Category: Economic Freedom

Acton Institute President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico had a busy media day yesterday in the wake of the release of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius case. using the audio player below, you can listen to an interview with Rev. Sirico on The Michael Berry Show on Houston’s 740 AM KTRH radio where the impact of the decision is examined. Additionally, beyond the jump I’ve embedded Rev. Sirico’s appearance on Bloomberg TV’s Street Smart with Trish Regan, where he participated on a panel discussing the decision.

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That most colossal blunder of Marxist experiments, the Soviet Union, collapsed more than twenty years ago, and yet Marxist thinking still penetrates the warp and woof of contemporary culture, so much so that it’s easy even for avowedly anti-Marxist conservatives to think from within the box of Marxism when considering the problem of cultural decay. Breaking out of that box means emphasizing but also stretching beyond such factors as insider cronyism, class envy, and the debilitating effects of the welfare state.

So, for instance, the influential 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau rejected the doctrines of the trinity, the deity of Christ, miracles, and the idea of original sin, writing that at one point as a young man he suddenly felt very strongly “that man is naturally good” and that it was only from the institutions of civilization “that men become wicked.” Rousseau’s view has had enormous cultural consequences, giving credence to the perennial human impulse to do whatever feels natural, never mind how stupid or destructive.

The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple put it this way in an interview he gave for The Truth Project: (more…)

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Economic freedom does generate certain challenges. The wealth that free economies are so effective at creating brings with it temptation. Wealth can tempt us to depend on our riches rather than on God. The temptation can be resisted, as we see with wealthy biblical characters like Abraham and Job. But it’s a challenge the church should be mindful of, helping its members cultivate a balanced view of money and of our responsibility and opportunities as stewards of the things God has given us.

The free society also can be hard on communities, since the free enterprise system makes for such a mobile society. Michael Miller talks about this: the opportunities and demands generated by a complex market economy mean that people often end up moving far away from their childhood homes and the network of relationships that surrounded that home. In seeking to meet this challenge, we need to ask ourselves what strategies would effectively address the problem, and are there well-intended policies that are likely to make the problem worse. In essence, we need to exercise the virtue of prudence.

The sociologist Robert Nisbet has some useful insights here. In his 1953 work The Quest for Community, he developed the case that greater centralized political authority and social safety net spending beyond a certain minimal level actually begin to undermine civil institutions and community, since people depend less and less on their family and community bonds and more and more on state-sponsored humanitarian assistance.
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Some might answer any defense of the free economy by pointing to the housing and financial crisis that came to a head in 2008, holding it up as proof positive the free economy is a wrecking ball swinging through communities and leaving all manner of economic and cultural destruction in its wake. The financial crisis did enormous damage, but the major drivers of the crisis were a series of public policies that manipulated the market in pursuit of certain desired ends.

It all began modestly enough. The federal government built incentives into the tax code in favor of taking out a home mortgage. Many local governments also provide property tax breaks to home owners unavailable to renters. While people who are forced by circumstances to rent might question the fairness of such tax breaks, these measures are seen by most as relatively benign. Eventually, however, other top-down manipulations of the housing market were piled on top of these tax breaks.

The U.S. government offered implicit backing to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so that the companies understood that if they got into financial trouble, Washington would bail them out. This allowed Fannie and Freddie to offer low interest home loans to high risks borrowers, since the companies knew the government would come to their rescue if too many of these borrowers started defaulting on their loans.

The government also passed regulations that actually pushed mortgage companies, including Fannie and Freddie, to provide home loans to people with bad credit—subprime loans.

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Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”

This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land. (more…)

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In his case against capitalism, Wendell Berry argues that the average person not only is anxious because he depends upon so many other people for his wellbeing (truckers, utility companies, etc.) but that he ought to be anxious. There’s a grain of truth here. We shouldn’t become helpless sheep without a clue what to do were the power to go down for a couple of days in January. But inter-dependency, far from a sign of cultural sickness, is the mark of a healthy society, one where enough trust exists to allow for broadening circles of productivity and exchange, for markets that extend beyond clan and tribe. (more…)

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In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the ring leader of a little band of first-century Jewish rebels asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He’s sure the answer is absolutely nothing, but one of the rebels meekly pipes up with “The Aqueduct.” A moment later another rebel squeaks, “And the sanitation.” Then another, “The Roads.”

"What have the Romans ever done for us!"

“What have the Romans ever done for us!”

The ringleader grudgingly grants all of this and then tries to wrench the meeting back on track. “But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads—” Before he can even finish the sentence, others–warming to the brainstorming challenge–begin chiming in: “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?”

The list could work just as well, and in some instances, more easily, for the British Empire. The scene also works as a metaphor for neo-agrarian essayist Wendell Berry and his relationship to capitalism and the U.S. Tobacco Trust that dominated the cigarette industry at the turn of the previous century.

Picture Berry gathering together a little knot of agrarian Distributist rebels on the back stoop of his Kentucky farm and rousing them with the purely rhetorical question, “What have the capitalists and big tobacco ever done for us?!”

The answer, I would suggest, is quite a bit. (more…)

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An economically free society doesn’t have to be hyper-utilitarian, materialistic and banal; and yet, here we are, living in a capitalist age marked by these very features. Some social conservatives who see capitalism as one of the main culprits argue that we should turn away from both socialism and greedy capitalism, toward a more humanitarian and community-based approach, toward a small-is-beautiful aesthetic of farmer’s markets, widespread property ownership, social responsibility and local, collective enterprise, a political and economic strategy that would allow us to move beyond the noisy, vapid, bustling tackiness that has come to characterize so much of modern life.

The poet farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, and journalist and Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher are among the more prominent contemporary defenders of this view. They build on the earlier work of writers such as E.F. Schumacher, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Belloc, in particular, often regarded as the father of Distributism, advocated government policies that would divide productive property more equally and spur the economy toward more buy-local patterns and greater individual contact with the land. His Distributist vision called for an active, top-down approach to the reallocation process. Here’s how Belloc put it in his 1936 work “An Essay on the Restoration of Property”:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.

There are some problems with this vision of cultural renewal. (more…)

Writing for Canada’s National Post, Acton University lecturer Fr. Raymond de Souza calls our attention to the 25th anniversary this year of the defeat of communism and observes that “there are new questions about the unity of liberties.” In the 1980s, he writes, “when in the Gdansk shipyard the workers began to rattle the cage of communism, they demanded economic liberties (free trade unions), personal liberties (speech, the press), political liberties (democracy), legal liberties (against the police state) and religious liberty (the strikers insisted upon public worship in the shipyard itself).”

In continuity with older revolutions and even older political philosophy, he adds, “the liberties demanded were thought to be all of a piece. Liberty was not divisible, it was thought and often said. Today that question is is up for debate.”

For his National Post column, Fr. de Souza interviewed theologian Michael Novak — also lecturing at Acton U. in Grand Rapids, Mich., this week.

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A common reading of Western history holds that the principles of the free economy grew out of the secular Enlightenment and had little to do with Christianity. This is mistaken. The free economy (and we can speak more broadly here of the free society) didn’t spring from the soil of the secular Enlightenment, much less, as some imagine, from a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog philosophy of life.

The free economy sprang from the soil of Christian Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, beginning in the monasteries and city states of Medieval northern Italy and spreading from there across Europe, taking particularly firm root among the Dutch and English.

Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and other secular Enlightenment thinkers propagated the myth of a so-called Dark Ages, an age of regression, religious superstition and irrationality. And some of my Protestant forebears happily seized upon this distorted characterization in the interest of discrediting Catholicism. (more…)