Category: News and Events

Joe Knippenberg raises a couple of important points over at the First Things site in response to my post earlier today about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism. First, he questions the validity of my “distinction between political philosophy and worldview.” Second, he questions “the place of liberty as our highest political good.”

I’ve posted a comment over there that deals with, in part, Lord Acton’s identification of liberty as man’s highest political end. Check out Joe’s post and the ongoing discussion for some provisional considerations aiming at “comprehensive reflection on the human good.”

Following my blog post and Acton News and Commentary piece “Obama vs. the Catholic Bishops,” I’d like to draw your attention to two Wall Street Journal editorial page articles in today’s edition that also criticize the bishops for their political and economic naivete.

WSJ columnist Daniel Henninger writes:

Politically bloodless liberals would respond that, net-net, government forcings do much social good despite breaking a few eggs, such as the Catholic Church’s First Amendment sensibilities. That is one view. But the depth of anger among Catholics over this suggests they recognize more is at stake here than political results. They are right. The question raised by the Catholic Church’s battle with ObamaCare is whether anyone can remain free of a U.S. government determined to do what it wants to do, at whatever cost.
With the transformers, it never stops. In September, the Obama Labor Department proposed rules to govern what work children can do on farms. After an outcry from rural communities over the realities of farm traditions, the department is now reconsidering a “parental exemption.” Good luck to the farmers.

The Catholic Church has stumbled into the central battle of the 2012 presidential campaign: What are the limits to Barack Obama’s transformative presidency? The Catholic left has just learned one answer: When Mr. Obama says, “Everyone plays by the same set of rules,” it means they conform to his rules. What else could it mean?

Anyone who signs up for more of this deal by assuming that it will never force them to fall into line is getting what they deserve.

And here’s University of Chicago professor John Cochrane:

Our nation is divided on social issues. The natural compromise is simple: Birth control, abortion and other contentious practices are permitted. But those who object don’t have to pay for them. The federal takeover of medicine prevents us from reaching these natural compromises and needlessly divides our society.

The critics fell for a trap. By focusing on an exemption for church-related institutions, critics effectively admit that it is right for the rest of us to be subjected to this sort of mandate. They accept the horribly misnamed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and they resign themselves to chipping away at its edges. No, we should throw it out, and fix the terrible distortions in the health-insurance and health-care markets.

Sure, churches should be exempt. We should all be exempt.

Both articles claim that the Catholic bishops were exclusively and overly concerned with getting exemptions for Catholic institutions and did not adequately focus on the larger political and economic problems brought on by Obamacare and the entitlement state in general, i.e. a growing dependence on the state and a convoluted tax code that attempts to direct our individual choices towards “socially optimal” ends, regardless of the inevitable, unintended consequences.

Henninger also points out that the bishops initially opposed Obamacare because of the threat of federal funding of abortion, which ought to make one wonder: Are the bishops capable of applying the principles of Catholic social teaching beyond the obvious “non-negotiable” issues of Catholic teaching (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, etc.) and speaking coherently, intelligently and persuasively on prudential matters that are still of great political importance? Should they? Or should this be the responsibility of the Catholic laity, who may be better formed in politics and economics but lack the authority of episcopal office?

In my opinion, these are open and difficult questions that require us to think more seriously about the role of Catholic leadership in a liberal democratic society.

Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.

At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.

Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.

Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”

When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)

I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.

While reading the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, I came across an article and two opinion pieces that, each in their way, told a story far different than one rendered in Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.

At first listening, Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”  chugs along with some of the best of the Boss’ rock anthems. But the song’s lyrics convey a deeply cynical despair about our nation’s charitable nature. Springsteen says we in the United States simply don’t do enough to tend to the less fortunate. And, in his Albert Schweitzer meets Florence Nightingale way, he invokes our nation’s predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage.

In “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen lyrically conjures God’s sacrifice of Christ for humankind’s redemption. “I’ve been knocking on the door” – a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – “that holds the throne,” presumably the one occupied by God. “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never  mind that Springsteen inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved with those good intentions.

“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.” In this verse, Springsteen conveniently ignores the churches, faith-based relief agencies, private companies and millions of individuals who opened their hearts and wallets to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Listening deeper into the song, the audience may discern biblical allusions – the cavalry representing the location where God sacrificed his only Son, and the bugle no one hears belonging to Gabriel. In other words, for all of our religious talk in the United States, according to Springsteen, we simply don’t put our money where our mouths are.

Springsteen’s manager told Rolling Stone that his new LP has “social overtones” and a “very pronounced spiritual dimension.” The magazine cited another source who confided that the rocker “gets into economic justice quite a bit.”

But is Springsteen’s “economic justice” based on sound “spiritual” footings?

In the issue of the January 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes: “[T]he Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that ‘Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.’ Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.”

If Springsteen missed the Rabbi’s essay, he might’ve read Warren Kozak’s opinion piece in the Journal, which appeared on the same page. Kozak writes that the “U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs.” Kozak quotes 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal that nearly 50 million U.S. citizens are classified as poor. However, the Census Bureau also finds that 96 percent of poor parents assert that “their children were never hungry” and 83 percent “of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82 percent of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.”

One hopes these statistics, in part, answer Springsteen’s closing questions in “We Take Care of Our Own”: “Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see/Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy/Where’s the love that has not forsaken me/Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free/Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me/Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”

If not, perhaps the following facts may reacquaint Springsteen with the spirit of American giving. Left unmentioned in Kozak’s essay are the results of the 2010 Charities Aid Foundation global survey, which, like many other suveys, singles out the United States as one of the most generous nations in private giving and volunteer activity.  Of the 150,000 citizens from 153 countries surveyed by the Gallup organization, 65 percent of Americans donated money; 43 percent of Americans volunteered their time; and 73 percent of Americans helped a stranger.

Maybe Springsteen doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, or avoids newspaper opinion pieces altogether. Had he read a straight news story in the same issue of the Journal, however, he may have learned something new in an article titled “Charities Ended 2011 on High Note.” Journalist Melanie Grayce West reports that The Salvation Army raised $147.6 million in its Red Kettle campaign – up nearly 4 percent from 2010 and 6 percent from 2009.

Alas, this amount is still $100 million less than Springsteen’s estimated net worth. While the rocker is recognized often for his generous charitable giving – I did that too  in an Acton Institute article in 2004 – it’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our “fair share” by an extremely wealthy American celebrity.

Springsteen is entitled to his opinions and all that, and, further, he is guaranteed the freedom to publish whatever agitprop he wishes — especially if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But “We Take Care of Our Own” just doesn’t pass muster with the information readily available on any given day in any reputable news source.

At some point in the past few decades, Springsteen began patterning his songwriting on the supposed social consciousness of folksingers Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Ochs once recorded an album titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Springsteen would perform a tremendous favor to the better-informed members of his enormous fan base – this writer included – by actually reading a newspaper.

Bruce Edward Walker writes on the arts from Midland, Michigan.

Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism

“If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments,” writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new article in the American Spectator, “it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.”

Gregg writes that “modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.” In fact, that neutrality looks more and more like coercion. Gregg:

And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”

In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.

Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism” on the website of the American Spectator.

In the journal Foreign Affairs, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg offers an analysis of the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on economic policy, most notably the document issued in October titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” (also called “The Note”). The Church, Gregg said, “wanted to attract the attention of world leaders as they assembled to discuss ongoing turmoil in financial markets at the G-20 Summit in Cannes and to add its voice to those arguing for capital controls (such as the “Tobin tax”) to discourage international financial speculation.” But, he argues, advocating a world economic authority could work against the interests of developing nations, including those heavily Catholic:

… a world authority could pit the economic interests of Catholics in developed countries against those in developing nations, creating challenges for how the Church presents its teachings about economic issues to Catholics throughout the world. Many countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia are in a fundamentally different economic and geopolitical place from those of the ailing EU. The Church must thus deepen its appreciation of how the global operation of economic factors such as comparative advantage, incentives, and tradeoffs has different impacts upon Catholics living in very dissimilar economic circumstances. But this also has implications for the Church’s position concerning the economic functions to be assumed by a world authority. Such responsibilities, for example, could primarily concern promoting greater economic integration through removing obstacles to trade. This, however, would be incompatible with the Note’s theme that a world authority’s economic functions should be focused upon securing greater control over the pace of change through international regulations that, if implemented, would significantly impede the free movement of people, goods, and capital.

Read “The Vatican’s Calls for Global Financial Reform” by Samuel Gregg on the website of Foreign Affairs.