Archived Posts August 2010 » Page 5 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

Chinese Communism is no longer about ideology.  Now it is about power.

I reached this conclusion on the basis of six months spent in China and extensive conversations with my Chinese friend and fellow Acton intern Liping, whose analysis has helped me greatly in writing this post.

China began moving away from Communist ideology under Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms disassembled communes and created space for private businesses.  He justified these reforms to his Communist colleagues with the saying, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mice,” implying that even “capitalist” policies were justified if they succeeded in bringing economic growth.  And they certainly did.  Since that time, China’s economic development has been tremendous, so now Chinese people overwhelmingly approve of the reforms.

Despite the success of the opening of China’s markets, the country has not completely embraced free enterprise.  The PRC’s 60th anniversary celebration last fall featured signs boldly proclaiming, “Socialism is good.”  The government still controls key industries such as oil and runs enterprises in many other industries.

Further, all land in China is owned by the government.  Home buyers are technically only leasing land for 70-year periods, a policy established assuming that by that time, the houses will need to be rebuilt anyway.  The government sometimes sells land inside cities to developers for vastly inflated sums of money, evicting the people who already live there.  The remuneration that these people receive is frequently less than the value of the house, forcing them to find inferior housing elsewhere.  These policies have made housing within cities prohibitively expensive for most Chinese people, forcing them to commute from the suburbs.

Despite these continued regulations, economic freedom in China has made significant advances compared to its previous completely collectivized state.  Enterprise is permitted and even encouraged, as is trade with the outside world.  As people come to recognize the benefits of free markets, more and more are becoming eager to participate, which will make it much more difficult for the government to restrict these freedoms again in the future.

However, this economic freedom does not imply political freedom.  Deng Xiaoping, the same leader who had spearheaded the economic reforms, was responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters for political reform.  That incident twenty years ago is only one of the better-known examples of the political suppression that still occurs today.

The government holds a monopoly on the media, dominates the flow of information, and censors any ideas it finds potentially threatening.  It blocks access to web sites that range from information on tense political issues to social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.  When I was studying there, during a one-on-one session a teacher asked me what I knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre, admitting that due to censorship I probably knew more about it than she did.  When we had finished the discussion, she erased all relevant vocabulary from the board, saying that she didn’t want anyone to know what we had talked about.  Through the high school level and frequently afterward, students are indoctrinated with Marxist philosophy, and studies of literature are focused exclusively on nationalistic or patriotic themes.  Political dissent is strictly censored, and dissenters are often denied work or restricted from moving or publishing their work.

According to Liping, most new members of the Communist party do not actually believe in Marxism; they just see membership as a way to improve their chances of finding a good job.  Similarly, officials suppress opposing ideas, not because they are persuaded of the truth of Marxism but because they want to prevent dissent and opposition to their own party. Promoting Marxist ideas serves as a way to silence political rivals and to enforce popular support for their own rule.  The first Chinese communists sought power to serve their ideology, but today’s Chinese communists use ideology to preserve their power.

The expansion of economic freedom coupled with the continued political repression may seem like a contradiction, and indeed areas with more trade connections like Shanghai also have more political freedom than government centers like Beijing.  Yet fundamentally, this paradox exists because of the shaky foundation for what freedom they do have.

Deng Xiaoping’s justification for moving away from Communist economic ideology was based solely on pragmatic reasoning.  He figured that since the Communist system was failing miserably, changing economic systems might bring prosperity, a prediction that has been proven true.  Yet abandoning the one-party state did not have any such obvious benefits.  In fact, retaining a monopoly on political power was in the leaders’ personal interest.  They could even argue that it was good for the nation, creating what current president Hu Jintao euphemistically calls a “Harmonious Society” unified by common political beliefs.

In the West, arguments for freedom are closely tied to belief in individual rights which the government cannot legitimately violate.  These beliefs originated in the Christian view that people have special dignity because they are made in the image of God.  This foundation means that even if it would be expedient for the government to restrict freedom, it has no right to do so.  Officials may not always act to preserve the people’s freedom, but in violating freedom, they behave inconsistently with their own ideals.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is consistent in pragmatically following policies that they think will be beneficial, whether they increased freedom or not.  Freedom can bring tremendous practical benefits, which is what one would expect of a concept based on a true vision of human nature.  Yet these practical benefits alone do not constitute freedom’s foundation.  The freedom the government gives pragmatically, it can take away when freedom is no longer practical, or when the benefits it provides are less obvious.

Thus, what China lacks is not merely policies that allow people to act freely but an understanding of the essence and importance of freedom.  Freedom cannot be guaranteed by government pragmatism, but only by a genuine understanding of the rights of the people within the country, coupled with leaders who are willing to restrain their desire for power in order to respect these rights.

Are the Old Continent’s farmers showing that they have a real entrepreneurial spirit and serving as role models of courage and innovation during the Great Recession? Surely not all of them, but there are some inspiring examples to be found in Central and Southern Europe.

This is somewhat surprising as Europe’s agricultural sector is usually among the most traditional, least open to market innovation and product flexibility, and heavily reliant on EU funding to keep the sector competitive. Alas, European leadership in international food trade has been slowly whittled down in the last 3-4 decades.

Some European farmers, however, are resilient and are pulling rabbits out of hats these days by risking and investing heavily to implement creative new forms of business on their farms – many of which had been on the brink of failure.

It is primarily the French and Italians who are showing their true entrepreneurial spirit and vocation to agriculture. They appear to be some of the most tenacious and creative. Just like the Michigan dairy farmer, Brad Morgan, the protagonist of Acton’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, these farmers have turned to undervalued and completely overlooked assets to build lucrative profit-making ventures that often double and triple their old incomes. They have begun reshaping the way their traditional industry operates, and at a time when Europe has lost its competitive edge to cheaper food suppliers from Africa and South America.

Making matters worse has been the total evaporation of their once abundant workforce. In France, for example, rural industry employees currently make up a mere 3% of the nation’s workers, when it once boasted over 40% at the turn of the last century (cf. August 2010 Time article “How to Save Rural France”). And figures for those farmers who have registered as operating “professional” establishments in France’s campagne have dropped from 2,000,000 to 350,000 in the last fifty years. As noted out in a 2006 Acton commentary (“French ‘Security’ and Economic Reality”), this is not at all surprising: the vast majority of France’s youth dream of careers as civil servants, or want to secure life-long union protected contracts, and furthermore claim to generally dislike or distrust free market economics.

A final blow to European farming may come in a few years when the industry’s most heavily relied upon system of public subsidy – the Common Agricultural Policy – is set to undergo reform in 2013. And no one is quite certain what the consequences may be, as EU finance officials nudge the sector to become more competitive and market orientated.

Just what are they doing?


While some major industries in France, like auto manufacturing, have received generous public subsidies to remain competitive, French farmers are beginning to rely on their entrepreneurial spirit and genuine vocation to agriculture to turn their sector around.

They are achieving this by doing exactly what entrepreneurs are called to do: take risks through investment and creatively diversify their business offerings to customers.

For example, entrepreneurial farmers in the southern Ile-de-France grain producing region have utilized the bucolic beauty of their wavy golden fields and soft rolling hillsides to create profit-making ventures. The same beauty that inspired France’s great impressionnistes, now lures thousands of international vacationers to their prime holiday centers built out of once dilapidated grain storage facilities with glorious hill-top views.

It is these same farmers who are using abandoned wheat and barley fields as horse riding tracks. They are converting their dusty old barns into equestrian club houses. Others, like Rabourdin farms in Brie, have added premium beer making facilities to their production portfolios and now attract thousands to their own micro brew facilities and connoisseurs can order their products on-line.

While interviewed for the same Time article, agricultural entrepreneur Bernadette Porchelu said that for her Basque-country farm to succeed “it required a lot of work and investment.”

“But now,” she says, “We are hustling to keep up with the demand and have more than doubled our income. When we first decided to make this move, everyone said we’d fail. Today I wonder how most farms will survive if they don’t undertake similar diversification –which may be why some of our visitors include fellow farmers asking us how we made it work.”

It’s not just the French

One of Italy’s leading agricultural entrepreneurs hailing from Rome, Annibale Gozzi, says that while France is making headlines with its creative agrotourism, Italy is not lagging too far behind.

He says that “neither can Italian farms keep up with fierce international competition in food production…Manual farm labor in other parts of the world is ten times cheaper than in Italy and we simply cannot compete even with our tremendous advances farming methods and technology.”

“We too have been forced to try different things and strive for the full integration of our products, services and assets.”

Those farms that are most successful, like Gozzi’s own agrotourism south of Rome, Villa Germaine, are the ones that have become full-scale “multi-function” operations in addition to producing traditional agriculture.

Referring to his own agriculture establishment as an example, Gozzi says he has risked huge amounts of capital to maximize his farm’s business to include “integrative products and services” such as farming courses, horse riding, premium viticulture and olive oil production, tuffa cave wine and cheese tasting facilities, as well as a full-service hotel and restaurant. His establishment now even regularly hosts business luncheons and wedding receptions with lavish menus featuring his own fresh meat and produce.

He says he does this with dedication and pride, a dream to “do a first-class job for what I love”. Gozzi’s thriving business at Villa Germaine not only has allowed him to maximize his farm’s assets and profits, but truly exemplifies what it means to combine entrepreneurial spirit and tradition all in the same business.

He adds that Italians are catching on to but this type of inventiveness, “but it is still much more appreciated by foreigners and France is clearly leading the way.”

Why they really do it

Vastly increasing revenue has been a driving factor for the survival of European farmers – especially knowing their major public financial support may dramatically change in a few years’ time and as their industry is being swept away by international competition.

Even if Europe’s few remaining die-hards simply had more public financing, it doesn’t mean they would come out on top. It has not worked for decades and surely it does not provide the answer to their future.

Rather, we must follow the lead of those real entrepreneurs who in the toughest economic times are true to their vocation and come up with ingenious solutions to their sector’s woes. If there is a future at all, they are providing viable alternatives. And to do so, they must not only be highly creative. They must also be willing to take risks –a courageous attitude undertaken by those who genuinely live out a vocation and exhibit a real passion for their trade.

(This article is the first of a regular monthly series dedicated to entrepreneurship in Europe.)

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.

Those who love freedom were saddened to learn this morning of the passing of one of the most significant contributors to the cause of liberty and individual responsibility in Latin America, Manuel F. Ayau, affectionately known as “Muso” to his many friends and acquaintances, after a long and brave struggle with cancer.

A humble, self-effacing but determined man, Ayau is a classic example of someone who made a difference. Whereas others confined themselves to talking about the free society, Ayau decided from an early age that he would do whatever he could to create the conditions that promote liberty and therefore the opportunity for authentic human flourishing.

Born in Guatemala City 85 years ago, Ayau undertook his university studies in the United States. An engineer by training, Ayau had one of those intellectually curious minds that are forever seeking to know the truth of things. Hence, alongside a successful career as an entrepreneur, businessman, company director, commercial banker, and member of the Central Bank of Guatemala, Ayau never ceased to be a pioneer in promoting the life of the mind.

In the late 1950s, Ayau founded the Center for Economic and Social Studies (CEES) in Guatemala. Its purpose was simple: to study and develop wider understanding of the preconditions of societies that were both free and prosperous. In the conditions of 1950s Guatemala, most would have viewed such an enterprise as worthy of Don Quixote himself. But to Ayau’s mind, ideas mattered, and unless people were willing to invest in good ideas, then bad ideas would surely prevail.

Eventually his determination to spread the ideas of liberty in his own impoverished, fractured country led Ayau to found what will surely be his most lasting legacy, the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, which today is widely recognized as one of the best universities in Latin America. Named after an early bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquín, this university and its exceptionally talented faculty has educated thousands of young Latin Americans in the foundations of freedom and responsibility, and alerted them to the importance and virtue of always seeking after the truth.

But apart from his institutional achievements, I have often thought that what most characterized Ayau’s work and life was his courage. Not many people would take the risk of creating a private university in a Central American country noted for its instability and poverty. Nor was Ayau afraid to take his ideas directly into the public square. He served, for instance, as a member of Guatemala’s Congress and even stood for president in 1990. Ayau was no stranger to threats, including against his own life, yet he was never intimidated by those who prefer violence to reason. In the face of political pressures that most would find unbearable, Ayau never lost hope in the cause of freedom and its capacity to contribute to the common good of his country.

Ayau’s contributions to the growth of the habits and institutions of liberty in Guatemala are, like most substantive achievements, immeasurable. He did not, however, limit his activities to his own nation. He worked tirelessly for liberty at the international level for decades. As a reflection of the esteem in which others held him, Ayau served a term as President of the Mont Pèlerin Society and was a long time member of the board of directors of the Liberty Fund as well as a trustee of the Foundation for Economic Education—organizations that have all worked tirelessly over many decades in often difficult circumstances to explain and develop the ideas of freedom and the virtues needed to sustain them to several generations of students and scholars.

Much time will pass before Ayau’s full legacy bears all of its fruit, especially in the persons of the many young minds that have passed through Universidad Francisco Marroquín. But in all my conversations with Ayau, I always marveled at his quiet confidence that, no matter how difficult the odds, truth would prevail over error, not least because he believed that human beings were made for freedom—in the fullest and richest sense of that word—rather than slavery and ignorance.

Whenever I think about Ayau, however, I can’t help but recall the first time I read his Inaugural Address presented at the inauguration of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín on January 15, 1972. The 1970s were not a happy decade for freedom. The West was undergoing one of its worst crises of self-confidence, thousands of Latin American intellectuals were becoming convinced that the materialist and collectivist principles of Marxism-Leninism was the future, and universities around the world were increasingly descending into a morass of relativism and a preference for propagating ideology over the pursuit of truth.

Throughout Ayau’s remarks, however, breathes a spirit of optimism, a belief in humanity’s capacity for self-improvement, and an assurance that the light of liberty and truth could never be extinguished. “May God help us and show us the way to the truth”, were the words with which Ayau ended his address. His faith in the workings of Providence never dimmed.

In this moment of sadness, we remember Ayau’s family. They shared his dreams and in their own ways helped him to turn them into reality. But we also honor a man who never hesitated to put his talents and mind at the service of others, many of whom will never know just how much they owe him.

Manuel F. Ayau, requiescat in pace.

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.

(more…)

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.

Blog author: esunshine
posted by on Monday, August 2, 2010

During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.

This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.

Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.

People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy.  Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.

In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.

Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.

In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:

The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!

On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.

Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.

Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.

On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.

People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.

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….