Category: Acton Commentary

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.

In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”

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Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment

By Samuel Gregg

In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.

Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.

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This week’s commentary developed out of my remarks at Acton on Tap. My years of studying and reading about the civil rights movement at Ole Miss and seminary aided in the writing of this piece:

Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?

Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?

With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.

Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.

In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.

King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.

Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.

Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.

Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.

Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here. This week, I contributed a piece on Jim Wallis’ new book.

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This class of the very poor – those who are just on the borders of pauperism or fairly over the borders – is rapidly growing. Wealth is increasing very fast; poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly. – Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity (1886)

For three decades, we have experienced a social engineered inequality that is really a sin – of biblical proportions. We have indeed seen class warfare, but this war has been waged by the wealthy and their political allies against the poor and the middle class. – Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (2010)

One of Jim Wallis’ long running aims at Sojourners is to cast himself as a moderate or centrist (God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat). This is howling nonsense to anyone who pays attention to his policy prescriptions or watches the progressive/liberal company he keeps. With his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), Wallis drops all pretense to holding the center as he piles on with the horde of religious left activists and others now demonizing Wall Street. The book, a clip-file pastiche of easy eat-the-rich moralizing, relentlessly pushes for the sort of collectivist policies that even the Obama administration is reluctant to take on directly (to Wallis’ chagrin).

The Wallis publicity machine casts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets with their fiery visions and passion for the social application of faith. Alas, he can only scold: “It’s clear that Wall Street has learned nothing, wants to learn nothing, and instead just wants to go back to the same old behaviors.”

With this new book, Wallis has ventured into the nation’s economic life with his cheap outrage. There, he has exposed himself as utterly ignorant of even the most basic economic principles. Not even a disinterested undergraduate halfway through a compulsory Econ 101 would make these mistakes. Case in point:

The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of the loving God. And the first commandment of the Market: “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictum of God’s economy: namely, there is enough, if we share it.

Well, no, wrong. You cannot wish scarcity away. It is one of the most fundamental realities of economic life, involving everything from raw materials to money to the very time we have on God’s green earth. Still less can you wish away scarcity with shallow sentiment and decree that all of humanity will have enough (what is enough?) if we follow the “dictum” of “God’s economy.” Scarcity is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, you might say.

(more…)

Can you discern a nation’s spirit, even its economic genius, from the literature it produces? That’s long been a pastime of literary critics, including those who frequently see the “original sins” of Puritanism and capitalism in the stony heart of Americans.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, Fred Siegel looks at just this problem in a new appreciation of cultural critic and iconoclast Bernard DeVoto’s three-decade campaign to rescue American letters from the perception that European aesthetics were superior to the homegrown variety.

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

According to Siegel, DeVoto was the lone voice speaking out against the literary intelligentsia of the age. While it is true that DeVoto had his moments of clarity regarding literature, especially as it pertains to his insights that rescued Mark Twain’s work from a certain obscurity, Siegel nonetheless inflates DeVoto’s total contribution to cultural criticism.

Indeed, DeVoto was erudite and a prodigious writer. But, despite Siegel’s assertions, he wasn’t a particularly astute observer of the literary landscape. In fact, he was a bit of a cranky pants who wedged works he didn’t fully understand too quickly into an easy anti-American category. This strategy yielded diminishing returns for DeVoto’s reputation, which is probably the primary reason why his name is seldom if ever mentioned in the canon of literary criticism. Siegel’s rebranding attempt is not likely to help. DeVoto penned the monthly Easy Chair column for Harper’s from 1935 to 1955, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Across the Wide Missouri,” and wrote “Mark Twain’s America.” Siegel notes that DeVoto’s “most important book,” however, was the 1944 volume, “The Literary Fallacy.” In it, Siegel asserts, DeVoto “illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.” (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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A new commentary from Dr. Donald Condit. Also see the Acton Health Care resource page.

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Health Care Rights, and Wrongs

By Dr. Donald P. Condit

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi promoted passage of Sunday’s health care reform bill, she invoked Catholic support. However, those who assert the right to health care and seek greater responsibility for government as the means to that end, are simply wrong. This legislation fails to comport with Catholic social principles.

Claiming an entity as a right requires clear thinking about who possesses a claim to something while defining who must fulfill this obligation. We can clearly agree on responsibility to care for our neighbor and yet not promote federal dominion over doctors and nurses.

Some mistakenly quote Pope John XXIII‘s 1963 Encyclical Letter Pacem In Terris (Peace on Earth) discussing “the right to live… the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services (11).” In this context, the Holy Father speaks of health care as a natural right, with corresponding responsibilities, not as a direct obligation of the state. Nowhere in Pacem In Terris is government assigned accountability for food, clothing, shelter or health care.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently reiterated the Church’s understanding of health care as a right. “At a minimum, it certainly is the duty of a just society. If we see ourselves as a civilized people, then we have an obligation to serve the basic medical needs of all people, including the poor, the elderly and the disabled to the best of our ability.” Yet, there are options for society to meet this duty apart from the federal government. (more…)

Choosing the Common Good from Catholic Westminster on Vimeo.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I review a new statement titled Choosing the Common Good (download it here) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In the introductory video linked above, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, introduces Choosing the Common Good and discusses the key themes in Catholic Social Teaching “as a contribution to the wide-ranging debate about the values and vision that underpin our society.”

Here is the text of my commentary:

Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales

What a difference 15 years can make.

Back in 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a document, The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching, to address political issues facing Britain at the time. Leaving aside the incoherence that characterized much of that text, a distinctly skeptical tone about market economies pervaded the document – almost to the point of being an anti-Thatcherite screed.

The 1996 document was written with a view to informing Catholics’ consciences before Britain’s 1997 General Election. Shaping Catholic consciences is, after all, part of a Catholic bishop’s job. But it was very difficult to read the 1996 text as anything other than a less-than-subtle appeal to vote for the then-opposition Labour Party.

Fast-forward to 2010. With a General Election imminent in Britain, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued a new document, titled Choosing the Common Good. To the joy of many, it is a remarkably sound text. Characterized by a focus on principles, sobriety of expression, and avoidance of tedious policy-wonkery, the English and Welsh bishops have authored a document that repays careful reading. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I review a new book by economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy. Text follows:

A rare growth industry following the 2008 financial crisis has been financial crisis commentaries. An apparently endless stream of books and articles from assorted pundits and scholars continues to explain what went wrong and how to fix our present problems.

In this context, it was almost inevitable that one Joseph E. Stiglitz would enter the fray of finger-pointing and policy-offerings. As a Nobel Prize economist, former World Bank chief economist, former Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, it would be surprising if he had nothing to say.

Moreover Stiglitz has assumed the role of social-democrat-public-intellectual-in-chief since his door-slamming departure from the World Bank in 1999. From this standpoint, Stiglitz opines about, well, pretty much everything. He also increasingly labels anyone disagreeing with him as a “market fundamentalist” or “conservative journalist.”

Yet despite his iconoclastic reputation, Stiglitz reveals himself in his latest offering, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, as a rather conventional Keynesian-inclined economist who, like most Keynesian-inclined economists, thinks everything went wrong in the early 1980s. (more…)

My recent Acton commentary, Latin America: After the Left, has been republished in a number of Latin American newspapers. For the benefit of our Spanish speaking friends, Acton is publishing the translation of the article that appeared today in the Paraguayan daily, ABC Color. The translation and distribution to Latin American papers was handled by Carlos Ball at AIPEnet.com. Commentary in Spanish follows:

Fracasos de la izquierda latinoamericana

por Samuel Gregg

La izquierda confronta grandes problemas en América Latina. La reciente elección de Sebastián Piñera como primer presidente chileno de centro-derecha en varias décadas se debió a la incapacidad demostrada por la coalición de centro izquierda que gobierna en Chile desde 1990. Y en toda América Latina se nota el desmoronamiento de la izquierda que por mucho tiempo sostuvo las riendas del poder.

Los futuros historiadores probablemente determinarán que esta transformación comenzó con la negativa del Congreso de Honduras, de su Corte Suprema, del Defensor del Pueblo, del Tribunal Supremo Electoral, de los dos principales partidos políticos y de los obispos católicos a que el ex presidente Manuel Zelaya violara el orden constitucional, al estilo chavista. (more…)

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Human Dignity, Dark Skin and Negro Dialect

by Anthony B. Bradley Ph.D.

Black History Month is a time not only to honor our past but also to survey the progress yet to be made. Why does the black underclass continue to struggle so many years after the civil-rights movement? Martin Luther King dreamt about an America where women and men are evaluated on the basis of character rather than skin color. The fight for equal dignity, however, was derailed by a quest for political clout and “bling.” The goal of equality measured by outcomes, sought by means of government-directed racial inclusion programs, overshadowed the more challenging campaign for true solidarity based on widespread recognition of the inherent dignity of all people.

Beginning in the 1980s, many civil-rights leaders began to identify justice on the basis of social cosmetics, including how much “stuff” blacks did not have compared to whites—size of homes, number of college degrees, income disparities, law school admissions rates, loan approvals, and the like—instead of whether or not blacks were treated as equals in our social structures. Equal treatment by our legal and social institutions may yield unexpected results, but it remains a better measure of justice than coercively creating results we want.

When Democratic Senator Harry Reid spoke the truth about President Obama being particularly electable because he neither had “dark skin” nor used “negro dialect,” it served as a prophetic signal that Americans still struggle to embrace the dignity of many blacks. Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and “negro dialect” is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility. After all—some would ask—are not the stereotypical dark-skinned folks with bad English skills the ones having children outside of marriage, dropping out of high school, filling up America’s prison system, murdering each other, and producing materialistic and misogynistic rap music?

Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged. Theologian Nonna Harrison in her 2008 essay, “The Human Person,” offers a clear framework for unlocking human dignity by stressing human freedom, responsibility, love for neighbor, excellence of character, stewardship of creation, and human rationality. Imagine an America where resurgent civil-rights energies were dedicated to creating the conditions that support the life-long process of formation and transformation into citizens who know and love our neighbors, regardless of race or class. Imagine a resurgence of dignity that orders our passions, impulses, and reason to excel in moral character; a resurgence that elevates good stewardship to the status of a social norm; a resurgence that entails sustaining human life in terms of what is good for nature and human society; a resurgence committed to cultivating practical reason, enabling women and men to creatively contribute to the arts and sciences, to economics, politics, business, and culture.

A movement dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have positive spillover effects everywhere: from homes to schools, from streets to the criminal justice system. For example, if freedom, responsibility, and dignity became the new platform for the “advancement of colored people,” black marriage rates would be redirected back to their 1950s levels, when the percentages of white and African-American women who were currently married were roughly the same (67 and 64 percent, respectively). An emphasis on practical reason would foster a return to the notion that education—not sports and entertainment—is your “ticket” out of “da hood.” Imagine an America where what it means to be a black man is to be a morally formed, educated “brutha,” ready to contribute to making the world better.

Decades ago, when the black church was at the center of the black community, these values were deposited from generation to generation. Today, in an era when “justice” means obsession with redistributing wealth rather than restoring dignity, character formation has been abandoned. Disadvantaged blacks are generationally doomed until we recognize that social mobility for those with “dark skin” and “negro dialect” flows from the expansion in tandem of dignity and freedom, not from pursing the siren songs of riches and power.