Category: Acton Commentary

In this week’s commentary, I take a look at Calvin Coolidge and his views on government. Coolidge is important today for many reasons. Chiefly, he’s a striking contrast to our current culture of government and the bloated state.

Coolidge was sandwiched in between the progressive era and the rise of the New Dealers. And in his era of leadership, tyrannical leaders who preached the supremacy of the state rose to power abroad. Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini in Italy are two examples. Coolidge preached limited government and saw himself as a civic educator who wanted to remind America of its founding freedom.

In watching what just transpired with the recall election in Wisconsin and the debate over public sector unions, there is again a connection to Coolidge. His rise to national prominence came as governor of Massachusetts when he took on a public union. Coolidge’s firm stand against the Boston Police Strike of 1919 later led him to reflect saying, “The people will respond to the truth.” Coolidge famously declared during the strike that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Ronald Reagan would find inspiration from Coolidge’s hardline when he terminated the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 as president.

I have enjoyed reading through the speeches and biographies of Coolidge. I have read a lot of original sources such as Have Faith in Massachusetts, which is a collection of messages and speeches delivered by Coolidge during his political career in the Bay State. After reading through that, you get a picture of the depth of his conservative thought and how he was able to articulate it so well to the citizenry.

His most brilliant speech which is really a denunciation of the progressive era and a triumphant praise of America’s Founding is his remarkable address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. If you don’t read anything else by Coolidge, that speech is a must read. Finally, keep the forthcoming Coolidge biography by Amity Shlaes on your radar.

In this week’s Acton Commentary (published May 30), Anthony Bradley argues that racial discrimination is no match for the power of competition: “While companies were free to discriminate against blacks it was not in their economic interests to do so because, at the end of the day, every company’s favorite color is green.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Contagious Community,” I look at the positive as well as the negative aspects of coordination and cooperation between human beings on a global scale. The film Contagion provided the occasion for these reflections, and I argue that

while the film is clear about the dangers of globalized human relationships, it also teaches a more subtle lesson. Even as disease represents a danger that can have worldwide impact, such dangers remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the film portrays quite well how global networks of information and exchange are absolutely foundational for our contemporary world.

Abraham Kuyper on Common Grace in Science & ArtI was reminded of this uniquely human social characteristic again while reading through Abraham Kuyper’s Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art this week. Kuyper makes the point that human pursuit of scientific knowledge is a communal endeavor. In fact, he writes,

Science is thus constructed not on the basis of what one person observes, discovers, imagines, and organizes into one system in his or her thinking. Rather, science arises from the fruit of the thinking, imagining, and reflecting of successive generations in the course of centuries, and by means of the cooperation of everyone.

What we have in the case of the development of human knowledge, then, is a communal endeavor defined not just in spatial terms (i.e. globally) but also temporally, including the successive ages of human beings from the past and their discoveries as they have been built upon and communicated to us today.

When discussing the idea of the invisible church, theologians include both the living and dead (who now enjoy the revelation of the blessed in the intermediate state) as making up “the communion of saints.” But similarly with respect to science as a common grace enterprise, we have a communion of common grace that likewise includes the living as well as the dead.

No single person can comprehend science in an “exalted sense,” which for Kuyper “originates only through the cooperation of many people,” the living as well as the dead. In the same way, no single person knows how to manufacture a pencil or build a chair, in part because none of us who are alive today got where we are on our own. We (and our civilization) are the products of those who have come before.

Recognition of this should instill in us a pretty healthy sense of humility and gratefulness for the graces of human community.

In a recent speech, President Obama invoked Scripture to justify his ambitious spending plans. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published May 25), Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg notes that the president said nothing about the role of private communities and associations in helping our brothers and sisters in need. What’s more, “our leader hasn’t noticed that even some European governments, many of whom have been handing out as much pork as possible to politically-connected, politically-correct crony-capitalists over the past 15 years, are concluding many of these projects aren’t likely to be economically-viable either now or in the distant future,” Gregg writes. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

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The long and tragic history of government control of property on Indian reservations has led to economic nihilism and moral breakdown. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published April 25), Anthony Bradley argues for a new approach that encourages local control and entrepreneurial business formation. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

John L. Allen, Jr., at the National Catholic Reporter, took note of the address recently given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, just as Acton did.  Allen’s blog post, which referenced Acton’s Samuel Gregg and his National Review Online piece,  noted that the Cardinal posed some very specific and probing questions for business people who wish to integrate their spiritual life and work life:

  • Am I creating wealth, or am I engaging in rent-seeking behavior? (That’s jargon for trying to get rich by manipulating the political and economic environment, for example by lobbying for tax breaks, rather than by actually creating something.)
  • Is my company making every reasonable effort to take responsibility for unintended consequences [such as] environmental damage or other negative effects on suppliers, local communities and even competitors?
  • Do I provide working conditions which allow my employees appropriate autonomy at each level?
  • Am I making sure that the company provides safe working conditions, living wages, training, and the opportunity for employees to organize themselves?
  • Do I follow the same standard of morality in all geographic locations?
  • Am I seeking ways to deliver fair returns to providers of capital, fair wages to employees, fair prices to customers and suppliers, and fair taxes to local communities?
  • Does my company honor its fiduciary obligations … with regular and truthful financial reporting?
  • When economic conditions demand layoffs, is my company giving adequate notifications, employee transition assistance, and severance pay?

Allen points that this document will be concretely useful: retreats for business people, a foundational document for business education, etc. He says, ‘… it manages to bring Catholic social teaching down to earth without actually floating a single concrete policy proposal. Instead, it asks hard questions and trusts people of intelligence and good will to figure out the right answers.’

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