Category: Acton Commentary

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fojol Bros. of Merlindia

Customers standing beside the food truck operated by Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, a theatrical, mobile Indian restaurant, serving food at various locations throughout Washington, D.C

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the increasing popularity of food trucks in urban settings within the context of Milton Friedman’s observation that “it’s always been true that business is not a friend of a free market.”

As you might imagine, the food truck phenomenon has found opposition from brick and mortar eateries that fear competition from the mobile units. In this they are merely acting from self-interest, trying to influence the local laws and ordinances to favor them. As Friedman says, “It will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there,” or a specially-designed zoning ordinance here, a tailored regulation there.

Various Christian traditions have recognized the right to food as basic, and there is thus a corresponding right for those who would provide food for others. We therefore ought to respect those who provide us with “our daily bread,” whether it be in the form of traditional restaurants, grocery stores, or food trucks. This means that the prejudice should be in favor of freedom for food trucks to operate and bring daily sustenance to many, or as Lester DeKoster writes, bring food to “God himself, hungering in the hungry.”

One response from brick and mortar restaurants could be to start up their own mobile operations. This would be far more helpful and healthy than trying to get city commissions to disallow them. The relatively lower barriers to entry (e.g. lower capital costs) can make food trucks an ideal start-up enterprise for a culinary entrepreneur. But the mobility and versatility of the food trucks can be a great complement to the stability of a traditional restaurant as well, as many establishments are already finding.

And the complementary relationship between food trucks and sit-down restaurants can work both ways. The food trucks can be a good “first step” into the food service business, and down the line the food truck brands can be well-served by setting up a base of operations with a brick-and-mortar establishment, too.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 22, 2011

Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

A practical man?

On the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the baleful influence exerted on economic thought and public policy for decades by John Maynard Keynes. Gregg observes that “despite his iconoclastic reputation, Keynes was a quintessentially establishment man.” This was in contrast to free-market critics of Keynes such as Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke who generally speaking “exerted influence primarily from the ‘outside’: not least through their writings capturing the imagination of decidedly non-establishment politicians such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Ludwig Erhard.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of Keynes’ most prominent devotees are also “insider” types:

The story of Keynes’s rise as the scholar shaping economic policy from “within” is more, however, than just the tale of one man’s meteoric career. It also heralded the surge of an army of activist-intellectuals into the ranks of governments before, during, and after World War II. The revolution in economics pioneered by Keynes effectively accompanied and rationalized an upheaval in the composition and activities of governments.

From this standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why New Dealers such as John Kenneth Galbraith were so giddy when they first read Keynes’s General Theory. Confident that Keynes and his followers had given them the conceptual tools to “run” the economy, scholars like Galbraith increasingly spent their careers shifting between tenured university posts, government advisory boards, international financial institutions, and political appointments — without, of course, spending any time whatsoever in the private sector.

In short, Keynes helped make possible the Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reichs, Joseph Stiglitz’s, and Timothy Geithners of this world. Moreover, features of post-Keynesian economics — especially a penchant for econometrics and building abstract models that borders on physics-envy — fueled hopes that an expert-guided state could direct economic life without necessarily embracing socialism. A type of nexus consequently developed between postwar economists seeking influence (and jobs), and governments wanting studies that conferred scientific authority upon interventionist policies.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Madness of Lord Keynes” on the American Spectator.

This week’s Acton Commentary comes from Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University. Professor Kidd is the author of a new biography of Patrick Henry, and he sees in Henry’s anti-federalism a certain foresight that Madison and Jefferson lacked. The unlimited power to tax was what drove us from British rule in the first place, and Henry saw no reason to give that power back to a national government. In 220 years, the national government has turned that into an unlimited thirst for borrowing.

The utter travesty that was the congressional “Super Committee” has led us to even lower depths of skepticism about the government’s ability to control debt and spending. In this new era of malaise, lessons from the time of the Constitution’s adoption — and fears from those days about what the newly-framed government might become — seem more relevant than ever. Some key Patriot leaders predicted in the 1780s that a government with unlimited power to tax and spend would become an ever-growing monster.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Americans have had a hard time taking the Antifederalists (opponents of the Constitution) seriously. How could anyone, we may wonder, not appreciate the wisdom of the Constitution? But remember that some of America’s greatest Founders, most notably Virginia’s Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution. Having fought against the centralized, intrusive British government in 1776, the Antifederalists balked at placing such a government over themselves again. Many of them, including Henry, expressed fundamental doubts — concerns rooted in Christian principles — about politicians’ capacity to handle this kind of power.

Henry’s Antifederalism was rooted in a shrewder understanding of human nature than men like Jefferson possessed.

At the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, Henry proclaimed that American liberty was at stake in the decision over the Constitution. He asked how Americans would bear the “enormous and extravagant expenses, which will certainly attend the support of this great consolidated government”? America would find “no reduction of the public burdens by this new system.” Taxes would just fuel the “uncontrolled demands” of bureaucrats not contemplated by the Constitution.

To Henry, these fears were rooted in his assumption that in the long term, officials would inevitably misappropriate and abuse the power granted to them. “Did we not know of the fallibility of human nature,” he told the Richmond delegates, “we might rely on the present structure of this government, … but the depraved nature of man is well known.” Henry’s Christian worldview made him acutely sensitive to the risks of placing expansive power in human hands. Hoping that only ethical, public-spirited people would serve in national office was foolish, he believed. Henry would “never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.”

Read the full article and Kidd’s conclusions here.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine Jesus’s famous parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable after some people grumble about him eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors at the time had a bad reputation of unfair business practices and government ties. Yet, Jesus tells the parable of a man who left ninety-nine sheep to find the one that went missing in order to caution his detractors about marginalizing even these tax collectors.

In light of this, does the “we are the 99%” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which implicitly insinuates that anyone in the top 1 percent has gotten there unjustly, amount to shunning the lost sheep (and others) of our society today? Read this week’s Acton Commentary for more.

Image Credit:

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Unported Author: Another Believer

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Author: Dustin

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Blue Laws and Black Friday,” I argue that the increasing encroachment of commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving are best seen as questions of morality and the limits of the economic sphere of existence. The remedy for such issues is best sought at the level of relationship (between consumer and retailer, for instance, as well as employer and employee) rather than at the level of legal remedy, as in the case of blue laws.

In an interesting side note, the state of Massachusetts still has blue laws on the books that prevent employees from working before midnight on Thanksgiving Day. The Boston Globe editorializes that “the blue laws are creating nothing but inconvenience; many stores adjust by simply opening at 12:30 a.m. instead of midnight. Workers still come in – but half an hour deeper into the night.”

One rejoinder concerning the relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is that those who have to work on Thursday ought to be thankful to have a job at all, particularly in these times of economic hardship. This is certainly true, but I don’t think this means that employees simply have to silently accept whatever their employer demands of them. As I’ve said, the remedy for this moral problem is best sought in the context of the complex web of relationships between employees, employers, and customers. And we need not derogate the true blessing that work is to say that it ought to have its limits. It seems to me that the widespread impingement of non-essential commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving probably crosses these limits, at least in some cases.

All of this means that customers need to be more aware of what their shopping habits and practices demand of businesses. And some companies might realize that the moral demand in certain cases might mean not giving customers what they want (e.g. opening at midnight on Thanksgiving). A salutary example of this kind of response is found in the folks at Hobby Lobby, who have never operated on Sunday.

Their reasoning goes like this: “We have chosen to close on the day most widely recognized as a day of rest, in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family. This has not been an easy decision for Hobby Lobby because we realize that this decision may cost us financially. Yet we also realize that there are things more important than profits. This is a matter of principle for our company owner and officers.”

It’s wonderful when we don’t need laws to tell us what’s the right thing to do.

Abraham KuyperThis week’s Acton Commentary, “Work, the Curse, and Common Grace,” I examine the doctrine of common grace in the context of our relationship with animals. In particular I use some insights from Abraham Kuyper as appear in the forthcoming translation of his work, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art. (Pre-orders for Wisdom & Wonder are shipping out this week, so you can still be among the first to receive a hardcopy. We’ll be launching the book at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting later this week in San Francisco, and you’ll be able to order the book online beginning next week.)

Kuyper posits that now, after the fall into sin, “we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise.” Adam, by contrast, “immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.”

It struck me that another “common grace” kind of reminder of this primal state appears in the narrative of Doctor Dolittle. Dolittle, of course, gains insight into the life of animals in a way that is not available to most other people. While he doesn’t have the direct intuition of Adam, his ability to communicate with animals gives him a unique perspective: “After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said.”

Dolittle’s home even evokes our picture of the Garden of Eden:

The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.

He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse twenty-five years of age and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals.

Doolittle has a special calling, it seems, and so he gives up being a “people” doctor and embraces his role as an “animal” doctor. In his relationship with animals Doolittle is a figure of Adam in the garden, and in his role of healing and renewal he evokes the second Adam, Christ.

Word spreads of Dolittle’s abilities, of course, “And so, in a few years’ time, every living thing for miles and miles got to know about John Dolittle, M.D. And the birds who flew to other countries in the winter told the animals in foreign lands of the wonderful doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who could understand their talk and help them in their troubles. In this way he became famous among the animals all over the world better known even than he had been among the folks of the West Country. And he was happy and liked his life very much.”