Category: Acton Commentary

The Economist marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by observing that there was “so much gained, so much to lose.” As the world celebrates the collapse of communism, who would have imagined that in less than one generation we would witness a resurgence of socialism throughout Latin America and even hear the word socialist being used to describe policies of the United States?

We relegated socialism to the “dustbin of history,” but socialism never actually died and in many ways it has actually gained influence. This may sound reactionary, even McCarthyist—but only until we understand socialism the way socialists understand it.

Yes, socialist economic ideas went out of fashion, but socialism has always been more than just economics. We tend to equate socialism with communism, Marxist revolutionaries, and state ownership of industry. But socialism is a much broader vision of the person, society, equality, and what it means to be free.

Karl Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, saw three major obstacles to the socialist vision: private property, religion, and “this present form of marriage.” Also central to socialist thought is a secular and materialist vision of the world that espouses relativism, sees everything politically, and locates genuine community in the state and not in families, churches or voluntary organizations.

The fall of communism and two decades of globalization did not extinguish socialist hopes. The tactics changed, but the goals remained. Proponents of socialism traded in revolution for the gradualism of the Fabian socialists who encouraged use of democratic institutions to achieve socialist goals. They replaced political radicals like Lenin and Castro with the cultural Marxism of Theodor Adorno or Antonio Gramsci, who called for a “long march through the institutions” of Western culture.

This is the pedigree of Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers, and the various sixties revolutionaries who now inhabit positions of cultural influence throughout the West. We are seeing the fruit of their efforts: socialist visions of family, religion, art, community, commerce, and politics pervade the culture.

I am not suggesting that Americans or Europeans live in socialist states. That would trivialize the suffering of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Rather, I am suggesting that socialist ideas have transformed the way many of us think about a host of important things. Ideas considered radical only 75 years ago are now considered quite normal and even respectable.

Look, for instance, at co-habitation rates and the number of people who do not believe in marriage or view it as a “bourgeois” institution. Directly or indirectly, they got these ideas from people like Engels and Adorno, who argued that “the institution of marriage is raised… [on] barbaric sexual oppression, which tendentially compels the man to take lifelong responsibility for someone with whom he once took pleasure in sleeping with….” The same-sex marriage movement and hostility to the traditional family follow Engels goal to destroy “this present form of marriage.”

In other realms, we see increasing secularization, religion being equated with intolerance and decreasing religious practice. Look at the common acceptance of ethical and cultural relativism and the fear of making truth claims lest one be labeled an extremist. Look at the unquestioned supremacy of materialist and Darwinist thought that dominates the scientific community, or the political correctness that pervades language. Look at our public school system, increasingly focused on indoctrination rather than education. We joke that the universities are the last bastion of Marxism. But who do we think writes the textbooks that teach primary and high school students? The “long march through the institutions” has been more successful than its early advocates could have dreamed.

Of course it would be simplistic to blame socialism for all that ails the West. But socialism has been the principal vehicle of many of these ideas, carrying them into the mainstream.

So how is it that, after such dramatic failures, socialism continues to allure? Perhaps because, as future pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote, the Marxist dream of radical liberation still captures the modern imagination.

It’s a dream that will always betray, because sustained liberty requires a certain moral culture: one that respects truth and conforms to it; one that recognizes the inherent dignity and spiritual nature of the person; one that respects the role of the family and encourages a rich and varied civil society; one that acknowledges that culture and religion are more important than politics; one that respects rule of law over the arbitrary rule of men and rejects utopian delusions; one that recognizes that the difference between right and wrong is not determined by majority, consensus or fashion; and, finally, one that recognizes that the ultimate source of liberty is God and not the state.

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was one of the great victories for human freedom. But while the East suffered untold misery, perhaps it was too easy a victory for us in the West. We were lulled into thinking that socialism had been discredited, had lost its allure—that capitalist economies and abundant goods were sufficient to satisfy human desires. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to those like John Paul II or Alexander Solzhenitsyn who warned us about an empty materialism, an insidious relativism, and a vitiated culture.

The challenges of socialist thought are real. But there is hope. There is hope in the resurgent resistance to the unprecedented growth of government. There is hope in the millions of families who work hard and in the thousands who make sacrifices for freedom every day. This week we celebrate the victory of freedom and the collapse of applied socialism. Let us not come to a point where we look back with regret that we forfeited such a precious gift.

Blog author: sgrabill
Thursday, November 5, 2009
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This week’s Acton Commentary:

Does the market inspire people to greater practical virtue, or does it eviscerate what little virtue any of us have?

Far from draining moral goodness out of us—as many think—the free market serves as a “school of the practical virtues.” Rather than elevating greed and self-sufficiency, the market fosters interdependence and cooperation. Its rewards do not go to those who are the most isolated, self-absorbed, or cut off from society, but to those who sustain mutually prosperous relationships with others.

Adam Smith made a striking observation more than two hundred years ago in his treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a commercial society, he wrote, “every man becomes in some sense a merchant.” If Smith is right, what does that imply for the development of character in society? Is the market economy more likely to produce a Bernie Madoff or a Dave Ramsey? Does the market tend to erode character traits such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and the responsible stewardship of resources? (more…)

My latest Acton commentary:

Do at-risk black males need to be emancipated en masse from America’s public school complex? A new study released about high school dropout and incarceration rates among blacks raises the question. Nearly 23 percent of all American black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School.”

High school dropouts cost the nation severely. Not only are American taxpayers getting no return on the $8,701 we spend on average per student, each dropout costs us $292,000 over their lifetime in lost earnings, lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social programs like incarceration, health care, and welfare.

Given the many social pathologies plaguing black males in low-income and fatherless households, the best place for at-risk black males is not the dominant failed public school paradigm. Since public schools are forbidden to teach virtue and often reduce children to receptacles of information, expanding private and faith-based options to black parents is the only compelling solution.

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), England’s chief education inspection agency, recently released a report lauding the attributes of faith schools. The report, “Independent Faith Schools,” examined the quality of formation provided by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious schools. The inspectors found “pupils demonstrating an excellent understanding of spiritual and moral attributes.” In all the schools visited, “pupils gained a strong sense of identity and of belonging to their faith, their school and to Britain.” In other words, faith-based schools, by simply teaching about religion, are forming their students to be virtuous citizens.

Has America given up on making virtuous citizens out of black males? In England’s faith schools, “good citizenship was considered by all the schools visited to be the duty of a good believer because this honoured the faith,” the report says. In contrast, American public schools have become prisoner factories for at-risk black males. Because producing educated, virtuous citizens is unrelated to funding, the problem cannot be addressed by the simplistic expedient of increasing government allocations to education. The deeper problem is that the American education system seems no longer to value what faith schools in England are recognized for: producing students with good “spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding.” (more…)

In my commentary this week, “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” I offer the well known point that debt and spending threatens our liberty and prosperity. It is becoming very evident that it will be up to citizens to demand accountability from their lawmakers, as I mentioned. What has been tried before has not worked.

In terms of liberty, Thomas Jefferson declared, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What the Founders articulated was that democracy and liberty is not the natural order of things, and that consolidated power moves toward tyranny. The U.S. power structure has borrowed from the income of future generations in an irresponsible and immoral manner, and citizens are culpable as well. What does that mean? I thought U.S. Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently articulated the consequences of the crisis very passionately on CNN with journalist John King.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Healthcare reform – it’s one of those causes almost everyone favors, but which almost automatically produces sharp arguments when we ask what it means and how it might be realized. You would have had to be living in a cave for the past eight months to be unaware that Americans are deeply divided on this matter, and that the division runs clean through the middle of many communities. That includes Catholic America.

Of course, there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics, whatever their politics, when it comes to healthcare reform. These principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life, or which diminish existing conscience exemptions.

Without question, these are the primary issues for Catholics who take their Church’s teaching seriously when it comes to healthcare legislation. They dwarf everything else.

No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in, for example, widening access to affordable healthcare, it is a stable principle of Catholic faith – and natural law – that you cannot do evil in order that good may come from it. St Paul insisted upon this almost 2000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and centuries of magisterial teaching. Try as they may, no amount of rationalization by the usual suspects can get around this point.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the healthcare debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. We’ve yet to see what impact this might have on whatever eventually arrives on the floor of Congress.

But let’s hypothesize. Imagine the healthcare legislation submitted to Congress involved a massive expansion of government involvement in healthcare. Let’s also suppose that the same legislation was stripped of any provisions that violated non-negotiables for Catholics. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation? (more…)

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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The Detroit News published my commentary on Catholics and health care reform in today’s newspaper. A slightly longer version of the article will appear in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary:

Catholic America is about as divided about health care reform as the rest of the country. But there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics that principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life or diminish existing conscience exemptions.

These issues dwarf everything else for Catholics who take their church’s teaching seriously when applied to the health care legislation. No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in widening access to affordable health care, it is a principle of Catholic faith and natural law that you cannot do evil so good may come from it. St. Paul insisted upon this almost 2,000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, tradition and centuries of magisterial teaching.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the health care debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. But imagine the health care legislation involved a massive expansion of government involvement that didn’t promote abortion or other non-negotiables. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation?

The answer is no. Catholic moral teaching has held that the realization of good ends (such as making health care more affordable and accessible) mostly falls into the realm of prudential judgment. The church has always recognized that faithful Catholics can disagree about such matters.

Read the entire article here.

My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome. (more…)

This week’s Acton commentary looks at the trend by many in the charitable sector to become increasingly reliant on government support. Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter in the form here (right hand sidebar).
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The independence of American charities has steadily eroded in recent years as more philanthropic institutions have come to see their mission as one of partnership or collaboration with the government. That’s a nice way of saying, “seeking government dough.” Now, in the throes of a severe economic crisis and budget cutbacks at state and local levels, many charities are in a panic about reduced levels of funding. Anyone with eyes to see could have seen this coming.

A recent report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy spoke of a California budget crisis where “charities there are braced for steep cuts to social services and health care.” In Chicago, one manager of a children’s home said, “We’ve never seen the likes of this.”

The growing dependence of many charities on government support has been accelerated by the federal government’s funding, over several recent administrations, of charitable organizations for managing various social service programs. This funding, its supporters argue, gives private initiative the resources it needs to accomplish good works — with a little extra help from the government. But at what cost? (more…)

We welcome a new contributor to the Acton Commentary crew: Dr. Dwight R. Lee, the William J. O’Neil Endowed Chair in Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University. In this week’s commentary, Lee discusses how the social objectives of clergy and economists are remarkably similar, even though their “windows on the world” suggest different approaches to achieving the shared aim of building a better, more humane society. This week’s commentary is adapted from an article to be published in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2; Fall 2009). Excerpt:

My hope is that members of the clergy, in their desire to achieve a better world, will begin to see economists as allies instead of adversaries. This hope may be dismissed as preposterous by some since, as an economist, I argue that market incentives are the most effective way of achieving many of the social outcomes most of the clergy favor. But those most opposed to market incentives for achieving desirable objectives have the most to gain by taking a look through the economic window. Much of the skepticism, indeed hostility, towards markets is based on distorted and mistaken views of how markets operate and what they accomplish.

Religious differences notwithstanding, most people respect the clergy for their noble objectives and effort to achieve those objectives by encouraging and celebrating “the better angels of our nature” mentioned in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Most approve of the clergy’s concern with encouraging behavior such as sharing with, and serving the interests of, others; helping the poor; sacrificing for the good of the wider community; acting as good stewards of the earth’s resources; being concerned with protecting the environment; and generally living a life that promotes social cooperation and harmony.

Read more >>>

In this week’s commentary I argue that the shape of the debate over the public health care option over the next four years should focus on the critical role played by mediating institutions of civil society: charities, churches, and voluntary organizations.

While President Obama’s health care speech last week was in part intended to dispel myths about the proposed health care reforms, it perpetuated some myths of its own. Not least of these is the idea that “non-profit” must mean “governmentally-administered,” or that we do not already have non-profit competitors for profit-driven corporations in the health insurance industry.

The president ended his speech by appealing to the compassion of the American public, and I support this wholeheartedly. But compassion is apparent most obviously in those deeds we undertake voluntarily and selflessly. It’s apparent in efforts like healthcare sharing ministries (HCSMs), which would face elimination under proposals for a federal health insurance mandate.

To be sure, there is deceit, half-truth telling, and rumormongering running rampant in this health care debate. But this goes not only for the opponents of the president’s plans but also for his supporters, an accusation popularized by Joe Wilson’s shameless outburst at the president.

From the transcript: AUDIENCE MEMBER: You lie! (Boos.).

For exhibit A, see this Facebook video of Robert Reich, who says that the public option’s “scale and authority” and “bargaining leverage” do not amount to a governmental subsidy: “The public plan would not be subsidized by the government or have the government set the rules for anyone.” Of course, as I note in the commentary, relying on governmental bureaucracy and authority is most certainly a form of subsidy.

And why wouldn’t groups other than the government have this “scale and authority” or “bargaining leverage” to negotiate lower prices? Because their power doesn’t ultimately lie in the threat of coercion and they can’t arbitrarily raise taxes to increase revenue. This is of course the same reason that so many corporations and businesses go rent seeking; the government’s coercive regulatory power is the ultimate trump card. A gun is a great bargaining tool.

For a more thorough fisking of exhibit B, check back with the PowerBlog later.