Archived Posts February 2007 - Page 2 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jrichards
Thursday, February 22, 2007
By

Over at Planet Gore, I responded to Catholic layperson named Mary Colwell who seems to have her theological priorities out of whack:

Colwell complains that the Catholics are not consistently green, and hopes things will improve. She speaks as a Catholic, but I wonder where she’s getting her theology. She tells readers: “What is the true nature of our relationship with the earth? Get this right and everything else will begin to fall into place.” That’s the Green Gospel speaking. Jesus didn’t give the relationship between human beings and the Earth pride of place. He said that the first and greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourself. Everything follows from that. Christians of all stripes should take seriously our stewardship of the Earth. But our relationship to the Earth is not the first principle from which everything else follows.

Having a small child in the home gives the opportunity for exposure to things you might otherwise never have reason to see. Such is the case with the VeggieTales in my house. We have “King George and the Ducky” on VHS, which gets occasional play on the set. The story itself adapts the tale of David and Bathsheba, but before the story gets underway, there’s a brief prelude.

Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are the stars of the VeggieTales, but two of their friends who don’t usually take center stage give telling a story about selfishness a try. What they come up with doesn’t meet the VeggieTales standards, but it does help tell us something about the way the market works in the real world. Jimmy and Jerry Gourd tell the tales of “The Englishman who went up a hill (and came down with all the bananas),” and “The Swede who went up a hill (and came down with all the strawberries).”


The Englishman has taken all the bananas, “leaving of course the inhabitants of the hill with no bananas and therefore bestowing the term ‘selfish’ upon myself” (QuickTime video here).

When asked if he’s going to eat any of the bananas, the Englishman responds that of course he can’t eat any, because you can’t have bananas without strawberries. “You’re soooo selfish,” cries a voice from off-camera.

The Swede who went up a hill does the same thing as the Englishman, but with strawberries instead of bananas. And the Swede will not eat any strawberries, because you can’t enjoy strawberries without bananas.


When the Englishman and the Swede see that the other one has what he needs to enjoy his own fruit, they ask in turn, “Might you spare a banana/strawberry?” But each character is so selfish that he is unwilling to part with any of his own fruit, and so both the Swede and the Englishman are left unable to enjoy their fruit but unwilling to simply give away his own fruit to make the other better off.

This brief story ends with Jimmy and Jerry Gourd moralizing, “Don’t be selfish.”

Needless to say, Larry and Bob are not satisfied with this tale, and go on to tell the story of King George and the Ducky. Part of the reason Jimmy and Jerry’s tale doesn’t work is that it is too simplistic and unrealistic.

That is, it doesn’t take into account the way in which market mechanisms can redirect selfish behavior into something that does benefit both parties in an exchange. The situation Jimmy and Jerry sets up simply has each possessor of the fruit ask for the corresponding fruit, implying a reliance upon the charity of the other party.

But what is much more likely to happen in a situation like this is that the Swede and the Englishman would engage in a trade, so that each would give their own fruit to get the other fruit, and in the end both would be able to enjoy strawberries and bananas. There’s no need to depend on or appeal to the charity of the other party in this situation. And an unwillingness to trade would make the lot of both the Swede and the Englishman worse off, as they would each be left with unusable and rotten fruit.

The incentive for their own material benefit would be to trade. In this way the market mechanism can function to take selfish action and make it serve a mutually beneficial purpose. In doing so there is an element of public, civic, or social good that is performed, irrespective of the selfish motivations of the parties involved.

None of these observations do anything to mitigate concerns about the ways in which the Swede and the Englishman went about obtaining their monopoly on the respective fruits. Nor does the material benefit created in the exchange obviate the need for charity and love in human social relations. And furthermore we certainly can’t say that because selfish behavior resulted in some material good that somehow selfishness is to be understood as a virtue in the truest sense. At best brazen selfishness can manifest itself as external righteousness, civic virtue, or a public good and is to be distinguished from true righteousness, virtue, and good. Selfishness is still sin.

But what such an exchange does show is that even in a world marked by sin and depravity, some good can come out of evil. As the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter has written,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men.

In this sense, the market mechanism functions as a sort of preserving grace by which material wealth is created and enjoyed, allowing human beings to continue to live and even flourish. But rather than being the end of human activity, such material prosperity is a foundational reality necessary for the actualization of greater goods, a necessary but not sufficient condition for human happiness.

I promise not to belabor this point any further (well, unless something really juicy comes in…), but Jay Nordlinger, in the latest National Review, offers more observations [subscription needed] on the religious qualities of “secular” environmentalism, from his perch at Davos. Along the way, he cites my PowerBlog post from a couple weeks ago. The relevant passage:

In other words, you can contribute to an anti-global-warming fund in order to relieve your guilt at having used, for example, an airplane. I put this in Jacksonian terms (I mean Jesse, not Andrew): Don’t be emittin’ without remittin’. Later, Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute will write that these remissions remind him of the indulgences of old, whereby you washed away your sins by your financial contributions. The notorious German friar Johann Tetzel (allegedly) said, “As soon a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” (He was a rhymer too, at least in English translation.) And more than a few of us have described a certain kind of environmentalism as a modern religion.

The basic idea has gained traction at the top levels of the Catholic hierarchy, as this column by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney demonstrates. I must tip my hat to His Eminence, by the way, for introducing an important nuance: the most zealous promoters of global warming hysteria are not really “religious” in a Christian sense (that would give religion a bad name); they are more accurately described as “”superstitious.”

Blog author: jrichards
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
By

I’m contributing to a new blog at National Review Online, called Planet Gore, which focuses on the Global Warming controversy. Check it out.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
By

In the liturgical calendar of the Western churches, today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season. Christians around the world will attend services today that feature the imposition of ashes. These ashes represent, among other things, the transience and contingency of created being. Thus, for instance, the Book of Common Prayer contains the following prayer to be said before the imposition:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

A related practice common among laypeople is the abstention from a particular item or practice during the Lenten season. Some people give up caffeine or tobacco. Others might choose to refrain from going to movies or watching television. When done in appropriate fashion this practice is a spiritual exercise that serves to reorient the priorities of the Christian life.

That is, the goods of this world can only be appropriately appreciated and loved when they are properly subsumed under our ultimate allegiance and commitment to God. In this Lenten practice something that is otherwise morally permissible is eschewed. In some small way this can be seen as an attempt at a popular level to realize the monastic ideal of detachment. John Climacus articulated the reality of detachment by saying, “If a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself.”

So, in this season of Lent, let us remember and consider the words of Jesus Christ:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Via CrossLeft, which promises to bring “balance” to the Christian voice, this short and interesting piece from Larry James’s blog Urban Daily, which documents his reflections as “president and CEO for Central Dallas Ministries, a human and community development corporation with a focus on economic and social justice at work in inner city Dallas, Texas.”

Says James, “If your goal is community and human development, you look for ways to avoid the creation of dependence or a neo-colonial approach to relief and compassion efforts.”

Of course the realization of freedom, which revolves around asking the question, “Does a program prepare clients for independence, or does it keep them dependent?,” is one of the hallmarks of effective compassion.

For groups that put these principles of effective compassion into practice, both in Dallas and around the country, check out the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide.

Mr. Fred L. Smith, Jr – Clicking this link will open a new window with a video player.

Last week, Marc posted audio from the Fred Smith’s presentation at the 2007 Acton Lecture Series. Mr. Smith, president and founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, spoke about Corporate Social Responsibility and the dangers associated with the socialization of the corporation. Video of this event is now available online and for download. You can watch it online, (a new window with a Flash video player will open), you can download the file via Acton’s podcast, or download directly as an MP4 file (60Mb). Enjoy our video goodness!

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 19, 2007
By

One of the latest iterations of the reality TV craze is the show, “Bad Girls Club,” on the Oxygen network. The premise of the show revolves around a group of young women of diverse backgrounds brought together to live in one house: “What happens when you put seven ‘bad’ girls in a house together – the type of girls who lie, cheat and flirt their way out of trouble and have serious trust issues with other women?”

It doesn’t take long for fireworks to fly. Only four days and a couple episodes into the experience, one of the bad girls named Ripsi flies off into an alcoholic rage (video here and here). After a long stretch of binge drinking (inexplicably she drinks more alcohol to sober up), Ripsi explodes into an attack on two of her housemates, amidst a flurry of broken dishes.

After that fateful night, Ripsi claims she had no memory of the events and is somewhat apologetic (although she brags about her privileged background with one of the girls she attacked), but the fallout is already decided: Ripsi has to leave the house (view the video here).

As she’s packing to leave, Ripsi shows great disdain for her possessions, giving away a $500 designer dress to one of her housemates. Too lazy to carry her bags, she simply kicks them down the stairs and lets them land where they may.

But in the midst of this prima donna behavior, Ripsi makes this tearful confession:

I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy. Nothing in the world makes me happy. I could shop until I drop. I could go out with my friends. But there’s a void in there. I have been looking for something my whole life and I don’t know what it is. I just know that I haven’t found it yet.

In this intimate and heartfelt admission, we find the confirmation of the truth of Augustine’s famous theological confession to God: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1.1).

Ripsi: “I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy…”


Unless our affections are properly oriented toward God, nothing will make us happy. Ripsi exemplifies the perennial experience of fallen humanity which seeks fulfillment and happiness in various created goods, whether in the social bonds of family and friends or in material possessions. Solomon documents his search for meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes and takes Ripsi’s confession to its final conclusion: without God no one can be happy, everything is meaningless.

Ripsi’s confession is an unwitting witness to the reality that pervades all of fallen humanity, for “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (10.21.31). But by nature we seek happiness through the ignorance and corruption of our will and so we are doomed to seek happiness in sinful ways. As Augustine writes, “Sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire, since they are the lowest kind of goods and we thereby turn away from the better and higher: from you yourself, O Lord our God, and your truth and your law” (2.5.10).

Since Ripsi’s departure from the show, there have been more fights and misadventures in the Bad Girls Club. But at the very least this show has provided us with a contemporary testimony to the reality of fallen humanity and the self-destructive nature of sin. What Ripsi is looking for, even without her knowledge of it, is what all of us are ultimately seeking: the unsurpassed happiness that comes with a relationship with God, made possible through the work of Jesus Christ.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, February 16, 2007
By

I’m not quite sure what to make of this story from Catholic News Service. Its quotations concerning agricultural subsidies from Fr. Andrew Small, a “policy adviser for the U.S. bishops,” while not all perfectly clear without their context, seem to indicate a shift in direction compared to earlier statements from the USCCB. Small notes, for example, that the current system “incentivizes people to overproduce” and that it “isn’t helping the people it’s supposed to help.”

Does this discussion signal a change from earlier bishops’ statements, such as the one I criticized here?

Dr. Kevin Schmiesing

Acton Institute research fellow Dr. Kevin Schmiesing recently received a Templeton Enterprise Award from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The 2nd place award in the articles category recognized Dr. Schmiesing’s piece, “Another Social Justice Tradition: Catholic Conservatives.” The article was published in the University of St. Thomas Law Journal in 2005.

The article outlines the historic differences between progressive and conservative Catholic approaches to social and economic issues. His states that “the conservative approach represents a tradition of thought that is not only consistent with authoritative Catholic social teaching, but is also an important corrective to deficiencies in the progressive approach.” Further, “conservatives’ hesitance to invoke government, recognition of the potential of business and the market, and emphasis on personal responsibility and civil society are all valuable contributions to a public discussion about the most effect means of alleviating poverty, ensuring justice, and serving the common good.”

Placing first in the book category is Thomas E. Woods, Jr, who won for his book, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. This book is part of the Lexington book series entitled Studies in Ethics and Economics, which is edited by Acton’s director of Research, Sam Gregg.

First place winners in the articles category are Bryan Caplan and Ed Stringham. This EconLog piece gives some additional insight.

The Templeton Enterprise Awards are presented annually to scholars early in their careers who have recently produced books and articles dealing with economics, culture, and globalization. For more information about the Templeton Enterprise Awards, see the full press release or visit the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s website.