This morning at Ethika Politika, I argue that “acting primarily for the sake of national interest in international affairs runs contrary to a nation’s highest ideals.” In particular, I draw on the thought of Vladimir Solovyov, who argued that, morally speaking, national interest alone cannot be the supreme standard of international action since the highest aspirations of each nation (e.g. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) are claimed to be universal goods. I would here like to explore his critique with reference to the subject of international trade. (more…)
If you want to work in international development, says Charles Kenny, go work for a big, bad multinational company:
Kids today — they just want to save the world.
But there is more than one way to make the planet a better place. Here’s another option: Get an MBA and go work for a big, bad multinational company. Consider this: Over the past decade, foreign direct investment in Africa topped foreign aid — and in 2011 alone, by $7 billion. And unlike food handouts or free latrines, this kind of investment built factories, financed banks, and opened mines and oil fields, creating tens of thousands of jobs and transferring invaluable knowledge to the countries that need it most. That’s good news, because it is increasingly clear that new technologies are what’s driving improved quality of life in Africa, and new ways of doing business are vital to sustaining economic growth on the continent.
Yet there’s still a widespread feeling that multinationals are the rapacious, profit-obsessed spawn of globalization and free markets, running amok across the developing world. Some surely are. But think about how hard U.S. states compete to attract a Toyota factory. Or how happy Britain was when the Indian firm Tata bailed out its ailing steel industry. If multinationals can make that kind of difference in job creation and productivity in the rich world, consider the even greater role they play in poorer countries.
When it comes to Swiss bank accounts, pop culture brings to mind wealthy people who hide assets from various groups, such as the IRS or their jilted family members. Our sympathies do not align with the type of people we imagine hold Swiss accounts. In fact, it is easy to get quite envious of the idea of holding a Swiss bank account, or possibly resentful that others can that are well off can avoid paying as much in taxes as possible.
Sadly, our perceptions lead us astray and throw up barriers to peaceful trade. Last year, a measure to go after tax avoiders who used Swiss (and other foreign) accounts was included in the jobs bill. Now, that law (known as FATCA) is harming Americans and Swiss workers alike. The New York Times has the story.
“Congress came in with a sledgehammer,” said H. David Rosenbloom, a lawyer at Caplin and Drysdale in Washington and a former international tax policy adviser for the Treasury Department. “The Fatca story is really kind of insane.”
Essentially, the law is so onerous to foreign banks that many say they do not want American business at all. In fact, the law affects more than just Swiss banking. It actually imposes costs on virtually all foreign banking that deals with Americans. From the NYT:
“The Fatca legislation treats all Americans with overseas bank accounts as criminals, even though most of them are honest, hard-working individuals who happen to be living and working or retired abroad,” said Jacqueline Bugnion, a director of American Citizens Abroad.
This is incredibly inconvenient to Americans abroad, who may earn income in foreign denominations which would normally be easier to deposit in foreign banks. On the flip side, we have foreign based firms who operate in the United States. A Swiss firm is set to bring 150 jobs to Youngstown, Ohio in September. Do you think a Swiss firm might have Swiss bank accounts? Thankfully, the law does not seem to have scared off this investment, but it’s possible this was planned long before FATCA came to be.
We should be very wary of policy that is born of the rhetoric of envy. According to the NYT article, the treasury expects to take in about $8 billion from the new law, which may be much lower than the costs that foreign banking institutions face in complying with the new rules. As Jordan Ballor wrote last year, taxation should be primarily be about raising revenues. Can a law that causes more economic harm than it raises in revenue be a good law for revenue? The politics of envy and resentment seem to have clouded our judgement so badly that we are going to create a greater economic harm than the fiscal benefit to our country. Envy and resentment are natural, but we should recognize them for what they are: vices. It’s not surprising that vices lead to bad law.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Contagious Community,” I look at the positive as well as the negative aspects of coordination and cooperation between human beings on a global scale. The film Contagion provided the occasion for these reflections, and I argue that
while the film is clear about the dangers of globalized human relationships, it also teaches a more subtle lesson. Even as disease represents a danger that can have worldwide impact, such dangers remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the film portrays quite well how global networks of information and exchange are absolutely foundational for our contemporary world.
I was reminded of this uniquely human social characteristic again while reading through Abraham Kuyper’s Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art this week. Kuyper makes the point that human pursuit of scientific knowledge is a communal endeavor. In fact, he writes,
Science is thus constructed not on the basis of what one person observes, discovers, imagines, and organizes into one system in his or her thinking. Rather, science arises from the fruit of the thinking, imagining, and reflecting of successive generations in the course of centuries, and by means of the cooperation of everyone.
What we have in the case of the development of human knowledge, then, is a communal endeavor defined not just in spatial terms (i.e. globally) but also temporally, including the successive ages of human beings from the past and their discoveries as they have been built upon and communicated to us today.
When discussing the idea of the invisible church, theologians include both the living and dead (who now enjoy the revelation of the blessed in the intermediate state) as making up “the communion of saints.” But similarly with respect to science as a common grace enterprise, we have a communion of common grace that likewise includes the living as well as the dead.
No single person can comprehend science in an “exalted sense,” which for Kuyper “originates only through the cooperation of many people,” the living as well as the dead. In the same way, no single person knows how to manufacture a pencil or build a chair, in part because none of us who are alive today got where we are on our own. We (and our civilization) are the products of those who have come before.
Recognition of this should instill in us a pretty healthy sense of humility and gratefulness for the graces of human community.
Is ‘fair trade’ more fair or more just than free trade? While free trade has been increasingly maligned, The Fair Trade movement has become increasingly popular over the last several years. Many see this movement as a way to help people in the developing world and as a more just alternative to free trade. On the other hand, others argue that fair trade creates an unfair advantage that tends to harm the poor.
“Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good,” said Thomas Aquinas, “while envy grieves over it.” Unfortunately, grieving over our neighbor’s good has become a dominant part of recent economic discussions (“income inequality,” the “Buffett rule,” the “99%”).
Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post. He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support. It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.
McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post. And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources. My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water. The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one. No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.
I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost. Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level. This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved. My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective. It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.
Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights. The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West. This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society. Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic. As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights. This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such. Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:
[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable. There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens. By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth. No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.
I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.” (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”) All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life. And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity. My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper. The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.
The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism. It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.” Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied. We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.
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.
As promised in the context of yesterday’s discussion here and at First Thoughts, my piece on the future of fusionism is up over at the Comment site, “Small is Beautiful (Except When it Isn’t.)” I take my point of departure in the “crunchy” or “communitarian” conservatism of Rod Dreher, recently profiled by the NYT’s David Brooks.
My basic point is that the social or communitarian conservatives generally have a great deal to learn about economics and the way that economic development underpins the very lifestyles they manifest. But on the other hand, economic or “market” conservatives have a great deal to learn about the cultivation of virtue and the value of communities and civil society from social conservatives. So in contrast to those who perennially herald the divorce between economic and social conservatives, I find that they are “deeply interdependent in many often overlooked ways.” I conclude that in this time of crisis (financial, moral, and spiritual), “Perhaps now more than ever communitarian and market conservatives need each other’s insights to mutually test their respective assumptions and the practical implications of their views.”
One of the distinctive features of the fusionist project over the last couple decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the absence of anti-communism as a unifying force. Instead, the dynamic of globalization, and the generally differing evaluations of globalization between social and economic conservatives, has served as a centrifugal rather than centripetal force for the fusionist project.
In this regard I think it is worth taking note of a paper given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 (PDF) about the relationship between ethics and the market economy. He lays out in brief but brilliant fashion a framework for fusionism in his concluding paragraph:
A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.
I think “a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws” sometimes too painfully represents the position of social conservatives, including Rod Dreher, as I note in the Comment piece. But all too often economic conservatives take a “scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos.” The union of these two wings of the conservative movement is the fruitful, and indeed necessary, basis for fusionism, which still, I believe, represents the most hopeful way forward for conservatism in America.
I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”
As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”
The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”
That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.
Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.
Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.
Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.