Archived Posts August 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

Since its inception, the Journal of Markets & Morality has encouraged critical engagement between the disciplines of moral theology and economics. In the past, the vast majority of our contributors have focused on Protestant and Roman Catholic social thought applied to economics, with a few significant exceptions. Among the traditions often underrepresented, Orthodox Christianity has received meager attention despite its ever-growing presence and ever-increasing interest in the West.

This call for publication is an effort to address this lacuna by engaging such a rich and long-standing tradition. Submissions are welcomed in a variety of forms: they could be historical, critically engaging the thought and context of one or more particular figures influenced by the Orthodox Christian tradition (such as Vladimir Solovyov, Sergey Bulgakov, Nicholas Berdyaev, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or assess the impact of significant events in the history of the Orthodox Church; they could be exegetical, seeking to carefully interpret often perplexing texts of various writers or to bring to the fore the economic thought of various official documents such as The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church or various Patriarchal encyclicals from any of the Orthodox Patriarchates; they could be comparative, comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between Orthodox economic thought and other Christian traditions; or they could be constructive, seeking to synthesize the thought of various writers and documents into a coherent and relevant whole or seeking to creatively engage economic problems and their popular solutions from the point of view of Orthodox theology and anthropology.

For example, is Vladimir Solovyov’s critique of abstract individualism and collectivism in The Justification of the Good an Orthodox analogue or precursor to economic personalism? How economically tenable are Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s various ecological, social, and economic statements? To what extent does The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church encourage a freer and more virtuous society? Does Orthodox theology significantly engage the natural law tradition? Could the economic thought of sometimes not-so-Orthodox writers of the Eastern tradition be improved upon by being adapted to a more historically Orthodox perspective? Given the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, to what extent can one form Orthodox social and economic thought based upon the historic canons and councils of the Church?

In addition to articles, the Journal of Markets & Morality also welcomes translation proposals for our Scholia and Status Quaestionis sections, early modern or premodern texts for the former and more recent texts of the last few centuries for the latter, preferably those which have never before been translated into English. Indeed, to this day our only Orthodox contribution to the Journal has been a translation of Sergey Bulgakov’s “The National Economy and the Religious Personality” by Krassen Stanchev for our Status Quaestionis section, Volume 11, Issue 1 (Spring 2008).

For more information, or to submit a paper or translation proposal, see our submission guidelines.

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year—in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

Last week I wrote a commentary titled the “The Folly of More Centralized Power,” making the case against ceding anymore power to Washington and returning back to the fundamental principles of federalism.

Rep. Amash (R-Mich.), a member of the freshmen class in Congress, made that case as well. Amash was asked about his Washington experience so far in an interview and declared,

When I was in the state government, I thought things were dysfunctional there in my opinion. Now I’ve discovered things in Congress are much worse than in state government and the state government runs fairly smoothly by comparison.

In speeches and townhalls, Rep. Amash has stated that the federal government has enumerated powers and it is not supposed to expand beyond that specific scope. I quoted the Virginia Constitution in my commentary. The line I cited was originally from the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. It reads, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

If modern distributists would like to identify themselves as agrarians, they may, and line up behind John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and the rest of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. Then they would be making a super-catechetical argument and we should not take issue with them on this blog. Their claim, however, is to offer the only modern economic theory which is fully in line with Church teaching, and that we cannot allow to go unchallenged.

The central claim of modern distributism, as articulated in this recent essay, is that when economists left off considerations other than the calculus of markets, their discipline ceased to be a human science, and so lost much of its value as an explainer of human action. Thus distributists attack capitalism, which according to their thinking became dehumanized:

Labor was no longer the source of all human values and its sustenance the purpose of all human production. Rather, it was just another “raw material,” like pig iron or hog fat, to be purchased at the lowest possible price. The question of justice was reduced to the question of “freedom”: so long as there was no coercion in the labor contract, the price was to be considered “just.” In the long run, so it was believed, all economic actors, acting in their own “self-interest,” would produce the best possible outcomes.

Distributists are right to say that the science of economics lost a part of its essence when it abandoned questions of human nature, but capitalism was around before that abandonment, and it will exist unaltered should the economic establishment come to its senses. And a distributist may commodify his hired hand just as a faithful husband may objectify his wife.

The history of industrialization is a gradual one: there was no paradigm shift at which all wage earners were thenceforth thought of as pig iron or hot fat, because that injustice is a personal sin.

Capitalism has given us the Twinkie, the deep fried Twinkie, and the ogre green Twinkie. It has not, in the end, given us an unwanted issue of Sports Illustrated each year, a multibillion dollar pornography industry, or a meaningless common culture. Richard Weaver isolated that culprit in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences when he said,

The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as “progress.”

According to Weaver, modern man has no metaphysic at all: he has become a materialist and an egotist. That is why too many companies treat their employees as “resources” and why too many banks thoughtlessly loan money to people who won’t be able to pay it back. It is why the business pages of newspapers routinely report that companies lie about their accounts, or that struggling firms have been bought up and liquidated without any thought for their employees’ lives. But “The Man” doesn’t treat employees as raw materials—individual men and women do that, and it is they who are guilty of injustice, not the system of capitalism. “The Man” and the distributist picture of our economy are largely a fiction.

Even if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism. Beyond a Spanish commune 0.17% the size of theU.S.economy, no one has ever effected a distributist economy—it’s certainly never been done politically.

The United States is not an agrarian country; it is, for better or worse, a fully industrialized one. Dreams of a network of pastoral communities dotting the rolling Kentucky hills, the Texas plains, and the California valleys must remain dreams—images of the citizen-soldiers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall…

Thanks to PewSitter, the Catholic Drudge Report, for the link!

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

AEI President Arthur Brooks answers the question from MSNBC’s Matt Miller, “What do we do when huge forces beyond our control shape our destiny?”

Though Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was not as devastating as expected, it took several dozen lives and has cause billions of dollars of damage. Some economists have tried to argue that the storm is a net gain for the economy—think of all the jobs that will be created by the clean-up and rebuilding! But treatment of the storm by the mainstream media has been surprisingly honest and nonpartisan, and their unguarded coverage is instructive.

ABC News reports that economic losses due to slowed commerce over the next week to ten days could be as much as $20 billion, which is more than the direct damage done by the storm. (Amusing twist: one of the economists cited in the ABC story is the guy claiming the new trees and roofs needed along the eastern seaboard constitute an “economic renewal,” although ABC seems to have decided to spare him the mockery by excluding that nonsense from its story.)

The media’s frank admission that a hurricane-forced suspension of business cannot be declared economic growth invites comparison with what is said when, for example, a snowflake falls on Hilda Solis’s eyelash as she walks into work and the Department of Labor is sent home at noon. Why does no one talk about the economic losses then? Where are the stories of systematic collapse? When the Department of Labor is not on the job! Oh, wait…

Men and women—their ideas and their hard work—are the only producers of wealth, but an economics that isn’t correctly based on human nature can pretend otherwise. As Henry Hazlitt, author of Economics in One Lesson, said,

No man burns down his own house on the theory that the need to rebuild it will stimulate his energies.

Deep down, even the Washington press corps knows that natural disasters don’t create jobs, and regulation doesn’t drive growth. It takes an Act of God to get it out of them though.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, August 29, 2011

The Acton Institute has released a mobile app for smart phones and tablets based on the Android operating system. The free app keeps users up to date with the latest PowerBlog posts, commentaries, events and other goings on at the institute. Point your desktop/laptop computer or smart phone to the Android Market.

In the pipeline — the Acton iPhone app for Apple mobile devices. Stay tuned!

Distributism is not a new idea—it wasn’t conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. As Belloc explains in The Servile State, their idea was a return to certain economic principles of medieval Europe—a guild system, wider ownership of the means of production, etc.—in order to right the injustices of capitalism. But distributism goes back further than that, to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the second century B.C., and the theory’s proponents would do well to learn from the tragic failures of the Gracchi.

Plutarch tells us that the two brothers were among the most virtuous men of their day. Tiberius, ten years older than Gaius, served with great distinction in the army and showed himself not only an excellent tactician but, in his famous dealings with the Numantines, a peacemaker also. He then returned to civilian life and was elected a tribune—a representative of the interests of the common man and one of the highest offices in the Roman Republic.

As Rome grew the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.

In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts. Whatever Tiberius’s intentions—and they were certainly noble—this was revolution, and the Senate reacted. Tiberius, who had with such skill arranged peace between his army and a barbarian tribe, became swept up in the political repercussions of his attempt to return Rome to her former glory, and was assassinated.

Gaius tried to accomplish the leveling that his brother had not, but he too made an enemy of the Senate and died violently. Plutarch says of them in his account:

What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?

In his defense of distributism for the journal Dappled Things, John C. Medaille argues that it is the only political-economic system capable of rendering distributive justice which is not a “cure worse than the disease.” Substantial government intervention or workforce unionization present dangers too “massive,” he says, to consider. But if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, August 26, 2011

The August issue of Southern Living magazine offers a very good story on the faith of Smithville Baptist pastor Wes White and the community of Smithville, Miss. Smithville was devastated by a tornado that wreaked havoc across the South in late April.

Pastor White is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a hope beyond logic, beyond understanding. I believe our God is going to take our devastation and turn it into something beautiful.” The words from White echo Rev. Kelvin Croom’s message expressed in my article “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” from the Spring Issue of Religion & Liberty. Croom declared:

Even in the days we were living with segregation, we all had a hope for a better day. And right now, that’s what we’re doing in Tuscaloosa: We’re hoping for a better day, hoping we come from the ashes of destruction and into a beautiful, more livable American city.

The devastation is a reminder to pray for our fellow citizens who are in the path of Hurricane Irene, and pray that the hurricane has a dull bite. But as my piece in Religion & Liberty points out, if there is to be any destruction along the East Coast, it will largely be the Church and religious organizations that are the first on the scene. They are the ones who will be making a lasting impact in the recovery and restoration of affected communities.

While insensitive political commentators might be looking at the storm as a great opportunity for job creation, most of the effort will come from volunteers. An August 19 story from CNN on the Joplin tornado points out, what many of us already know, the faith community stays in the recovery effort for the duration. Anybody from the Gulf Coast or anybody who has been involved in Hurricane Katrina relief, is aware of the deep commitment and staying power of many charitable faith groups.

“More and more, I find Catholics dividing themselves into capitalist and distributist camps,” writes Bernardo Aparicio García, president of the Catholic journal Dappled Things. To help readers establish “a firm foundation” for thinking about economic questions, García opened up the pages of his journal to Robert T. Miller, for capitalism, and John C. Médaille, for distributism. The result is a lengthy exchange “On Truth and Trade: Economics and the Catholic Vision of the Good Life.”

Miller is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law and writes for First Things. Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He writes for the Distributist Review. Here are some snippets from the debate:

Miller:

… I will defend a more modest proposition, namely, that, for people like us in a society like ours, capitalism is the most reasonable choice among the various economic systems we might adopt. To defend this more modest proposition, I start with some deep assumptions about human life.

Among these, the deepest is that human beings, being physical beings, have material needs and so must organize the world’s material resources to meet them. Another deep assumption is that even modestly complex manipulations of material resources—let alone sophisticated projects like building transcontinental railroads, designing computers and their software, or refining petroleum products—require the cooperation of very large numbers of human beings. This point is vastly under-appreciated. In 1958 Leonard Read famously estimated that the number of human beings involved in producing an ordinary wooden pencil from raw materials to final product exceeds one million; nowadays, in a more complex economy, that’s probably a gross underestimate. Yet another assumption is that information about the various possible uses of resources is difficult to obtain and analyze and, moreover, changes very rapidly.

From a moral point of view, what we want from an economic system is that it generate and distribute resources in a way that maximizes the long-run probability that all members of society have enough goods and services to lead decent lives. One way to do this would be to appoint a central body authorized to allocate resources and charged with responsibility to ensure that everyone receives a fair share. This is socialism, and it has proved a very poor solution to the economic problem. There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns information: the central authority cannot acquire enough reliable information, much less process it fast enough, to allocate resources efficiently. This results in tremendous waste. Thus, in the former Soviet Union, warehouses full of unneeded machine parts sat and rusted while consumers found no toilet paper on the store shelves.

Médaille:

Clearly, the standard model of economics has failed us. Not only has it failed to bring a stable economic order, but it has destabilized the family and the community as well, and grown the government past any reasonable bounds. Clearly, a different model is needed. Note that I said “different” rather than “new.” It is not a question of inventing new systems, but of examining existing systems to see what works and what doesn’t. Economics—or rather political economy—is preeminently a practical science. We need to find out what works, and adapt it to our own circumstances. Inventing models is easy; getting them to work is hard. And if a system has no existing implementations, we are permitted to assume that it can’t be implemented. So, can we find a system on the ground and working that will address our questions of political economy?

I believe we can, and that system is distributism. This system seeks to restore distributive justice to its proper place in the economic order; its main tenet is that without a proper distribution of the rewards of production, markets cannot be cleared, family life will be disturbed, and the markets will become more dependent on government and consumer finance to clear.

Now the major difference between distributism and conventional economics has to do with property and a just wage; that is, with the things the Catholic Church teaches as essential to economic order. Standard economics justifies the wage on the basis of “free contract,” that is, if there is no government coercion which forces someone to accept a given wage, then the wage must be considered “just.” Further, through free bargaining, both sides, capital and labor, will get what they actually produce and productivity will be properly rewarded.

Also see Beyond Distributism by Thomas E. Woods Jr., available in the Acton Bookshoppe.

Commenting on Warren Buffet’s call to raise taxes on the “mega-rich,” North Carolina Minister Andrew Daugherty says this on Associated Baptist Press (HT: RealClearReligion):

Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.

A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):

Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”

On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.

Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.