Category: News and Events

A recent New York Times story reports that the new British government plans to “decentralize” the National Health Care system as part of its new austerity measures.

Practical details of the plan are still sketchy. But its aim is clear: to shift control of England’s $160 billion annual health budget from a centralized bureaucracy to doctors at the local level. Under the plan, $100 billion to $125 billion a year would be meted out to general practitioners, who would use the money to buy services from hospitals and other health care providers.

The plan would also shrink the bureaucratic apparatus, in keeping with the government’s goal to effect $30 billion in “efficiency savings” in the health budget by 2014 and to reduce administrative costs by 45 percent. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost because layers of bureaucracy would be abolished.

[N.B. Note that the plan applies only to England; the other constituent countries of the UK will have to make their own policies]

Though I’m not by any means an expert on British politics, the move strikes me as bold for two reasons: (1) The Conservatives have reversed their original position on not touching the National Health Service, instead opting for a plan that seeks to make unprecedented changes to the system; and (2) according to the NYT”s reporting, the plan is predictably facing intense opposition from government employees that stand to lose their jobs, as $30 billion are saved and 45% of administrative costs are phased out by 2014. In fact, some union members are trying to derail the plan by portraying it as a stepping stone towards privatization.

But what is most pleasant about this whole affair is the precise appeal made to an idea very similar to the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity:

“One of the great attractions of this is that it will be able to focus on what local people need,” said Prof. Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, which represents about 40,000 of the 50,000 general practitioners in the country. “This is about clinicians taking responsibility for making these decisions.”

Dr. Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the general practitioner committee at the British Medical Association, said general practitioners had long felt there were “far too many bureaucratic hurdles to leap” in the system, impeding communication. “In many places, the communication between G.P.’s and consultants in hospitals has become fragmented and distant,” he said.

Here we once again have the understanding that society should deal with problems on the lowest possible level.

But the winning side in this plan is not just that of the proponents of subsidiarity. Economic theory also suggests that policies guided by sentiments similar to subsidiarity tend to increase prosperity: the $30 billion that the government plans to cut from the budget will now exist in the private sector, where it can be put to more productive uses, in accordance with consumer demand. The civil employees released from their positions in the government do not have to mire in unemployment; instead the money from their state salaries will be used by the private sector to create positions which they can fill.

On the other side of the ocean, the United States moves in the other direction: away from subsidiarity, and towards a “one-size-fits-all” solution to fixing our health care system. The office of Congressman Kevin Brady recently released a diagram prepared by the minority of the Joint Economic Committee. It’s a fully detailed diagram of what the new health care system in the United States will look like once all provisions of the legislation are in effect. Take a look:

Chart Outlining ObamaCare

America's New Health Care System

The current health care system already raises enough questions about whether the principle of subsidiarity is respected. But this newest remake makes the question all the more serious.

In fact, over 37 states have begun to take some form of legal action against the health care legislation on the constitutional grounds that regulations such as the individual mandate overstep the federal government’s legal bounds. As I’ve argued before, the federalism of the Constitution is a rather good embodiment of the principle of subsidiarity, since it recognizes that many issues (even urgent and pressing ones like health care) should be dealt with at the state level.

And some partial victories for advocates of subsidiarity are already making the news: Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved of a ballot initiative opposing the individual mandate (by a landslide ratio of 3 to 1), and a federal judge refused to dismiss a suit by Virginia that challenges the constitutionality of the health care law.

In addition to a national campaign to repeal the legislation at a Congressional level, supporters of subsidiarity would do well to also pay attention to the battles at the state level. I suspect this is where we will see the greatest impact.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a nice piece about the problem of graffiti in Rome and the obstacles to cleaning it all up.

While the graffiti are certainly an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful city, there is also great economic damage done, which leads to impoverished understandings of private property and general urban decay.

If cleaning up the graffiti on a four-story palazzo can cost as much as €40,000, there are surely people there to profit from the clean-up. And in Rome, there must be whole bureaucracies created to study, discuss and discuss and discuss the problem some more. Perhaps there are too many people making money off this graffiti affair to put an end to it. So maybe we should just get used to the graffiti and consider it all a net-plus to the city economically?

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal

Not at all. This should remind us of the French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s theory of “what is seen and what is not seen”, also known as his theory of the broken window. (Incidentially, Bastiat is buried in the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi and his simple tomb makes a great pilgrimage stop for those who appreciate market economics.)

When crimes against private property are not recognized for what they are and state officials choose to shrug them off, people will grow accustomed to such crimes and even seek economic justifications for them. This in turn leads to more crime and even less respect for private property. Not only is this bad economics, it is immoral and immensely demoralizing to those who care about their common life, i.e. politics in the widest and most important sense of the word. It also explains why Romans seem to care so little about their city, its public as well as its private spaces, and why it seems to take American volunteers to clean up the place. Che vergogna!

I just couldn’t pass this one up.

Below is an ENI story on the installation of 800 “colourful miniature figures of the 16th-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther” in the market square of Wittenberg.

Just as last year there was a good deal of academic and commercial interest around the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, you can expect a great deal of activity leading up to the 500th anniversary of the traditional date of the dawn of the Reformation in 1517.

There are some more details on Ottmar Hörl’s installation here and at his personal website.

Martin Luther: Hier stehe ich

Ottmar Hörl, Martin Luther: Hier stehe ich, 2010 (Foto: Christoph Busse/Sven Hoffmann)

Here’s a video of the removal of the original nineteenth-century Luther statue upon which Hörl’s installation is based, in preparation for its restoration.

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One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.

The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and ActonHistorian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).

Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as  conducive to our flourishing.

As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:

What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).

All three were distinguished for

  1. consistent antistatism,
  2. appreciation for modernity and commerce,
  3. love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
  4. a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
  5. a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.

[….] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition […] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.

As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.

Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:

“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton

I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….

Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.

Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.

Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.

Last Saturday’s New York Times contains an entertaining, edifying but ultimately sad tale on what ails the Italian economy.

Entitled “Is Italy Too Italian?“, the Global Business article seeks to explain why Italy often tops “the informal list of Nations That Worry Europe” economically. Part of the problem may be the reluctance to use modern industrial techniques that can reduce costs of production – can you afford to pay $4,000 for a suit??? – or the large public debt run up by its profligate government, but the more important issue is the utter lack of growth and hence opportunity in the Italian economy.

Our friends at Istituto Bruno Leoni have documented the excruciating details of the situation. I’ll save you the trouble and let you know that both the New York Times and IBL make it clear that the Italians are being done in by the impediments to the free-market economy, deriving in many cases from a fear of open, honest competition in the marketplace.

Nowhere is this fear more evident than in the system of guilds that still dominates many sectors of the Italian economy. Guilds, in effect, are associations meant protect certain industries from competition in the name of cooperation/collusion among the suppliers of a good or service. And the recovery of guilds is often at the heart of a school of thought known as distributism that seeks a “third way” between capitalism and socialism.

(Thomas Woods explained the problem in his Acton monograph Beyond Distributism and I summarized the case in my recent Acton University lecture on the same subject.)

It is most unfortunate that some conservative religious-minded people have fallen for the “charms” of distributism, many of which are romantic longings for a more self-sufficient, localized economy made up of many (“well-distributed”) small-property owners, as opposed to large monopolistic, corporate holders of property.

Of course no one with any religious sensibilities really wants to (or can for that matter) defend capitalism, let alone the status quo, unconditionally. At its best, distributism can remind us that we are not economic automatons, that we shouldn’t become “wage-slaves”, and that as free, morally-responsible persons, we can and must choose how we ought to live. But it should also be obvious that a return to the guilds, with its limitations on free competition, is no way to correct the excesses of 21st-century capitalism. Just ask the Italians….

Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is the host of the radio program Speaking of Faith, broadcast weekly on NPR since 2003. In her conversations with people of all faiths and occupations, Christian and Hindu, novelist and physicist, Tippett aims to better understand the way that belief and spirituality affect our society, worldview, and personal well-being.

In the two books she has published in the last few years, certain themes stand out that define her own view of religion and its place in human life. In particular, Tippett understands that the positive impact that spiritual traditions have on the world rests on their ability to transform the heart and the way we live in relation to one another:

The context of most religious virtue is relationship–practical love in families and communities… These qualities of religion should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation about all of the important issues before us. They should reframe it. (Speaking of Faith, 3)

Throughout her two books, Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God, Tippett discusses faith from a perspective shared by the Acton Institute: Human suffering cannot be eliminated through government programs or by reforming political or economic structure. But our spiritual traditions can address complex problems on their deepest level. The religious sensibility inspires virtue, and, even in the midst of great suffering, it can instill hope through an insistence on human dignity and potential. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, July 29, 2010
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I mentioned Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in the context of the Lutheran World Federation’s General Assembly and the theme, “Give us today our daily bread.”

In this book, DeKoster makes a pointed connection between work and food:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”

The Lord is saying that where humans are hungry, there he too chooses to hunger. He waits in the hungry man or woman or child, longing to be served. Served how? By the work of those who knit the garment of civilization through the production and distribution of food!

God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …

  • agriculture,
  • wholesale or retail foods,
  • kitchens or restaurants,
  • food transportation or the mass production of food items,
  • manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
  • innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.

God transforms plantings into harvests. Then he waits to be fed by those whose work turns harvests into one of the basic elements of civilization. The gift of ourselves to others through work is the gift of ourselves to God—and this is why work gives both temporal and eternal meaning to life!

WorkMany commentators on this passage in Matthew focus on the “giving” literally as the charitable act of giving, and this is as appropriate. But some others go on to identify the “giver” with the government, rather than charities, individual Christians, or the church itself.

But as DeKoster challenges us, we ought also to think of the “giver” as the person who works in the fields to harvest the food, who gives the sweat of their brow to bring food to the table of those of us who hunger, each and every day.

This shift in perspective, that sees our work as a form of service to others, a way of giving of ourselves to others, changes things completely. And I think it more accurately reflects the nature of market interactions and the value of human work.

Compared to the Republican Party, the Democrats’ embrace of politicized religion came late. And because Democrats have only in the last 5-6 years learned how to do the God talk (thanks in large part to the efforts of Jim “The Prophet” Wallis) they can be excused as greenhorns when they whine about not getting the Church folk more mobilized for blatantly partisan efforts.

But it is really annoying when those in the pews don’t go the extra mile, isn’t it?

In a media gabfest with religion reporters this week on Capitol Hill, Democratic senators “acknowledged the involvement of faith communities in debating moral and social issues such as health care reform and economic recovery,” according to a report by PBS.org. But the senators also questioned “whether there are limits to the role religious groups can play when it comes to what Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar called ‘dealing with the nitty gritty’ of partisan politics.” She’s frustrated.

Klobuchar said in conference calls with Minnesota faith leaders about Senate slowness on immigration issues she has been told that when it comes to pure political strategy, religious groups are “not involved” and “don’t deal with that stuff.” How, then, can faith communities “play a larger and louder role” and “push back,” she asked, at a time when the politics of immigration reform are most at issue? Can they serve as a force and a voice for getting past political differences to common ground?

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein fleshed out the complaint in “How Influential is the Progressive Left?”:

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar addressed, perhaps unintentionally, a question many Democrats ask privately: How influential, really, are faith groups on the left? How vast are their e-mail networks? How organized are their members? How deep are their pockets? How aggressive are they willing to get?

Klobuchar was relaying conversations she had with some faith activists pushing her on immigration reform, and how she explained to them the challenges posed by a lack of GOP support. The activists, she said, didn’t seem especially interested in the politics, being primarily focused on what they saw as the moral imperative of reform. “The question for me is, where does the faith community’s role begin and end?” she said.

But Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow was there to reassure Klobuchar that “some religious groups do, in fact, have ‘comfort in the partisan arena’ and are willing to ‘get into strategy and partisan differences.’”

Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, and a person who feels the effects of global warming on bumpy plane rides, observed that a government budget is “a moral document.” Where have we heard that before? Oh yes, the Prophet.

In the last election cycle, when Jim Wallis was panting after Democrat candidates with his talking points, he was fond of referring to government budgets as moral documents. Yes, and by that debased yardstick, what government action doesn’t have a moral dimension? Zoning appeals? Water bills? Parking tickets?

In 2005, Newsweek wrote about Jim Wallis schooling Howard Dean on the God talk:

Politics is about connecting. It’s no accident that the two Democrats elected president in recent years have been Southern Baptists. Jimmy Carter is a born-again evangelical, and Bill Clinton has a deep appreciation and knowledge of religion. Voters want to know about the moral compass of their leaders, and religious expression is one of the guideposts. Dean understands the challenge, and it doesn’t mean that he has to take a press pool with him to church on Sundays. But he has to begin to define Democratic ideas and policies in moral terms. For starters, Wallis says budgets are moral documents. They reflect the values of a family, city or nation. Democrats should do a “values audit” of President Bush’s budget—who wins, who loses, who suffers, who benefits.

The problem with this of course is that when you offer up religious faith to partisan political ends — to either the left or the right — you offer up a counterfeit, a faith that is oriented toward toadying favor with too-often-corrupt power structures, not toward the glory of God. “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1-10). This counterfeit faith, so cheaply offered, lacks the Truth that is in real faith and because the counterfeit so disappoints those for whom it promised political ends, there is no gratitude but plenty of scorn. Like the sentiments you get from the likes of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

And what of the “faith friendly” GOP, where the altar fires are tended by the Religious Right? Recall the New York Daily News story that described how the Republican National Committee “spent almost $2,000 [in February] at an erotic, bondage-themed West Hollywood club, where nearly naked women – and men – simulate sex in nets hung from above.” Now there’s some family values for you!

Asked at the Capitol Hill media event about a reported decline in Democratic Party outreach to faith communities, PBS said that Stabenow characterized Senate Democratic outreach as “aggressive” and “not diminishing.” And, she added, “Every issue is about values.”

Yes, Senator, indeed it is.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth,” I reflect on the recently concluded general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Stuttgart. The theme of the meeting was “Give us today our daily bread,” but as I note, the assembly’s discussion of hunger, poverty, and economics lacked the proper integration of the value, dignity, and importance of work.

As I contend, work is the regular means God has provided for the maintenance of our physical needs. And work that is connected to the larger human community becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of others and productive of civilization. Lester DeKoster defines civilization in just this way, as

goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves—including ourselves—whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

These words come from DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly available in an updated second edition.

The omission of considering work in relationship to the development of wealth, globalization, and civilization is endemic to the larger mainline ecumenical movement, which I examine in greater length in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In that book I look especially at the outcome of the previous LWF gathering in 2004.

The trend observable in LWF recent history looks to continue unabated. The newly appointed LWF general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge of Chile, has the pursuit of “economic justice,” conceived largely of opposition to globalization, as a high priority. (Full story after the break).
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