Archived Posts April 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog. Crossposted with their permission.

Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.

In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.

The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”

Atlas Shrugged, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.

The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.

Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.

The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.

Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.

The Dressmaker of Khair KhanaPoverty is inevitable in a war zone, right? One’s movements are restricted, buildings and businesses are damaged, people flee. Add to that random acts of violence brought by the Taliban and the already damaged economy of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and poverty seems unavoidable.

Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe, journalist and Harvard Business School student Gayle Tzemach Lemmon sets off in search women who are able to start and sustain businesses in the most harrowing of times: war.

In Kabul, Lemmon meets Kamila Sidiqi, one of eleven siblings who must find a way to support her family during the years of Taliban rule. With her father having to flee the city and her mother in poor health, it falls on her shoulders to make sure she and her siblings eat and stay safe. She decides to learn sewing from her eldest sister and literally turns the family home into a design-studio, production line and warehouse. She seeks out clients, develops new lines of clothing and makes good on delivery dates. In other words, she creates a successful business.

But Kamila Sidiqi is not satisfied with merely keeping her own family safe and sound. As a Muslim, she believes it is her duty to help those less fortunate. She begins to train and hire neighborhood women to sew and do the detailed embroidery and beading work that her business requires. Her hope is to not only grow her own business, but teach skills to women so that they, too, can start their own businesses.

Eventually, Sidiqi is approached by the Women’s Community Forum, an NGO that teaches and trains women in business. Sidiqi is asked to become a leader, to travel and give workshops to other Afghani women trying to start businesses. If trying to keep a business going in war-torn Kabul is not frightening enough, traveling with the Women’s Community Forum is absolutely terrifying. In fact, one of Sidiqi’s sisters tries desperately to take Kamila out of taking this role, fearing for her life (with good reason). Sidiqi plunges ahead, believing again it is her duty to help as many people as she can escape poverty.

By the 2005, with the Taliban out of power, Sidiqi has started another business, “Kaweyan” (after a prosperous Iranian dynasty), that seeks to train aspiring business owners in skills such as writing business plans, budgeting, and utilizing interns in Afghanistan and several other countries. Her goal at that time was to create mobile teams that were able to visit and teach those in remote areas.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a captivating war-time adventure story, but it is also a lesson in tenacity and courage. What will it take to overcome poverty? One person, with a great business idea, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make that idea a reality.

Before we leave Bright Week, some paschal flash mob public square Spirit from a shopping mall in Beirut. Source: Sat-7 Arabic

From EconStories.tv:

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession ended almost two years ago, in the summer of 2009. But we’re all uneasy. Job growth has been disappointing. The recovery seems fragile. Where should we head from here? Is that question even meaningful? Can the government steer the economy or have past attempts helped create the mess we’re still in.

John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek never agreed on the answers to these questions and they still don’t. Let’s listen to the greats. See Keynes and Hayek throwing down in “Fight of the Century”.

Patriarch Bechara Rai

As a Lebanese Maronite Catholic student in Rome and a new intern at Istituto Acton, I had the great honor and privilege to attend the audience of the new Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Bechara Rai, with Pope Benedict XVI. The April 14 audience gave me the occasion to think about our new Patriarch’s role in promoting the entrepreneurial vocation in Lebanon. Our new patriarch seems to be a very active, energetic man, in keeping with the majority of his flock, but both his church and his country face many daunting challenges.

The Lebanese have a great reputation for entrepreneurship the world over, dating from Phoenician times. The nation’s universities are also some of the best in the Arab world and the country has a strong capital base. But the seemingly constant political turmoil in Lebanon has forced many entrepreneurs to go abroad in search of the peace and stability required for economic growth, but entrepreneurial talent and technical knowledge still exist in large quantities — equal to any in the region.

Brain drain, how to make the best use of investments, cultural barriers and bureaucratic inefficiencies are all issues that a Lebanese entrepreneur must contend with, though all are surmountable. Indeed, a wide variety of non-profit organizations exist to provide crucial support services. And there are plenty of business plan contests that can help provide startup capital.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to starting a business in Lebanon is the country’s lagging infrastructure, not surprising due to past and recent civil wars and foreign interventions. The individual entrepreneur is obviously limited in what he or she can do to improve the quality of the country’s telecommunications and electricity grids. But if we think of entrepreneurialism as state of mind, there is much the Maronite Church can do to encourage it.

The role of the Maronite Church in Lebanon remains a very important one culturally and politically, in addition to religiously. Half of the Lebanese population are Maronite, including the President of the republic. The Maronite Patriarch has Patriarchal See in Lebanon and the church works to preserve and strengthen the power of the Maronite Catholic Christian in Lebanon. The Maronite often finds himself caught between secular Syrian instigators, Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, and Israeli military incursions, all of whom have their own particular interests and plans for Lebanon.

But, as a former seminarian, I can now see that there was very little formation in social doctrine and especially in market economics. I very much hope the new Patriarch may follow the lead of Pope John Paul II and encourage his Church to strengthen the cultural-ethical framework of society rather than intervene directly in the messy and at times dangerous realm of Lebanese politics. If Maronites could find a way to bridge the gap between the warring factions of Lebanon through dynamic commerce, it may have the possibility of helping pave the way for peace in one small but important part of the Middle East. I would love to see some basic economic education for seminarians towards this end, so that Lebanese entrepreneurs both inside and outside the country feel that their faith supports their normal activities and that their normal activities can and should be the place of their sanctification.

The old ways of businessmen leaving the country so that the politicians can ruin it is no longer feasible. I will be praying that Patriarch Rai finds new ways of addressing ancient problems for all of our sakes.

Hear Chuck Colson, Acton’s Michael Miller, Scott Rae, John Stonestreet, and others at the Doing the Right Thing conference on Saturday, May 7, 9am – 1pm, at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill. Preview a new ethics curriculum; explore issues of truth, morality, virtue and character; and learn how to educate others to discover the framework to distinguish right from wrong and begin doing the right thing. Cost is $25 (pastors and students free). To register, visit this link.

This event is part of a nationwide tour to preview a six-part curriculum produced by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, “Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.” This DVD-based series and the live tour events explore topics such as How did we get into this mess?; Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?; If we know what is right, can we do it?; What does it mean to be human?; Ethics in public life; and Ethics in the marketplace.

Event participants will preview extended clips from the video series, hear presentations from leading experts on the topics, and have the opportunity to pre-order the DVD series at a special advance rate in order to begin with others conversations on ethics, morality, virtue, character, truth and issues of right and wrong.

Co-sponsors for the event include the Acton Institute, BreakPoint / Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, WMBI / Moody Radio and WYLL-AM.

The curious alignment of Good Friday and Earth Day last week sparked much reflection about the relationship between the natural world and religious faith, but the previous forty days also manifested a noteworthy confluence of worldly and otherworldly concerns. The season of Lent occasioned a host of religious voices to speak out not simply about spiritual hunger, but about material needs too, as political debates in the nation’s capital and around the country focused on what to do about federal spending.

As I explore in an “On the Square” feature at the First Things site today, such discussions “often generate more heat than light.” In “Budget Cuts of Biblical Proportions,” I note the recent formation of a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.” I also highlight “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis,” which I consider a “valiant attempt to elevate the debate.” If the point of the Call was to raise the discourse to more adult levels, then I think it must be judged a success (insofar as it has had any broader impact). Last week’s roundtable discussion at AEI attests to this, I think.

In the final analysis, however, I judge the Call to suffer the same fate as these other similar campaigns: “Instead of focusing on ways to empower other institutions and levels of government and galvanize them to relieve the burden of the federal government, these efforts simply feed into the fundamentally false dilemma of federal action or no action at all.”

One of the basic problems is that we no longer agree as a society what government is for, what the telos or purpose of the institution of the state is. I argue that we need to reconsider the basic purposes of government, which will then provide us with a framework for prioritizing certain kinds of spending. I also argue that the strategy to pursue where the true costs of government have been hidden by deficit spending and when there is a system that has been “trying to do too much for too many for too long” is to work to privatize and localize, rather than to nationalize and centralize.

This kind of strategy really does offer an alternative to the “lazy” and “unimaginative” options of simply raising taxes (on the rich, the middle class, or both) or cutting spending. Michael Gerson recently said that across-the-board and “indiscriminate cuts are an abdication of governing.” On this view, then, cutting spending and retaining relative spending priorities is not a viable option.

An illusion behind all of these Christian campaigns on the budget crisis is the idea that we can skip over these questions and still have something worthwhile to contribute to the national discussion. This error lies in the belief, as the Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey put it,

that there is such a thing as hybrid or satyrlike statements of moral fact within the scope of prophecy and precise preaching, and within the competence of Christian deliberation as such, or the deliberations of Christians as such. Statements of moral fact would melt together moral judgments and fact verdicts, principle and application, into something else that is somehow neither and both.

The mistaken impression is that so long as particular programs or policies aren’t explicitly identified in these calls then we are still operating within the legitimate realm of principle rather than making prudential judgments about specifics.

Gerson also says, “Serving the public interest requires a determination of what works and what doesn’t. This is one of the primary duties of those in government.” This underscores one of the sticking points that arose from our discussion of the Call last week. There is a great deal loaded into the term “effective” in the document. One person’s “effective” program is another’s wasteful and superfluous expenditure. Every interest group contends that its programs are the ones that are essential and indispensable. Everyone has their own favorite projects. So again, I ask, what makes a program effective? The Call doesn’t help us here.

So the dynamic of our situation is this: we no longer agree about what the good society looks like, or what government’s role at various levels is relative to that goal, and so we can no longer agree on ways to progress towards that goal. Forming “circles of protection” and calling for intergenerational justice will simply continue to nibble at the edges of and paper over these more fundamental problems until such time as we can begin to answer some of these questions. In the case of the budget this means getting back to basics. But more fundamentally it means agreeing about where we ought to be going.

Thus, writes C. S. Lewis, “Progress means getting nearer the place you want to be.” The question really comes down to where we want to be and what it will look like when we get there; and on that we don’t all agree.

Here is the dramatic front page of The Birmingham News this morning with the headline “Day of Devastation.” It is imperative to highlight just some of the Christian responses to the tornadoes USA Today is reporting has now killed over 240 people. Just one example of the amazing response in Alabama: A facebook page titled “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” already has over 36,000 followers. The page is a network of Auburn fans who have put their sports civil war on hold to respond to the hardest hit Southern city, Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. The page already has a photo posted of Auburn students raising money and collecting donations for the community of their arch-nemesis.

Christian ministries are instrumental for disaster relief because they are first on the scene and when they respond from outside the community they remain committed. Social networking sites are proving to be invaluable. Last night, I saw a friend from seminary in Tupelo, Mississippi organizing an impromptu effort to bring drinks to people in overcrowded emergency rooms caused by the storm.

Stories of groups like The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) literally cutting through massive amounts of debris so they could set up hot food tents the day after Katrina was common in Mississippi. See my post titled “Faith-Based Charities Understand Long Term Need” concerning the Katrina disaster. My own church here in Grand Rapids, just got back from a mission trip from my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. Christian churches from all over the country are still heavily involved in contributing to Katrina recovery efforts. This will be the case with the response to the tornadoes as well.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the Christian ministries already committed to responding to the devastation caused by the tornadoes:

Today in Acton News & Commentary we brought you guest columnist Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild,” based on his new American Enterprise Institute monograph, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI, looks at how the “connection between rising material standards and environmental improvement seems a paradox, because for a long time many considered material prosperity and population growth the irreversible engines of environmental destruction.” Not so. Hayward:

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”

I want to thank John Baden of the the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., for bringing this to our attention. Baden’s introduction to Hayward’s commentary is worth reprinting here in full; it’s an excellent thumbnail summary of environmental economics.

Steve Hayward’s column … makes one wonder how noted environmental professionals, and even scientists, can be so, how can I say it gently, remarkably ignorant and intellectually arrogant as this: “Economics is a form of brain damage.” Economics isn’t an ideology or a mental affliction. Rather, it’s the systematic study of allocating scarce resources among contending ends.

When applied to environmental and natural resource problems, its practitioners make a few nearly universally valid assumptions. Here are a few.

When things are free, they are counted as such and hence often over used. Common pools of fish exemplify this.

As scarcity increases, people conserve and innovate. Consider barbed wires introduction to open range, the development of particleboard, laminated beams, and plywood. Entrepreneurs developed these solutions to the increased scarcity of grass and old growth timber.

Property rights and markets peacefully coordinate development and use among people who don’t know one another and generate incentives to act as though they care about unknown others. That’s one under-appreciated function of markets.

Bureaucratic-political management replaces market prices with political favor seeking. Corn ethanol is a classic example that causes untold human misery and great environmental damage.

Wealthier is greener; poverty is the worst polluter.

And this; things that are best and most easily measured are not those that matter most.

Economics isn’t about money, it’s about confronting and helping to resolve the many problems of scarcity in a clear and logical manner. Soft hearts need not imply a mushy brain.

Read Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild” on the Acton site. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Earlier this month, prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered the 2011 Kuyper Prize Lecture at the Kuyper Center conference, “Calvinism and Culture.”

In this lecture, Robinson explores and reframes our historical understanding of the Reformed tradition and its relationship to “Christian liberalism.” She says,

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation. And this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament. This is a bold statement, very much against the grain of historical consensus. Though I acknowledge that it may be indefensible in any number of particulars, I will argue that in a general sense it is not only true, but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.

She traces this idea of Christian liberalism to the Reformation ideas about generosity and responsibility. She notes,

But in Renaissance French, libéral, libéralité, meant “generous, generosity.” And of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized Version. The word occurs in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, non-exclusive generosity.

The point here does not apply to non-exclusivity of doctrine (which is how it is typically understood, and applied as she notes in the context of figures like Adolf von Harnack). The point is rather that Christian liberalism, as informed by the Reformed reception of the biblical witness, is that it is focused on a vision of social life and culture.

As Robinson says, “All this is of interest because the verses I have quoted and the word liberal itself, supported by the meaning the verses give to it, are central to American social thought from its beginning.”

The audio of Robinson’s lecture is available in MP3 format here.