Category: Individual Liberty

Cocoa-farmersThere’s a famous essay by Leonard Read titled “I, Pencil” in which an eloquent pencil (yes, pencil) writes in the first person about the complexity and collaboration involved in its own production.

“Here is an astounding fact,” the pencil proclaims. “Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me…Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me.”

Trade makes unlikely friends — friends who, by creating, contributing, and trading, participate in powerful acts of service and gift-gifting, whether they know it or not. “Millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation,” the pencil writes, “no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

Written in 1958, Read’s essay has proven to be a helpful illustration of this reality. And now, in a new pair of videos from VPRO Metropolis, we find yet another.

In the first video, we witness cocoa growers and harvesters in the Ivory Coast, who, up until now, had never before seen, tasted, nor heard of chocolate, a primary output of their toil. They simply harvested the cocoa fruit and sold the beans to brokers. The rest was mystery. (more…)

Today at The Imaginative Conservative, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, in an excerpt from his recent book, bemoans what he sees as “The Spoiling of America.” While sympathetic to his support for self-discipline, I find his analysis of our consumer culture to be myopic. He writes,

Without even thinking about it we have gotten used to having it our way. Because excellent customer service is ubiquitous we believe it must be part of the natural order. The service in the restaurant is always friendly, efficient and courteous to a fault. The menus are perfectly written and professionally designed not only to inform, but to whet the appetite in a pleasing way. The re-fills on your drink are free, the food is tasty and reasonably priced, the decor is interesting and the ambiance carefully constructed. Is there a complaint? The footman-server will take the blame, the butler-manager will offer you a free dessert and quietly slip you a gift card to soften the price of your next visit as the porter opens the door.

The same delightful experience awaits you at the big box hardware store, the supermarket, the appliances store and every other major chain. Indeed, even the doctors, nurses and dentists have been trained in customer care. Communications with the customer are superb. You will receive thank you emails and polite enquiries about your experience. If you fill in a questionnaire you might win a free vacation or a hamper of other goodies. Pampering you further is not a nuisance. It becomes an exciting little game in which you might win a prize, for remember the customer is king and Everyman in America must be coddled and cuddled in one big Fantasyland where everything is wonderful all the time and everybody is always happy.

Longenecker reasons that we become addicted to fleeting pleasures and that this consumerist mentality has even corrupted religion. He continues, (more…)

FreeSpeechThe First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”) is for all Americans. I know that seems obvious, but the folks at Salon seem to need a reminder.

Jenny Kutner has taken offense to a group of Catholic women expressing their opinion. The topic is birth control. (Let me just say that good Christians disagree on this topic. I’m not discussing the legitimate use of artificial birth control here, but rather the right to express one’s opinion on the topic.) In response to the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hobby Lobby, Buzzfeed featured a group of women holding signs that expressed why they chose to use birth control. About a week later, Buzzfeed featured another group of women who held up signs explaining why they chose not to use artificial birth control. And that’s when Kutner lost it. (more…)

As leaders of HOPE International, an organization that empowers men and women across the globe through business training, savings services, and small loans, Peter Greer and Chris Horst have witnessed the transformative impact entrepreneurship can have on individuals and communities, particularly when paired with the power of the Gospel.

In Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing, a new book for AEI’s Values and Capitalism project, they explore this reality at length, offering compelling stories of businesspeople that illustrate the profound importance of free enterprise and entrepreneurship in equipping the poor and empowering the marginalized.

Watch the trailer for the book here:

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Rousseau Geneve

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Earlier this Spring at The Gospel Coalition I reviewed Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.

Naím explores in a variety of fields and with a great diversity of examples the way in which, as he puts it, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power” and “power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.” I think there’s a real sense in which Naím has identified a real phenomenon. Power is becoming more and more diffused.

But as I argue in my TGC review, that’s really only half the story. Naím often has to provide a caveat that in spite of much of the centralization that we see, power really is eroding full stop. My contention, however, is that what we’re really seeing is the eroding of power in civil society, an evacuation of the power and place of mediating institutions, in two directions: toward centralized structures and authorities and toward individuals. The inability to see this leads to conclusions that would only hasten and exacerbate the evacuation of power from such mediating structures.

Some of this echoes what Ross Douthat has been saying recently about individualism, following Nisbet in particular: “In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias.” I take my own proximate inspiration from Röpke and his identification of “enmassment,” but there are certainly resonances with Nisbet as well as older thinkers like Tocqueville.

I should note in response to Douthat’s observation that “from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together,” this dialectic certainly cannot be explained solely in terms of the Reformation, as perhaps Brad Gregory would argue. The role of the Renaissance more generally, and particularly the renewed engagement with the varieties of ancient and pagan philosophy has as much, if not more, to do with the Enlightenment project of the liberated individual constrained by the collective than the Protestant Reformation.

rightstalkAre you sick to death of hearing about the recent Hobby Lobby contraceptive mandate kerfuffle? Me too. Yes, it’s one of the most important religious liberty cases in decades. But the constant debates about the case on blogs, newspapers, TV, radio, and social media, has left even those of us concerned about freedom beaten and exhausted. Besides, what is left to discuss? Is there really anything new that can be said?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be “yes, there is.”

Earlier this week Megan McArdle wrote one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on the issue (and I’ve read enough about it to make my eyes bleed). McArdle outlines three points that frame the debate and lead us into bitter disagreements:
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decPerhaps the most enduring legacy of the Declaration of Independence is that it sought to overturn the long abuses and powers of tyrants. It revealed the truth of self-government and that power is inherent in the people. In the second introduction of the document, Jefferson declared:

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson, always the philosopher, reminds the reader that governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of man, to preserve their freedom above all else. Government is not intended to serve the bureaucracy, rulers, or an elite class.
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USA-Thomas_Jefferson_MemorialThomas Jefferson believed that the practice of one’s faith should not be impinged upon by one’s government. He wrote of this in a letter or address to the Danbury Baptist Association:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

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Radio Free ActonIt’s time again for another edition of Radio Free Acton, and we think this one is well worth the listen. Today, Paul Edwards talks with scholar, author, economist, occasional guest host of the nation’s largest talk radio show and all-around great guy Dr. Walter E. Williams about Frederic Bastiat’s classic The Law and the insights into modern America by reading that classic defense of limited government, authentic justice and human freedom. Williams wrote the introduction for the latest edition of Bastiat’s work, which is available for purchase in the Acton Bookshop at the link above, and said of the book that it “created order in my thinking about liberty and just human conduct.”

The lively conversation between Edwards and Williams is available via the audio player below.

vintage 4th of julyWe Americans will celebrate 238 years of freedom this Friday. In 1776, the 13 colonies unanimously declared:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Freedom was declared; the men and women of the colonies no longer wished to live under a monarchy, but rather sought a free republic, where they could decide their own fates.

Today, it seems as if many Americans respond to this ideal with, “Meh….” (more…)