Category: News and Events

Not surprisingly, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP)’s latest document on water has garnered scant media attention. Why, after all, would journalists, already notorious for their professional Attention Deficit Disorder and dislike of abstract disputation, report on something named “Water: An Essential Element of Life,” especially when it is nothing more than an update of a document originally released in 2003, and then updated in 2006 and 2009, with the exact same titles?

Back then, First Things editor-in-chief Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mischievously remarked, “There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, ‘Air, An Essential Element of Life.’” If nothing else, the PCJP, where I worked from 1999 to 2004, needs to hire a marketing specialist to come up with snazzier titles for their publications.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that reading such a document would make a spiritually-beneficial type of intellectual mortification during this Lenten period. But skipping it altogether would also mean neglecting the serious questions contained therein on how the Holy See thinks about important matters such as human rights and economics. In fact, one may wonder if those responsible for the document have taken them as seriously as they should have.

Thanks to the invaluable Real Clear Religion website, I came across this analysis by George McGraw of DigDeep Water. It’s a mainly positive appraisal of the Holy See’s call for an internationally-recognized “right to water” but it also draws attention to some problem areas:

[T]here is one aspect of the Vatican’s position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year’s “Water, an Essential Element” the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.

When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn’t included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.

It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.

The Vatican’s position is doubly controversial because it’s couched in a criticism of “an excessively commercial conception of water” which the Holy See insists isn’t just another “for-profit commodity dependent on market logic.” This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week’s World Water Forum in Marseille — a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.

So, assuming the importance of water and sanitation has not been simply neglected, there are at least two reasons why the “right to water” doesn’t exist: 1) States are neither able nor willing to pay for “free” water, and 2) it would interfere with the property rights of those who, for example, own land with abundant supplies of water. These would seem to be quite understandable, but not insurmountable, concerns for those who care about the common good. There are many ways for necessary goods to be produced, distributed and consumed through a novelty called commerce, the supposed “excess” of which is criticized by the Holy See. In fact, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that calamities such as droughts and famines are most devastating where local markets and effective protections of private property do not exist.

One has to ask: Does the Holy See really believe that water is any less of a commodity, or any less necessary to human life, than food, normally considered the most common form of commodity? If markets don’t exist for important things like food and water, why should they exist at all? Wouldn’t markets be truly useless if they only traded “non-goods”?

If States are reluctant to recognize the “right to water,” why does the Holy See insist on it so regularly? One likely explanation is that most States and the Holy See have very different understandings of human rights. Does a right fundamentally entail freedom from state coercion or entitlement to a government-provided benefit? Should all human goods and needs, which obviously go beyond basic rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” be considered human rights? If so, who will protect and provide them, i.e., the State, civil society or individuals? Is accommodation or synthesis possible among these divergent understandings of rights, some of which would limit the scope and reach of governmental (and ecclesiastical) power while others would expand them? More basically, aren’t these notions of rights and government based on fundamentally different understandings of human nature, on which we are unlikely to agree at anything approaching a universal level?

It ought to be clear that such questions are central to our understanding of the liberal human rights project, much larger than that of providing “free” water for all. But I wonder if the idea of limited government that allows individuals and voluntary associations to provide for needs beyond those ensured by certain enumerated rights is adequately understood by those who promote previously-unrecognized human rights. Some will say that these new rights are proof of an increasing awareness of human dignity, but I am not convinced. Many of these “rights,” in fact, are not based on a fixed idea of human dignity or human nature, but a denial of it; man is nothing more than a historical, “progressive” being whose wants and needs are constantly evolving. And it is, of course, these “progressives” who are constantly calling for new “rights” to be delivered by the state, rather than the private sector (exhibit A: Obamacare).

In my opinion, the continual expansion and discovery of new “rights” to cover all human needs have a particular appeal to religious believers because it institutionalizes and universalizes our social obligations to care for our fellow human beings. But we must also realize the particular, albeit partial, truths of liberalism and economics, especially with regard to the distribution of resources such as water. (The socialist paradise of Cuba, after all, recognizes the “right to water” as well as those to “health”, “religious freedom,” etc.) God did indeed create the world with enough goods for all. He also gave us the freedom and responsibility to cultivate and share these goods with each other, though we all too often fail at doing so. But let’s not assume He commands us to toss international law, private property, and economic good sense out the window as well.

Blog author: jcarter
Monday, March 26, 2012
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Which does a better job helping the impoverished people around the globe—free trade or fair trade? The American Enterprise Institute recently held a debate on that topic at John Brown University entitled “Free Trade vs. Fair Trade: What Helps the Poor?” Click here to watch the debate between scholars Claude Barfield, Paul Myers, and Victor Claar.

In the debate Dr. Claar raises concerns about both the logic and economic reasoning underlying the fair trade movement. He also expands on that theme in his recent monograph,  “Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution”, the latest volume in the Acton Institute’s Christian Social Thought Series.

Related: On April 11, Dr. Claar will be visiting Acton on Tap to deliver a talk on “Envy: Socialism’s Deadly Sin.” To learn more about Acton on Tap and other Acton sponsored lectures, visit our events page.

 

There are only a few days left to register for the AU Online session, Private Charity: A Practitioner’s View! This online session will take place on March 27 and feature highly-rated Acton lecturer and current U.S. Regional Facilitator for Partners Worldwide, Rudy Carrasco. In a lecture that blends the theoretical with real-life encounters and stories, Rudy shows how using local knowledge and resources unavailable and unsuited to public agencies is vital for effective charity.

Why wait to hear Rudy speak at Acton University this summer when you can watch his online lecture now? For more information or to register for a course, visit the AU Online website.

In The American Spectator, Acton Institute’s Michael Matheson Miller throws his hat into the ring as he launches a tongue-in-cheek candidacy for World Bank president, but also raises serious questions about the institution’s poverty fighting programs. Miller is a research fellow at Acton, where he directs PovertyCure, an initiative that promotes enterprise solutions to poverty. Jeffrey Sachs — are you listening?

Here are some planks from Miller’s campaign platform:

I don’t believe that foreign aid is the solution — or even a solution. It has subsidized corruption and delayed the development of local business. In short, it is generally part of the problem. And I’m not alone in thinking so. There are growing numbers of Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians who are saying no to aid and instead want the chance to have free and fair competition.

I also don’t believe the developing world is a lab for Western scientists and technocrats to test out their various utopian theories on others. When I am president of the World Bank, none of these people would be given support to experiment with the lives of others.

In this connection, I should mention that I don’t believe in a “scientific” solution to poverty. Nor do I believe that I or anyone else can end poverty “forever.” There will always be some poverty because there will always be human weakness, human error. There will always be a need for human love and caring.

Read “Here I Come to Save the Day — How I would lead the World Bank” by Michael Matheson Miller on The American Spectator.

I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.

The Hunger Games TrilogyEric Teetsel, who runs the Values & Capitalism project over at AEI, invited me (among others) to pen some alternative endings to the Hunger Games trilogy. Eric is concerned that at the ending of the series, “Collins’s characters deteriorate into self-interested, cynical, vengeful creatures. The parallels of their behavior post-victory with the actions of their former dictators are made clear. Katniss even votes in support of another Hunger Games, this time featuring the children of the elites who have been overcome. It’s a Blue State ending to a Red State story.”

Although I don’t really write creative fiction (as you’ll quickly find out when you read my alternate ending), I’m not convinced that the general thrust of the books’ conclusion is quite so clearly at odds with the rest of the trilogy. What you’ll see is that I didn’t much like the kind of “happily ever after” ending that Katniss and Peeta experience.

But I did find that Collins’ basic point had to do with the corrupting power of politics, and in this vein I resonate much more with John Tanny’s recent piece for Forbes, “Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ Illustrates the Horrors of Big Government,” than with the piece that helped inspire the V&C alternate endings project, “‘The Hunger Games is a blue-state ‘Harry Potter'” by Rebecca Cusey.

In an alternative ending sure to please neither Team Peeta nor Team Gale, my alternate ending picks up after Katniss has killed the head of the new Panem administration, Alma Coin. I tried to keep in mind a couple of things. First was Lord Acton’s dictum and the theme here at the Acton Institute PowerBlog: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Second was Augustine’s query, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”

Michael Matheson Miller, Acton’s Director of Media, recently made an appearance on NPO Showcase, a community access show here in the Grand Rapids area, to discuss the PovertyCure initiative. The full 15 minute interview is available for viewing below: