On Sept. 8, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg appeared live on the EWTN network to discuss “St. Thomas More: Saint, Scholar, Statesman, Martyr.” The show was hosted by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
On his website, David Bahnsen reviews The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur C. Brooks:
The strongest points of the book, and the reason Brooks has done such critically important work here (World magazine has already recognized the book as its Book of 2010, by the way) are found in these two areas:
(1) The moral nature of the battle that exists
(2) The fundamental materialism that underpins the left’s approach towards creating income equality.
I heard Dr. Brooks speak about the latter at the annual Acton Institute dinner in 2009 and wrote about it here. Brooks concept of “earned success” is indisputably true and of fundamental importance in how we approach the problems in today’s world. Understanding the idea that true happiness comes from “earned success”, and not simply receiving a bigger slice of society’s overall wealth pie via government-coerced redistribution, is not mere economics. This latter point makes his former point all the more compelling. For what could be more immoral than advocating a policy worldview that dooms millions of people to unhappiness by robbing them of their human dignity? The arguments against the coercive and progressive and inefficient portions of our tax code are important (and all valid), but they miss the most important point of all: They fail to do what they set out to do, and make life worse for those they set out to help.
Read “The Battle for our Hearts and Souls” by David Bahnsen.
We are extremely grateful then to the brilliant researcher and scholar, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, for a concise, penetrating, and thorough analysis of Röpke’s contribution to intellectual life. It breaks new ground, is highly readable, and adds considerably to the economic literature. It should become mandatory reading for every student of political economy.
As the intellectual author of Germany’s post-World War II economic resurrection, Röpke is an under-appreciated thinker who informed policymaking. Gregg rightly calls him a Smithian, as he was against the unlimited power of the state. Put positively, he was much more. Röpke was an “economic humanist” of the first order. He historically showed how the Great Depression came to limit economics as a science and how collectivism is incompatible with authentic human freedom.
The purpose of Gregg’s masterful book is to provide a descriptive and critical introduction to Röpke’s understanding of political economy. This is unquestioningly an exercise in historical recovery. The focus is on four subjects that concerned Röpke up until his early death in 1966. They are: the challenge of business cycles, the unending growth of the welfare state, full employment and inflation, and international economic relations.
Read Malloch’s “The Great Wilhelm Röpke” on the American Spectator website.
We’ll be posting excerpts from Sam’s new book in the days ahead.
On Aug. 28, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Acton president and co-founder, was interviewed by Freedom Watch host Judge Andrew Napolitano in a wide ranging discussion of natural rights, the moral law and politics. They were joined by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”
Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”
It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.
What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”
But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.
Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.
Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”
But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.
In his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”
As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”
You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).
And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:
You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”
One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”
In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.
There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)
He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,
While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.
Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.
Acton Institute Honors Richard M. DeVos with Faith and Freedom Award
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Sept. 2, 2010) – Richard M. DeVos will receive Acton Institute’s Faith and Freedom Award in October for his remarkable accomplishments in business, American cultural life and philanthropy.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, cited DeVos for his “decades-long exemplary leadership in business, his dedication to the promotion of liberty, his courage in maintaining and defending the free and virtuous society, and his conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
DeVos will receive the award on October 21 at Acton’s 20th Anniversary dinner in Grand Rapids. For more on the event, please visit: www.acton.org/dinner
Few American stories better encapsulate the value of hard work and free enterprise than that of Richard M. “Rich” DeVos. In the late 1940s, DeVos and friend Jay Van Andel became independent distributors for Nutrilite. The California manufacturer of vitamins used a person-to-person direct-selling approach that DeVos and Van Andel adopted when starting Amway from their Ada, Mich., homes in 1959. Together, they refined the direct-selling method of offering individuals the opportunity to build businesses of their own that became the model for scores of direct-selling companies and marked the start of a major worldwide direct-selling industry. Amway, a subsidiary of Alticor, now operates in more than 80 countries and territories around the world and enables more than 3 million people to own independent businesses.
DeVos and his wife, Helen, generously support hospitals, colleges and universities, arts organizations and Christian causes in their hometown of Grand Rapids, and they support numerous organizations in Central Florida. Among the many institutions they have helped create are DeVos Children’s Hospital, the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, the DeVos Communications Center at Calvin College, the DeVos Campus of Grand Valley State University, and the DeVos Place convention center. Florida contributions include the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, and the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation. DeVos owns the Orland Magic NBA franchise.
DeVos is also an accomplished author. In his books, DeVos presents his most poignant stories and important principles. Compassionate Capitalism (1994) outlines 16 principles for integrating compassion with free enterprise. A later work inspired by DeVos’ heart transplant, Hope from My Heart (1997), imparts ten lessons for life on subjects including persistence, confidence, optimism, respect, and faith. President Gerald R. Ford hailed the book as “exciting, inspiring, and down-to-earth with God-given advice for everyone.” Ten Powerful Phrases for Positive People (2008) continues DeVos’ mission of sharing wisdom from his remarkable life experience and his philosophy.
DeVos is a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He served in the United States Air Force from 1944 to 1946. Rich and Helen DeVos, who have been married more than 60 years, have four children and 16 grandchildren.
The Faith and Freedom Award was established as part of the Acton Institute’s tenth anniversary celebration in 2000. The award recognizes an individual who exemplifies commitment to faith and freedom through outstanding leadership in civic, business, or religious life. For this award, the Institute commissioned a sculpture of Lord Acton, the Institute’s namesake, who held firmly to the two pillars of faith and freedom.
Past recipients include, with date of award: John Marks Templeton (2000); Cardinal Van Thuan (2002); Rocco Buttiglione (2004); Charles W. Colson (2006); Mart Laar (2007); and William F. Buckley (2008).
Link to news release on Acton Press page here.
Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed this piece to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up here for the free, weekly email newsletter.
Humility in a Time of Recession
By Samuel Gregg
Since 2008, there has been much discussion about the contribution of unethical behavior to our present economic circumstances. Whether it was borrowers’ lying on mortgage-applications or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s politically-driven lending policies, there seems to be some consciousness that non-economic factors played a role in facilitating what we already call the Great Recession.
Unfortunately evidence is emerging that some people have learned nothing. A recent report, for example, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal illustrates that “losses from mortgage fraud—ranging from falsified credit reports to identity theft—rose 17% last year after declining 57% in the two years after its 2006 peak.”
Of course wider adherence to ethical norms against lying and stealing won’t solve every economic problem. There are heavy technical dimensions to many economic dilemmas which require technical solutions. Nor does every policy-error constitute a moral failure.
Nevertheless those making economic decisions are human beings, and our virtues and vices do shape our purchasing, selling and policy choices. Many such virtues could be highlighted, but one needing extra-attention today is humility.
The word “humility” derives from the Latin humilitas. This in turn comes from humus which means earth or soil, but is also related to homō, meaning man. For the Greeks and Romans, the word underscored the idea that humans are not God or gods. Likewise for the Jews and early Christians, humility was about remembering that humans are fallible creatures who come from and return to the earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some first millennium Christian writers, such as St. John Chrysostom, even described humility as the mother of the virtues, as it prevented vanity from corrupting every other virtue.
So how might a renewed embrace of humility help us to rethink our approach to contemporary economic life?
In the case of consumers, a good dose of humility might well encourage some acceptance that the meaning of life is not simple and is certainly not to be found in how many material things we possess, as important as wealth can be in helping us to live dignified lives. To this extent, greater humility might temper the “I-want-it-all-right-now” mentality that helped generate such high household-debt levels in America and Europe.
Likewise, businesses could benefit from a renewed appreciation of humility. The financial wizard the late Sir John Templeton once wrote that humility was crucial if business was to maintain the open-mindedness that is essential to successful entrepreneurship rather than rest upon their past glories. To this we might add the insight of another prominent entrepreneur, François Michelin, that humility helps business leaders in a market economy remember that the customers are the real masters. More humble business-leaders would also be less-inclined to succumb to the “Masters-of-the-Universe” hubris that helped destroy any number of banks in 2008.
Speaking of hubris, humility also has a role to play in encouraging mainstream economists to accept economics’ limits as a science and acknowledge that not everything about markets can be explained by mathematical models that were supposed to fail only once in a million years. As George Mason University professor of economics Russ Roberts has wisely observed, while “facts and evidence still matter”, economists “should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday.”
But perhaps those who could do with the biggest bout of humility during recessions are politicians and governments. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that governments should admit many economic problems are beyond their control, and that any claim by politicians to be able to “manage” trillion-dollar economies is arrogant nonsense.
Instead politicians should be modest enough to concede that (1) the seemingly disorderly process of market exchange resolves many challenges that governments cannot; and (2) government overreach invariably causes new problems. Here they would do well to read Adam Smith’s famous warning concerning the “man of system” who “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is so often enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”
The fear of the Lord, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom. Contrary to received opinion, this verse has nothing to do with frightening people into religious belief. Instead it reminds each of us that we are not the center of the universe and that the sooner we grasp this, the wiser our choices will be. All of us—consumers, business-leaders, and politicians—need to be sufficiently humble to reassess our actions in a time of recession, acknowledge our errors, and then live out the necessary correctives.
To this extent, the virtue of humility may well be a key to understanding our pre-recessionary past and a way of illuminating our path to a better and more economically-prosperous future.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.