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I’m currently in Lisbon ahead of Acton’s fourth conference in the seven-part series Poverty, Entrepreneurship, and Integral Development. Entitled “Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise, and Poverty”, it will take place on Tuesday, November 9 at the Catholic University of Portugal. Click here for more information or if you happen to be in the Lisbon area and want to join us.

Tuesday’s conference was designed to focus on the Portuguese-speaking world, primarily because of its inter-continental scope and close connection to the Catholic faith, and to discuss the challenges posed by extreme poverty in developing countries and what can be done to address them. As often happens with our conferences, the reality of current events has a way of stressing the importance of principles that support a free and virtuous society.

I was still reeling from the news that the U.S. Federal Reserve will print $600 billion of new money upon my arrival yesterday when I read that the Portuguese prime minister criticized “speculative movements” for the country’s high bond yields.

Later in the day, I learned of the recent election of the left-wing Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and her desires to continue her predecessor Lula’s economic reforms towards an environment of inflation targeting and broad fiscal responsibility. Rather surprising coming from a former guerilla fighter whose tendencies should be to distrust markets and increase the size and scope of the state.

And finally, the United Nations published its 2010 Human Development Report, which shows that developing countries have become much wealthier and healthier in the last 40 years, which not coincidentally is more or less when many of these countries have opened themselves up to the benefits of free markets, both domestically and internationally. The UNDP report’s central thesis that “people are the real wealth of a nation” echoes, of course, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus and its proclamation that “man’s greatest resource is man himself” (n. 32).

What current events such as these are telling me is that while poorer countries have adopted free markets in order to improve the living conditions of their people, it is the developed world that has forgotten the lessons of wealth creation and free enterprise. The former colonials now have much to teach their former masters! Quite a remarkable shift that, in my mind, looks poised to stand for some time to come.

These and other delicious ironies of the day will certainly make for a stimulating event on Tuesday.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hayek and Keynes are dropping beats again – this time live! If you haven’t seen the original, check it out here.

Acton On The AirTuesday was a momentous day in American politics, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico was called upon to commentate on the results of the mid-term elections yesterday a couple of times:

  • Guest host Sheila Liaugminas invited Father Sirico to comment on the outcome of the election and the impact of the Catholic vote on the results for The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio.  Listen via the audio player below:

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  • Father Sirico also provided commentary on the Ave Maria Radio Network, joining host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon. Again, listen via the audio player below:

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Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America.  Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda.  But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with.  Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power.  Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life.  For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change.   Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc.  All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life?  And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals.  The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs.  Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference.  Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market.  We already know how that story ends.  And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.

It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are.  Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place.  The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit.  The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries.  As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.

At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:

Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, writes in the Nov. 4 IRFA Newsletter:

The races haven’t all even been decided yet, and, given the big changes, it will take considerable time for new directions to be settled, so it is far too soon to try to guess how the November 2nd voting will affect national policy. Just a few quick thoughts:

Two notable changes in Congress to the benefit of institutional religious freedom:

Dan Coats, who served in the Senate (R-IN) from 1989-1999, was just re-elected to the Senate. In his earlier service he was a noted champion of faith-based services, proposing (with William Bennett) a range of innovative civil society policies under the name “Project for American Renewal.”

Chet Edwards (D-TX), first elected to the House in 1991, was defeated. Edwards has been one of the fiercest congressional critics of the faith-based initiative and a harsh opponent of what he called “religious job discrimination” by faith-based organizations that receive federal funds.

Leadership of the House changes from Democrat to Republican:

Congressman John Boehner (R-OH), the likely new Speaker of the House, has been a strong supporter of religious freedom for persons and organizations. In general, the change from an aggressive progressive agenda to a conservative stance in the House will be positive: less governmental expansion means fewer pressures on organizations committed to historic religious values. That goes, too, for the “tea party” commitment to reigning in the growth of government spending and the government’s impact on life. Researchers have noted, too, that many tea partiers are strong religious believers.

However, in complex modern societies, religious freedom needs to be protected not only by restraining government intrusion where it doesn’t belong but also by making sure that when the government is active it takes positive steps to respect the exercise of religion by individuals and institutions. How well will the tea party and the resurgent Republicans do on this score?

An area for continual concern: how the administration will use its administrative discretion, its own ability to steer the government in the absence of congressional action? The move to abrogate the Bush administration’s “conscience” regulations at HHS, the extensive administrative discretion given to the HHS Secretary by the health reform law, and the adminstration’s commitment to progressive sexual politics all are reasons to be alert.

Carlson-Thies served in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001-2002, and assisted with writing “Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs.” (August, 2001)

My recent posts on politics and austerity and this week’s Acton Commentary refer to a principled basis for limited government. I speak of “the limits of government rooted in a rich and variegated civil society.”

Here’s a good statement of that basis from Lord Acton:

There are many things government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.

On October 21st at Acton’s 20th Anniversary Dinner, Richard M. DeVos – Co-Founder of Amway Corporation with his friend Jay Van Andel – was presented with the 2010 Faith and Freedom Award.  Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, cited DeVos for his “decades-long exemplary leadership in business, his dedication to the promotion of liberty, his courage in maintaining and defending the free and virtuous society, and his conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

In his remarks upon accepting the award, DeVos commented on his years in business, the impact that his Christian faith has had on his life, and on the crises faced by the United States in World War II and in the present day.  Portions of his comments are presented below:

An example of the impact that Rich DeVos spoke of at the end of his remarks came earlier in the evening from Nicole Boone, an alumna of Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous City conference and Executive Director of Goshen International, an educational ministry in South Africa:

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A new article from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter here.

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A Tale of Two Europes

By Samuel Gregg

The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.

These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.

While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.

No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.

Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)

I introduced this week’s Acton Commentary yesterday with some thoughts about “The Audacity of Austerity.” In today’s “‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter,” I take to task the attitude embodied by Paul Krugman’s vilification of proponents of austerity measures.

Most recently Krugman called such advocates “debt moralizers,” implicitly drawing the connection between austerity measures and “puritanical” virtues like thrift. In this Krugman follows in the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed has much to answer for in forming the popular, and mistaken, understanding of the Puritans and joyless, dour, and rigid.

But the joke is, of course, that in denouncing the “debt moralizers” Krugman is himself “moralizing.” It just so happens that instead of moralizing against wanton debt and deficit spending, he is moralizing against commonsense “puritanical” wisdom. He is moralizing against those who dare to think that government bureaucrats and the public intelligentsia aren’t fit to rule the political economy by virtue of their “expertise.”

Krugman’s message amounts to the view that the hoi polloi don’t really know what’s best for them, and it is up to the few enlightened planners of civilization to run things properly.

If I might be allowed to make another literary comparison, in this Krugman is a bit like Shift, the Ape from The Last Battle, the concluding book of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. The book beings by describing the relationship between Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey (or Ass), and although both would say they are friends, the nature of the friendship is rather suspect, for “from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend.”

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Shift uses his superior way with words and quick wit to manipulate Puzzle into doing what he wants. All the while Shift reiterates the same message to Puzzle.

Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all. And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.” And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.

This all too often is the message from K Street (and Wall Street) to Main Street: We understand what needs to be done better than you. On the heels of yesterday’s election, it is up to the new legislators not to simply sigh on behalf of their constituents and go along with the way things always go inside the Beltway.

As I argue in today’s commentary, contrary to Krugman, we ought to think of the ‘A’ for austerity not as a scarlet letter but rather as a red badge of political courage.

For those PowerBlog readers in the Chicago area, I’ll be in town next Tuesday for a luncheon where I’ll be discussing the topic, “How Ideology Destroys Biblical Ecumenism.”

The event is sponsored by the Chicago-based ministry ACT 3 and will be held at St. Paul United Church of Christ, 118 S. First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. The event will begin at 11:45am (Tuesday, November 9) and you can register for the luncheon at the ACT 3 website.

The point of departure for my talk will be my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, and those who are able to attend the luncheon will receive a complimentary copy.

Robert Joustra, a researcher at the Canadian think tank Cardus, says this about the book and the contemporary ecumenical debate about globalization:

Ballor is spot-on when worrying that narrowly framing the debate this way can obscure the fact that globalization is about a great deal more than economics or politics. Isn’t it ironic that the ecclesial conversation is essentially a thinly-baptized version of exactly the same disagreements in the secular world, but with less technical capacity and more theological abstraction? This is Ballor’s most important point.

My friend John Armstrong, who runs ACT 3 and is organizing the luncheon, recommends Ecumenical Babel as “a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.”