Archived Posts 2008 - Page 5 of 48 | Acton PowerBlog

National Review Online today published Rev. Robert Sirico’s “A House Built on Sand,” his Acton commentary on the financial crisis.

Wall Street has been skewered and denounced in almost every attempt to examine the moral dimension of this crisis. Yet, Wall Street is too often denounced for all the wrong reasons — as a surrogate for the free economy, for seeking and making a profit, as though the alternative was somehow a preferable moral result.

No, if we are going to offer a moral critique of Wall Street, this should not be done because free markets allocate and produce capital, without which people’s homes and savings evaporate. Rather, it should be done because all these previously private businesses are now waddling up to the governmental trough begging to be nationalized and asking for their share of the dole.

Rev. Sirico was also a featured speaker on the recently concluded National Review 2008 Post-Election Caribbean Cruise, which drew more than 700 attendees. Jim Geraghty, on NRO’s Campaign Spot, offered a review of the event and this about Rev. Sirico’s panel of speakers:

If that panel had a surprise star, though, it was Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, who cut through a lot of numerical haze by pointing out the moral dimensions of all economic choices – and that it is morally wrong to accept a loan that you know you are unlikely to be able to repay, and that it is equally wrong to loan money that is not yours to someone you know is unlikely to pay it back. At the heart of the housing/banking/market chaos is a lot of people who faced a choice that they had to know was wrong on some level, and did it anyway.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, November 24, 2008
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——————– Start of message from list: eni-summary ——– Ecumenical News International News Highlights
24 November 2008

Ukrainian church marks 20th century ‘genocide’ Russia disputes

Warsaw (ENI). Ukraine’s largest Orthodox church has marked the anniversary of an early 1930s’ Soviet-engineered famine, in which millions died, by describing it for the first time as an “act of genocide”, a description rejected by the Russian government. “A crime like this could only happen in an environment hateful of God and man,” the holy synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, said in a statement following an 11 November Kiev meeting. “It will always painfully remind us of the time when the devil reigned over both Ukraine and other nations of the former Soviet community.” [514 words, ENI-08-0944]

Appearing in the next issue of Religion & Liberty will be my review of Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (Encounter Books, 2008). There is no point in dwelling on how well-written and insightful the book is, as it has already won plaudits from other, more significant reviewers, but I can give my own “Acton spin” to Lawler’s exceptional work. Here is the piece in full, an exclusive preview for PowerBlog readers:

Lord Acton’s quotation concerning the corrupting effect of power is widely known. Less so is the fact that the target of his criticism on that particular occasion was the power possessed not by government but by church officials. Acton’s understanding of ecclesiastical authority (as distinct from power) is debatable, but his insight into human nature is not. A case study—not that we need another to file away in the vast archives of the history of human frailty—is the collapse of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Philip Lawler documents the details in this skillfully written account of the triumphs and travails of Boston’s Catholics. The history is episodic rather than thorough, but Lawler chooses his episodes well. The bulk of his attention goes to the last forty years, and much of that is focused on the sexual abuse scandals of the last ten. For anyone who has followed these developments closely, there will be little in the way of new revelations. Yet Lawler’s style, at once sympathetic and bluntly critical, is engrossing. The devout Catholic reader who was dismayed by the character and scale of the abuse scandal will be drawn back to those unpleasant times when it seemed that each new day brought fresh reasons to be ashamed of one’s faith.

(more…)

I cannot tell you how many times Catholics have used “the common good” as an excuse for more government involvement in peoples’ lives and the installing of socialistic, “spread the wealth” programs. This version of the common good is the foundation for some people’s idea of distributive justice, but actually it is based on the “Robin Hood fallacy” of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

How did I come to this conclusion? I did so merely by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas. Both of those great thinkers say that government must rule for the common good, but both of them oppose “common good” to the “particular” or “private” good. This means, as Aristotle writes, that any law must be good for not a ruler alone, or his cronies, or even the majority, but for the state as a whole. To use the analogy Plato makes in the Statesman, a physician gives a medicine to a sick person even if the sick person finds it distasteful. When he leaves the scene, he leaves behind a prescription containing his instructions. The instructions are not for his good, or the family’s benefit, but for the health of the sick person. BUT . . . nowhere in Aristotle or St. Thomas does it say that the common good is the exclusive or even main province of the government. They merely give a negative prohibition that the state cannot make laws which are good for only one segment of society.

The Church, as opposed to some Catholic writers, recognizes this. The Church holds to the principle of subsidiarity, originally enunciated by Leo XIII and actually named as such by Pius XI. Firstly, this principle states that nothing should be done by a higher level of society that can be done by a lower level. This means that, say, in my profession, the professor in the classroom is presumed to be doing his job unless some serious problem arises. His department chairman is not to be breathing down his neck and nitpicking his work. Certainly, the chairman’s boss, the dean, has no business butting into the professor’s work. If a problem arises, and the dean hears about it, he should ask the chairman to investigate it and take care of it, assuming the chairman has not done so already, which is an unlikely assumption. Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity says that nothing should be done by a government agency that can be done by a private agency. This means that government is a last resort, when all private possibilities are exhausted and the problem is a serious violation of justice or something that only a government can resolve, like an invasion.

Take a look at how Vatican II defines the common good: “The common good of society consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease. It consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person.” The fact that the Church does not have a list of specific positive programs here is that it is clearly stressing the notion that the common good is a “habitat” in which the human person can flourish. The onus is on the person to do the flourishing, with the assistance of the spontaneous institutions arising in a free society which are there for that purpose. On the other side of the coin, the onus is also on the individual to make sure that his fellows have that environment to flourish, with the government as a last resort remedy for that which individuals and social groups cannot do to provide that habitat.

Therefore, we can conclude with Bertrand de Jouvenel that a healthy society has many social organizations, and that the role of these groups should not be usurped by government. If government participates in this usurpation, it is rejecting the human person’s duty and ability to help himself and his brothers and sisters. Remember what we wrote about John Paul II and personal responsibility? (Maybe you should review it). Personal responsibility is founded on self-governance and self-governance leads to self-determination. Surely, self-governance of a social being like man leads him to take responsibility for the success of ourselves and of our fellows who cannot succeed by themselves, but it should never substitute for the action of the persons themselves. Neither should government. Nor should the citizens demand that government take over the responsibility for themselves or their fellows, except when they CANNOT succeed in doing so. Not only does this have dire consequences, which are not part of this essay, but—and this is the most important reason—it violates the person’s dignity.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
Friday, November 21, 2008
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The latest issue of Religion & Liberty contains an essay I wrote for Acton about whether the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians can be saved. A student at my university (Houston Baptist University) read the essay and formulated a number of thoughts on his own. I was so affected by what this undergraduate sent me, I had to pass it along:

I have strong beliefs about limited government, states rights, individual liberty, free-markets, etc. But these beliefs come under fire when I see how one person’s pornography addiction leads to rape after years of unsatisfiable self-gratification, or when innocent children are born fatherless to promiscuous mothers.

There are 2 things I’ve come to realize. First, that every law is a removal of liberty. Second, that every system of law is either based upon the will of man, or based on that which we perceive to be Natural Law. Given this reality, the latter necessitates a belief in higher power, while the former holds no basis for the concept of “inalienable rights” whatsoever.

Without a giver of freedom the only “freedom” is that which is given by he who is stronger to he who is weaker.

Libertarian belief in liberty is founded in the idea that we have a God-given right to such liberty, and in that sense they share commonality with social conservatives.

But Liberty without order is chaos. There’s no doubt, law in our land is based on Natural Law. So the question is not whether we should legislate morality, but to what extent it should be done.

This is a question I still struggle to answer.

The young man’s name is Wesley Gant. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that regularly emerges from students who attend Acton events and/or read Acton publications.

Linked yesterday on the Drudge Report and picked up by news outlets all over the world is a brief Bloomberg report on a statement from the Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti. Tremonti attributed to Pope Benedict XVI a “prophecy” dating from over twenty years ago concerning the current global financial meltdown.

Again, the story is quite brief, and here’s the gist:

“The prediction that an undisciplined economy would collapse by its own rules can be found” in an article written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became pope in April 2005, Tremonti said yesterday at Milan’s Cattolica University.

Tremonti’s remarks were made at the inaugural academic year address at the university. It’s unclear to me what the context of Tremonti’s prophetic attribution is, and perhaps some of the colleagues in our Rome office can enlighten us as to Tremonti’s economic and religious perspective.

But if you want the original context of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s statements, avail yourself of the only readily-accessible English translation of the article cited by Tremonti: “Market economy and ethics,” given by Ratzinger in in 1985 at a symposium in Rome, “Church and Economy in Dialogue.”

Here’s the full quote from Ratzinger’s paper:

It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse. An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group — indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state — but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength.

As you can see from this quote and the context of the larger paper, the import of Ratzinger’s warning is not simply about an “undisciplined economy,” but more specifically about an economy that lacks participants who act from the basis of a serious and committed moral foundation, one that is “sustained only by strong religious convictions.” It’s about a lack of religious discipline as much as economic discipline.

Reading Tremonti’s quote as it appears in the Bloomberg article (which admittedly might be quite different in its own original context) might lead one to think that Ratzinger was simply talking about the lack of material discipline, for which the “new frugality” would be an adequate cure. But as Ratzinger rightly observed then, the causes of poverty and economic distress are not simply material, but also spiritual.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, November 20, 2008
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By now you’ve read one or more stories about the increasing levels of piracy on Africa’s east coast, brought into the spotlight by the recent capture of a Saudi oil tanker.

Piracy is, of course, simply a specific form of theft, a vice that like all basic vices will be with us to the end of time. Sometimes there is a fine line between state military conflict and piracy, as the case of Sir Francis Drake attests (to the English, a hero and nobleman; to the Spanish, a pirate). The problem of piracy along the African coast has plagued American shipping for as long as the nation has existed: One of the earliest missions undertaken by the US Marine Corps was an assault on the infamous bandit havens of the Barbary Coast (remembered still in the Corps’ anthem as “the shores of Tripoli”).

What I found striking about this particular story on the current problem was the sheer breadth of cooperation in the outlawry, evidently without compunction. In the Somali region highlighted, seemingly everyone, from small businessmen, to government officials, to the “mother of five,” views piracy as a positive feature of local life. On display is the absence of elements of a moral culture necessary for a free and functional society, such as deference to the rule of law and respect for property rights. Granted that the culpability of any number of players may be diminished by the harsh realities affecting an impoverished nation without a functioning central government, it is still a depressing picture of indifference to the common good in pursuit of self interest. Would that the modern-day pirates had the inclination and opportunity to direct their talents and energy in a way that actually created wealth rather than merely siphoning it from the rest of the world.

The Spring issue of Religion & Liberty is now available online. The feature is an interview with Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol. Akyol was a faculty member at Acton University last summer. The title of the interview is “Turkey: Islam’s Bridge to Religious and Economic Liberty?” In the interview Akyol notes:

So Turkey will not change the world in one day, but if it shows that a Muslim society can achieve democracy and lives in peace with the western world, that will be a great example to the Muslim nations. We are seeing signs of that.

Also, we are excited about the piece offered by Hunter Baker for this issue titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” It is timely because of the escalation of tensions between some social conservatives and libertarians, especially now that former Governor Mike Huckabee is about to release a book about his presidential campaign with a chapter titled “Faux-Cons: Worse than Liberalism.” In that chapter Huckabee throws a few jabs at some libertarian minded conservatives who worked to derail his campaign. In his piece Baker asks:

The tension inherent in the relationship erupted during the American presidential primaries when the libertarian-oriented Club for Growth clashed with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Christian conservative. Club for Growth seemed to single out Huckabee for the most uncharitable view possible of his free-market bonafides. Rather than attempt conciliation, Huckabee apparently relished the attack and labeled the small government group “The Club for Greed.” The question, borrowed from the longest running feature in women’s magazine history, is “Can this marriage be saved?”

Read the article to find out Baker’s take on the future relationship of these two ideological camps under the conservative umbrella.

I offer a review of The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace authored by Wesley scholar Kenneth J. Collins. Collins is a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky, and his book does a fine job at weaving the historical Wesley with contemporary issues.

Paola Fantini reviews Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s The Ethics of the Common Good in the Social Doctrine of the Church. Fantini has also translated the prologue to the book by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill, and an excerpt from that appears in this issue. Both pieces were first posted on the Acton website in mid October. These articles are the first to translate anything from Cardinal Bertone’s The Ethics of the Common Good (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008) into English.

In The Liberal Tradition for this issue is Wilhelm Röpke. Also, Rev. Robert Sirico’s column takes a look at the spiritual side of the financial crisis in “Mistaken Faiths of our Age.”

It is a commonplace in discussions of environmental economics to consider so-called “negative externalities,” a technical term for the bad or damaging consequences of an activity that affects those outside the realm of economic decision-making.

For instance, I can make the choice to plant a tree in my yard on my own (presuming there are no regulatory hurdles to jump). A negative externality for my neighbor might be that my tree dumps a lot of leaves into his or her yard and they need to be cleaned up. Typically this level of external consequence is not given a concrete cost…we simply rake up whatever leaves happen to land in our yard, whether they are from trees we do or do not own (I got to thinking about this lately because I had to rake up a bunch of leaves this weekend. Thankfully I caught a relatively warm day after the rain had mostly dried up and the snow had not yet fallen). But if a branch or limb falls from my tree onto my neighbor’s property and causes damage, there may be a level of liability there that would allow for some sort of claim for economic compensation.

It is also a common part of this discussion for environmental economists to observe that we almost never place any concrete costs on positive externalities. I have no ability to charge my neighbor for the pleasure he or she receives from looking at my beautiful tree. I might be able to restrict this positive externality by building a fence and obstructing the view of my tree, but the beauty of the tree is a natural benefit that cannot be commodified in any usual sense.

Oftentimes these two observations, regarding the costs associated with negative externalities and the inability to commodify many positive externalities, are made with a somewhat grudging attitude. After all, thinks the economist, it seems unfair that a person be liable only for the bad things that happen because of their economic decisions but don’t stand to benefit because of the good things that happen. So from the economist’s perspective, there’s a bit of inconsistency there.

Common sense intuition runs the other way, however. We ought to pay for the harm that our actions cause, but it’s also appropriate that I can’t charge my neighbor for all the good my actions may do for him or her. In brief here’s a theological reason why the typical view is correct and is right to dominate both people’s thinking on these topics in general as well as the shape of public policy: Good is more fundamental and basic than evil.

This is a view typically associated with Augustine of Hippo, and in summary it simply means that evil is a departure from the good. The world order as created was “good,” for God made it and declared it such. Thus, the good of positive externalities is in some sense more basic than the evil of negative externalities. The harm caused by negative externalties is an evil resulting from the fact that things in a fallen world are simply not the way they are supposed to be.

Our conception that positive externalities are more basic than negative harms is an indirect witness to the priority of the good creation over the corruption of sin and evil. We can abuse the blessings of God’s goodness when we take these gifts for granted, too. But our sense that some norm of justice has been violated when there are negative externalities (and that the gracious order of natural blessings is more basic) is a moral intuition that the world was created good and in some radical way has departed from that original state.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, November 14, 2008
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Acton’s Sam Gregg on Public Discourse:

On November 15th, leaders of the world’s largest economies will gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss the ongoing international financial crisis. Figures such as Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown view the summit as an opportunity to reform international financial structures and perhaps create new ones. He and others have spoken of a “new Bretton Woods”—the 1944 international meeting that sought to design an international financial structure for a post-war world.

Today, relatively little is left of the original Bretton Woods. Many of its provisions concerning exchange rates and currencies, for instance, were gradually abandoned. Bretton Woods’ most prominent institutional legacies are the IMF and the World Bank. For different reasons, neither is especially liked by developed or developing countries. In recent years, both have struggled to define their missions. The World Bank has additionally been dogged by allegations of ignoring or even facilitating corruption in developing nations, not to mention criticisms that, more than most bureaucracies, the primary objective of many of its staff seems to be institutional self-preservation.

The contemporary financial crisis has demonstrated, however, that the basic impulse for Bretton Woods-like solutions to international economic problems is alive and well. Some national leaders, for instance, have echoed (probably unconsciously) John Maynard Keynes’s call at Bretton Woods for a “world central bank”. More generally, there is a strong push, especially from Western European governments, for the creation of more intergovernmental planning and bargaining mechanisms as the means to impose a new international regulatory order upon national banking and financial systems.

But is this ‘top-down’ approach really the best way to address the financial crisis over the long term? One prominent twentieth-century figure who would have vehemently disagreed was the German economist Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966).

Read the article at Public Discourse.