments without working. The bill made unemployment look less attractive.

But on the other hand, meaningful work is a gift. God desires that men and women — the only creatures that He made in his image — imitate him through their creative work. Work is our collaboration with God’s creative purposes. Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther stressed the idea, gleaned from Scripture, that every believer is called by God to certain work — a vocation — and has a duty to respond to that call. And John Paul II, in his letter on human labor, observed that work is “one of the fundamental dimensions of [a person’s] earthly existence and of his vocation.” Thus while low unemployment is an important goal, we should not be too quick to put policies in place that force unemployed persons to settle too quickly for jobs that are not a good match. Doing so would deny people the opportunity to pursue their unique callings — ones in which each person can exercise stewardship to the glory of the Creator.

The enduring contribution of this year’s economics Nobel winners will be their suggestion that unemployment insurance alone cannot guarantee meaningful work, and that future policy efforts to reduce unemployment would do better to focus on improving information and reducing search costs, leading to enhanced opportunities for meaning and human flourishing in labor markets. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Pissarides pointed to the UK’s New Deal for Young People, which directly attaches government assistance to job seeking and training (rather than unemployment per se), as one example “very much based on our work,” he said.

Dr. Victor V. Claar is associate professor of economics at Henderson, the public liberal arts university of Arkansas. He is a coauthor of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, and author of the Acton Institute’s Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Acton’s Research Director in the American Spectator:

Europe’s Broken Economies

By Samuel Gregg

During September this year, much of Europe descended into mild chaos. Millions of Spaniards and French went on strike (following, of course, their return from six weeks vacation) against austerity measures introduced by their governments. Across the continent, there are deepening concerns about possible sovereign-debt defaults, stubbornly-high unemployment, Ireland’s renewed banking woes, and the resurgence of right-wing populist parties (often peddling left-wing economic ideas). Indeed, the palpable sense of crisis left many wondering if some European economies have entered a period of chronic decline — one which might eventually reduce Europe to being a bit-player on the world stage.

Obviously we should avoid over-simplification. In Germany and Sweden, for instance, unemployment is declining while economic growth and exports are rising. Not coincidentally, both countries have implemented significant economic reforms over the past ten years. To the audible disappointment of the world’s left-wingers, Sweden is no longer Social Democracy’s poster-child.

Nor can Europe’s present woes be explained in mono-causal terms. Like America, property-bubbles and over-leveraged financial industries played a role in some countries’ meltdowns. But not every European nation presently enduring economic hardship experienced banking crises on the scale experienced by Ireland and Britain.

It will be decades before economists and historians completely diagnose what’s happened to Europe’s economies since 2008. Many, however, will likely conclude that many European countries’ economic culture helped them lurch into seemingly unending crisis.

“Culture” is one of those heavily over-used words. But in sociological and historical terms, “culture” is a way of describing, among other things, the approach to life, the values emphasized, attitudes toward work, the understanding of law, and ultimately the view of science, the arts and religion prevailing in a given society. Over time, these form a type of inheritance that can remain relatively stable in particular historical settings over several generations. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I remember German reunification and reflect on its relevance for the present.

Twenty years ago this Sunday, East and West Germany reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern history. Communism in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites had collapsed; the oppressed nations of Europe rejoined the “free world.”

My generation was the last to straddle the two worlds, pre- and post-Soviet Union. When I was in elementary and high school, fear of atomic annihilation was real. The USSR was the great, looming adversary on the world stage. Debate over the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” was the ominous focus of international policy discussions.

Read the rest here.