Archived Posts June 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

Earlier this week on the Acton Institute Facebook page, Rev. Sirico’s archived article “What is Capitalism?” was posted and sparked a lively discussion between two people (click here to see our Facebook page and the discussion). This blog post is to serve as my response.

Your idea of communionism, at least from what I understand from your comments, bears some resemblances to communism which has the end goal of society or the community possessing property in common. This, however, doesn’t preserve human dignity properly; nor does not foster interdependence among people. Instead it creates a society dependent on a centralized government.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains some of the core the problems with common property. Like Aristotle, he notes, that individuals are better managers of property because it allows for a more orderly fashion of management, and as he states “human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common not individually.” The quarrels can arise because no individual is specifically responsible for the care of the common property. There is no person who feels like he or she has stake in the property. A direct result, and historical example, of common property is the tragedy of the commons.

In Capital Marx argues that there is no value in human labor per se. He states “human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” This is contrary to Christian beliefs. There is intrinsic value in human labor itself. To work is a calling and a form of stewardship. In the encyclical Laborem Exercens, (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II explains how working is a direct expression of our human dignity. Such preservation of human dignity cannot be found in a system that devalues work.

The idea of property that you advocate is also found in Marx’s Capital and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This idea is flawed on many levels. It doesn’t take into account that the entrepreneur purchases the raw goods that the workers use to make the end product. As a result, based on any definition of property, the entrepreneur is the sole owner of the raw goods and it is his or her private property, not the worker. The worker engages in a contract with the entrepreneur in an exchange of services. Just because the worker uses his or her services, which he or she is paid for by the entrepreneur, does not translate into the worker becoming the owner of the raw good which becomes the final product.

The idea of private property that you advocate, rescinding property rights for all corporations, is dangerous on many levels. It puts political rights, religious rights, and all private property rights in danger. Marx notes that the abolition of private property for the bourgeois leads to the abolition of family because, according to his argument, the family is rooted in property and private gain. Furthermore, Marx articulates that his beliefs, which bring forth a communist centralized system, also abolish religion.

In Federalist Paper No. 10 James Madison argues how the first object of any government is the protection of property. Furthermore, in Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville explains that what makes America successful is its protection of private property for all. No landed property class exists. He articulates how the protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. Furthermore the right to property fosters “…obedience to established law, of the influence of good mores in republics, and of the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom…” What makes America special and successful, according to Tocqueville, is the protection of rights for all people. As Tocqueville demonstrates, the right of property needs to be protected because other rights stem from it. This right extends to even corporations. Rights should be guaranteed for all, not winners and losers picked by the government.

Again, private property should be protected at all levels, for both individuals and corporations. Hernando de Soto explains this in his book and in an essay both titled, The Mystery of Capital. Through examples found in his essay, book, and case studies (which can be found by clicking here), de Soto effectively argues using proven facts, statistics, and real world examples that the protection of capital and private property rights has led to economic prosperity in the west, whereas the lack of protection is a leading reason to the economic disparity in poor countries. If we fail to protect private property rights on all levels, then we begin down a path of economic decline. Without the protection of private property rights, and an effective legal structure to guarantee such protection, the wrong message is being sent to businesses. No business will want to invest in an economic climate that is hostile towards them.

A market system, which is what Rev. Sirico argues for in his article “What is Capitalism?” actually fosters virtues that all Christians value. This is articulated by Stephen Grabil in his essay “The Market, School of Virtue.” Here Grabil shows that greed is not what makes a free market churning, but instead it is virtue. Some of the virtues fostered in a free market are trustworthiness, self-control, sympathy, and fairness. Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, demonstrates that greed is a vice which even Adam Smith condemned. Richards also shows why greed does not lead to a successful market economy, but actually destroys it.

In regards to the referenced Fulton Sheen article titled “New Slavery” it is important to note that the article was written in 1943 when many monopolies were present in the market. Acton has never believed in or supported crony capitalism. Monopolies do not allow competition which is bad for the consumer and the worker. Also, Sheen does not advocate for the end of private property in his article. Instead he says we have a right to private property and our use of it should be righteous “Possession [of property] has two faces, two aspects: we all have a right to private property, but this is accompanied by our responsibility for its righteous use.” As Sirico articulates in the posted article, when the market is structured successfully it is the consumer who has primary control and then next is the worker. This is because of competition. Monopoly capitalism comes when the government gets into bed with businesses, and essentially block new entrepreneurs and potential new competitors from entering into the market.

Free markets are not just about an economic system. It is something greater than economics, it is about freedom. The freedom to choose what to purchase, the freedom for the worker to find an employer and not be forced into employment with the state or a monopoly, and the freedom to hold property and have it protected, this freedom is what capitalism is about. Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America and correctly articulated how the protection of private property, in all levels, has led to the great freedom Americans enjoy. However, Tocqueville also recognized the need for virtuous men and women because he knew America cannot succeed, nor its structure of government without them. As he states, “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people: one can almost say that there is no society; for what is a union of rational and intelligent being among whom force is the sole bond?”

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped “There is properly no history; only biography.” It’s a line that lends to exaggeration for effect but speaks to the centrality of narrative and story. One of the great books I had the pleasure of reading about in regards to our story of independence is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. It was fascinating to read about how a group of men came together to defend their property, way of life, and community against the British Crown. Fischer does a good job at pointing out how many of the leaders of the skirmish on the roads to Lexington and Concord were Christian ministers. Ministers were often the most educated in a community and the colonists looked to them first for leadership, especially in a situation so grave where the taking up of arms was considered.

One of the experiences that shaped me deeply in my appreciation for this country was living overseas in Egypt. When you see deep subjugation of people and heartbreaking poverty it humbles you and helps you appreciate the opportunities and blessings freedom can provide. Right now, there is understandably a lot of uncertainty about the future of this country. This includes our massive debt, economic health, prosperity, and certainly the moral order. One of the things I think I try to articulate through some of my writing and talks here at Acton is the importance of getting back to first principles. It is something all of us here at Acton are intentional about focusing on in the work we do. A great example is our discussion about the budget and the proper role of government. It is evident that as government intrusion grows it becomes even more clear that politics and politicians are unable to solve our national ills.

In speaking about America and the story of America, another book that has had a tremendous impact on me and really is an essential story for thinking about what it means to be an American is When Hell Was in Session by Admiral Jeremiah Denton. For some, his story may appear to be one that has faded with time or was more important in a Cold War context. But as Christians know, while believers wouldn’t willingly choose suffering, there is something powerful that happens to us in Christ when we suffer. Denton suffered brutal beatings and mental anguish during his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1965-1973. He had plenty of time to grow in his faith under his communist captors. Under those extreme circumstances, he also came to a deeper understanding about the foundations, ideals, and way of life he was defending as an American and why they were so valuable.

In the colonies during the Revolution a common cry was “There is no king, but King Jesus.” It was certainly a slap at the Crown, but it also showed the revolution was grounded in first principles and freedom flows from God and not from a monarchy, or human power. Scripture declares, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It of course refers to spiritual liberty and not political liberty. It’s ultimately a majestic reminder that through trials, breakdown of society, and all of our national despair on display so well in Washington and across this land, that our hope and grounding is found in Christ.

Many of the men, many of them not unlike us, afraid for their future and the direction of their colony, nervously huddled together on the Lexington and Concord road with muskets in hand to deliver the “shot heard ’round the world.” They understood that spiritual truth and that God was their hope and anchor. Edward Mote summed up the situation we all face well when he penned the hymn “My Hope is Built.” His simple words: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Elise Amyx recently published an interesting post about the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, focusing on financial regulation.  Another interesting look at regulation concerns the “Ponzi scheme” that Bernard Madoff was apprehended for three years ago.

The tale begins in 2000 when Harry Markopolos, a chartered financial analyst and certified fraud examiner, submitted information to the Security and Exchange Commission’s Director of Enforcement, Grant Ward, that there were signs that Madoff was operating a fraudulent fund.  However, no action was taken by the SEC until 2008, when the damage from Madoff’s fraud was already done.

For eight years, the SEC, among other government financial regulators and private news sources, refused to audit Madoff’s fund for fraud, even though, to many financial experts, it appeared obvious something illicit was occurring.

Markopolos stated, “The biggest, most glaring tip-off that this had to a fraud was that Madoff only reported 3 down months out of 87 months, whereas the S&P 500 was down 28 months during that time period. No money manager is only down 3.4% of the time. That would be equivalent to a Major League Baseball player batting .966 and no one suspecting this player was cheating” (page 9).

In addition to the SEC, Markopolos tried to alert the Wall Street Journal to Madoff’s scheme: “ … there were several points in time when he [Wall Street Journal senior investigative reporter John Wilke] was getting ready to book air travel to start the story and then would get called off at the last minute. I never determined if the senior editors at the WSJ failed to authorize this investigation” (16).

The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece considering Markopolos and had this to say about his character: “Critics say he’s self-righteous and a little bit crazy. In his book, No One Would Listen, Mr. Markopolos describes how he armed himself should he ever meet Mr. Madoff face-to-face. He fortified his home for what he thought was the very real possibility the SEC would send a team to suppress evidence that it knew about Mr. Madoff through Mr. Markopolos’ efforts to expose him.”  So, perhaps the WSJ simply thought Markopolos was exaggerating and creating a scandal where there wasn’t one.

However, Markopolos stated in his testimony that he was disgusted that “neither the WSJ nor the SEC were inclined to even pick up a phone and dial any of the leads I had provided to them” (17).

Markopolos rightly stated, in his testimony, that this “was an abject failure by the regulatory agencies we entrust as our watchdog” to take action and investigate Madoff (1).

Even more disturbing to Markopolos was that “dozens of highly knowledgeable men and women also knew that Madoff was a fraud and walked away silently, saying and doing nothing,” (24) demonstrating that, like Amyx stated, a government cannot legislate into existence morality or values (like honesty!) for citizens.

In his testimony, Markopolos added, “We can ask ourselves would the result have been different if those others had raised their voices, and what does that say about self-regulated markets?” (25)

If personal morality and self-regulation fail, which underpin the free market, and government regulation fails, what can be done?

One obvious flaw is the United States has too many regulators and too many laws, yet not much effective regulation.  It seems a strange statement, but Markopolos said as much in his testimony to Congress: “Our nation has too many financial regulators. The separation and lack of connection and communication between them leaves too many gaping holes for financial predators to engage in ‘regulator arbitrage’ and exploit these regulatory gaps where no one regulator is the monitor” (29).

Criminals, like Madoff, can easily shift between regulators and regulatory jurisdictions, and avoid punishment for years, eroding faith that markets are self-correcting and self-regulatory and that individuals or the government are capable of, if called upon, preventing financial crime.

As much as over-regulation seems to be the problem, Markopolos never made the case that all regulation or oversight was unnecessary.  Indeed, he recognizes that a clear, but limited amount is beneficial to keep white-collar criminals, like Madoff, at bay.

In Markopolos’ opinion, “The goal needs to be to combine regulatory functions into as few a number as possible to prevent regulatory arbitrage, centralize command and control, ensure unity of effort, eliminate expensive duplication of effort, and minimize the number of regulators to which American businesses have to answer” (30).

This reduction in size and condensing of regulation would not only eliminate wasteful, duplicative government spending, it would make current financial law easier to understand and enforce.  Hopefully, this streamlining would also reduce egregious legislative overreach, like the 2,253 page Dodd-Frank bill Amyx detailed.

In the case of Bernard Madoff, self-regulation in the financial industry did not work, but neither did centralized, federal regulation.  What is needed is a responsible synthesis of personal morality and government oversight.

Christians should remember, in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:10, that, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad.”

Those who ignored/aided Madoff should remember this and be reminded that, in order for society and markets to function, individuals are responsible to a higher power for protecting one another and the helpless, such as all those who lost their life savings due to Madoff’s crime, from harm.

On the regulatory side, instead of an “alphabet soup” of regulators and excessive, market-infringing regulation, a single (or perhaps a few) regulators(s) could enforce a limited amount of financial regulation to prevent fraud.

Hopefully, this would satisfy the market as there would be less regulators and regulation involved, allowing for maximum creativity and innovation in the market, while, at the same time, satisfying the socially concerned that enough is being done to prevent large-scale exploiters like Madoff from harming millions of people. Personal morality and responsibility, coupled with consistent, limited, fair oversight, would, as Proverbs 2:9 states, allow markets and businesspeople to “… understand what is right, just, and fair, and…find the right way to go.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
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Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a member of the editorial advisory board for the Journal of Markets & Morality, has written a memoir reflecting on his introduction to and engagement with the thought of Abraham Kuyper. His book is titled, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, and in an essay appearing at the Comment site, Mouw writes about the significance of Kuyper for the evangelical world today.

“The interest in neocalvinist thought is growing beyond the Dutch Reformed world, especially in the broader evangelical movement,” writes Mouw. “And this means that there is a deep desire these days for an understanding of a robust cultural discipleship that is well-integrated with a concern for both sound doctrine and a vibrant piety.”

The ability of Kuyper’s thought to speak to this “deep desire” is one of the animating features behind the Common Grace Translation Project, which the Acton Institute has undertaken in partnership with Kuyper College. In his foreword to the Common Grace volumes, Kuyper concludes “concerning the relationship between the Christian life, as we understood it, and the life of the world in all of its manifestation and diversity,” that “everything came down to resuscitating the rich foundational idea embodied in the doctrine of common grace.”

Be sure to check out the Common Grace Translation Project page for more information, and connect with the project on Facebook. The first full volume is scheduled to appear in the Fall of 2012, but there are some more exciting developments that will be happening later this year.

Blog author: ehilton
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
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Imagine this:  a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics.  (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups.  In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16.  The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.

The group of four students will then enjoy half the cake.  The second group of students will get about three-quarters of the remaining cake, and the smallest piece will go to the group of 16 students.  Of course, protests will follow, along with a discussion of how unfair it all is.

The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups.  If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well.  The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.

This is a noble lesson, and we should of course share what we have, regardless of how much that is.  (After all, Scripture doesn’t encourage only the rich to tithe.)  Unfortunately, the lesson is wrong:  it’s based on the idea that there is only one cake, and we can’t possibly get any more.

I have to admit, that as a teacher, I used lessons similar to this one.  And never once, did I or any of my students suggest a most obvious answer:  bake another cake.

We have the same problem, writ large, in today’s economic outlook:  poor nations are poor because rich nations are hoarding what they have and not sharing.  If only the rich nations would “share the cake”, everyone would have enough.  It also reinforces the notion that poor countries have to sit around and wait for some noble rich nation to divvy up cake for them; they couldn’t possibly create one on their own.  That type of paternalistic attitude is both dangerous and wrong.  The “cake game” also supports the erroneous notion that large groups of poor people are going to take stuff from richer folks; therefore, we need to reduce the numbers of poor people in order to keep our “cake”.

This “zero-sum game” fallacy is only one problem with today’s economic policies, but it is a deeply-entrenched one.  We all need to know that there isn’t just one “cake”, and that by enabling people to create their own food sources, create their own wealth and create their own stable economies, it won’t cost us our “cake”.  We will, in fact, all have more cake – and what better reason to celebrate?

Black men and women in America are faced with many problems. Only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school on time compared to 78 percent for white males. In America between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. These are just a few of the many daunting statistics.

These are problems that make can make even the strongest person tired.

Often we look to government to solve our problems, and it has been the government who has falsely been the “beacon of hope” for black men and women. Instead, government has been keeping generations of those suffering addicted to social services. I call for wedding good intentions with sound economic principles. More money has been doled out, but it is hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Throwing cash at broken systems do not fix the systems. Black men and women face moral problems, but money can not solve moral problems; moral problems require moral solutions.

In my new book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development, I provide the moral solutions to these problems by connecting theology and economics through a Christian perspective of loving the poor. In these essays, drawn from my years of work with and writing for the Acton Institute, I tackle issues of race, politics, contemporary culture, globalization, and education, and argue how moral formation, rather than government intervention, provide the solutions to these issues.

Marvin Olasky, Acton senior fellow and Editor-in-chief of WORLD, was kind enough to endorse the book: “Dr. Thomas Sowell, black and eighty years old, displays no signs of tiredness in writing columns–but when he does, Anthony Bradley shows in Black and Tired why he should be Sowell’s successor. Dr. Bradley trumps liberal opponents with facts and wit, and does so within a Christian worldview that allows him to go deeper than conventional economics allows.”

Dodd-Frank regulations, originally scheduled to take effect on July 16, are intended to create market stability. Instead, they are doing just the opposite.

Regulations aimed at financial derivatives, incorporated into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that was signed into law last July, have recently been rescheduled to take effect on December 31. The regulations are aimed at reducing the risk of derivatives, a contentious issue among those debating the root cause of the financial crisis. A Reuters’ report suggests this legislation will create uncertainty and a legal void for the derivatives market. Fears that trades could be challenged or invalidated may send the market for swaps (over-the-counter derivatives) into “legal limbo,” according to NASDAQ News.

Scott O’Malia, a commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, told Reuters,

I have concerns that this proposal will not provide the appropriate level of legal certainty, and if it is to last only a few months, will likely only serve to further confuse and frustrate the markets and market participants.

Legal delays and uncertainties are only a small part of a much larger problem. Saturated with 2,253 pages of confusing regulation, Dodd-Frank is considered to be the most drastic financial revision in 80 years.

Former U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, now an adviser to Goldman Sachs, says Dodd-Frank goes too far for our good. He argues the regulation will hurt job creation and smother economic growth:

The consequences will be a massive transfer of economic activity overseas and an equally massive contraction in the liquidity and credit that keeps U.S. business competitive and vibrant.

Though intended to stabilize the financial market, Dodd-Frank is creating more uncertainty and instability at our liberty’s expense. Regulation will harm competition and stifle individual freedom. In an attempt to correct the immoral behavior on Wall Street, the government is compromising the dignity of the individual by reducing financial choices.

In a commentary titled “Credit Crunch, Character Crisis,” Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at the Acton Institute, discusses the financial and moral costs of similar risk-controlling regulation in the past:

A longer-term problem is that this failure may facilitate calls for more financial regulation, much as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was a response to America’s 2000-2001 corporate scandals. The evidence is growing that Sarbanes-Oxley has proved extremely costly for business. Even Sarbanes-Oxley’s authors now concede many of its provisions were badly drafted.

According to a University of Pittsburgh study, Sarbanes-Oxley’s discouragement of prudent risk-taking and its generation of additional compliance-costs have contributed to many firms listing themselves in the City of London rather than Wall Street. This has also been facilitated by Britain’s Financial Services Authority’s shift away from Sarbanes-Oxley-like procedural approaches to financial regulation, towards principles-based regulation which focuses on (a) the behavior reasonably expected from financial practitioners and (b) good outcomes.

In the end, however, no amount of regulation — heavy or light — can substitute for the type of character-formation that is supposed to occur in families, schools, churches, and synagogues.

These are the institutions (rather than ethics-auditors and business-ethics courses) which The Wealth of Nations’ author, Adam Smith, identified as primarily responsible for helping people develop what he called the “moral sense” that causes us to know instinctively when particular courses of action are imprudent or simply wrong — regardless of whether we are Wall St bankers or humble actuaries working at securities-rating agencies.

Perhaps the recent financial turmoil will remind us that sound financial sectors rely more than we think upon sound moral cultures.

Gregg’s economic and moral analysis suggests regulation cannot build character. The implicit goal of Dodd-Frank is to achieve moral ends on Wall Street through coercive means — expanding government oversight. We must remember virtue cannot be artificially manufactured by increased regulation; rather virtue requires freedom to choose the proper course of action. Moral character in the business world should be encouraged by a proper incentive structure, but even more importantly by the values taught in our social institutions.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, June 24, 2011
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Ben Shapiro was at the Heritage Foundation recently to talk about his new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Publisher HarperCollins describes the book as “the inside story of how the most powerful medium of mass communication in human history has become a propaganda tool for the Left.”

Shapiro made the point at Heritage (see the video of his talk here) that conservatives underestimate the power of narrative and its purpose — moving the emotions — and that’s the case we’ve been making here at the PowerBlog for some time.

“Narrative matters,” Shapiro said at Heritage. “Unfortunately, conservatives have abandoned narrative as an emotional tool … you hear it on talk radio all the time. We have all the logical arguments; we have the facts on our side; they just rely on emotion all the time. Yeah, [because] it works.”

But logical arguments aren’t often the stuff of mass entertainment. Liberals, on the other hand, move the emotions via story telling and write sympathetic characters who may “behave badly” yet advance their agenda. Shapiro:

They’re very clever about it; they recognize that if they slide their messaging in, it’s much more effective than if they simply come out and hit you in the head with a two-by-four.

In a May 2009 PowerBlog post about film making, not television, titled “Cheesy Christian Movies and the Art of Narrative,” I pointed out that “the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling.” That may have overstated the case somewhat, given that more and more films are coming to screens that conservatives can like (see NRO’s list of best conservative movies). But by and large the right is still much better at rhetoric than it is at storytelling. My main point from “Cheesy”:

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go.

Also see “Obama and the Moral Imagination” my Acton Commentary from January 2009 about the use of narrative in politics.

Bread for the World CEO David Beckmann once said, “We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger.” As I said then, if “changing the politics of hunger” means that more people are getting food assistance from the government rather than food banks and community efforts, count me out.

But on a more hopeful note, this story from NPR tracking how Walmart has partnered with Feeding America, the largest food bank network in the nation, to get food that would otherwise be wasted into the hands of those that need it most. Last year Walmart announced a plan to contribute $2 billion to food banks in the form of direct cash assistance as well as material donations. You can see more at Walmart’s “Fighting Hunger Together” page.

And be sure to check out Feeding America to find out what food banks really can do.

R.R. Reno at First Things has written a moving meditation on the preferential option for the poor:

“In the Gospel of Matthew we find Jesus warning us about how our lives will be judged. His words are pointed. We are to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. For what we do to the poor and the destitute—“the least of these my brethren,” says Jesus—we do to the Lord himself.

It’s a sobering warning, and I fear that I’m typical. For the most part I think about myself: my needs, my interests, my desires. And when I break out of my cocoon of self-interest, it’s usually because I’m thinking about my family or my friends, which is still a kind of self-interest. The poor? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility, but they’re remote and more hypothetical than real: objects of a thin, distant moral concern that tends to be overwhelmed by the immediate demands of my life. As I said, I’m afraid I’m typical.”

Reno points out something very interesting about the language used to describe our relationship to the poor:

“In Octogesima Adveniens (1971), an encyclical marking the eightieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s seminal treatment of modern social issues, Rerum Novarum, Paul VI evoked the fundamental importance of a transformative spirit of self-sacrificial love. “In teaching us charity,” he wrote, “the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the most fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods generously at the service of others.”

“Preferential respect” became the handier slogan “preferential option,” a formulation that first emerged from liberation theologies in South America but has percolated into a great deal of Catholic pronouncement on social ethics in recent decades. It captures a fundamental Christian imperative. When we think about politics and culture, our first question should be: “What are the needs of the poor?””

The late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. coined the phrase, ‘preferential option for the poor’ a few years prior to Pope Paul VI’s use of ‘preferential respect’ in his encyclical and both phrases bring out a different dimension of what the Christian’s relationship with the poor should be.

The language of Arrupe follows the Ignatian tradition in its emphasis on choice. It is a preferential option, a decision to be made, and a commitment to be lived. The language of Pope Paul VI is more ontological, a respect to be given to the poor as poor, possessing a dignity that also demands ones own renunciation of rights and claims before them.

When meditating on the preferential option, a relationship of action and choice, Reno is right to recall the words of Jesus when he speaks of the judgment, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

When I think of Pope Paul VI’s language of respect my thoughts go to these words of Christ, “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

The poor must never be reduced to a project or duty and they must never be ignored while simultaneously held in our esteem. They are our neighbors and all that that entails.