Theologian Wayne Grudem has teamed up with economist Barry Asmus to write a book on poverty entitled The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution. On this edition of Radio Free Acton, we explore the fundamentals of growth and human flourishing, and how Christians should understand economics and aid. You can listen via the audio player below.
Since the era of Adam Smith economists have been asking, “What creates wealth?” One key answer is specialization and trade. On a timeline of human history, the recent rise in standards of living resembles a hockey stick — flatlining for all of human history and then skyrocketing in just the last few centuries.
As economist Don Boudreaux explains, without specialization and trade, our ancient ancestors only consumed what they could make themselves. How can specialization and trade help explain the astonishing growth of productivity and output in such a short amount of time—after millennia of famine, low life expectancy, and incurable disease?
Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is’t that can inform me?
–Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Human beings, with our diversity of gifts, talents, and dispositions, were created to, as Adam Smith put it, “truck, barter, and exchange.” In other words, we were made to trade.
But we were not created to be constantly trucking, bartering, and exchanging. That’s the central truth about humanity that the commandment concerning Sabbath rest communicates:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Just as we sleep each night to give our bodies rest from daily labors, our souls (as well as our bodies) need rest from mundane and worldly activities. This is the kind of rest that the Sabbath is designed to provide. The Sabbath principle calls us to rest from the gratification of our earthly desires, whether they be morally permissible or not, and whether we consider them to be work or leisure.
As a child I was fascinated with world news and current events. I was especially drawn to reports about the rabid anti-Americanism in Iran and their almost decade long war with Iraq. It was not the film “Argo” or even living in the Middle East that renewed my interest in Iran, but an excellent book by Mark Bowden titled, “Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.” Still, I knew little about the suffering of Iranians, especially Christians, in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution.
Earlier this year, I read “Prisoner of Tehran,” another impressive book about the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The author, Marina Nemat, delivered a keynote address at Acton University this year and that’s where I sat down to interview her about her prison experience and the state of the Middle East today. She offers a lot of insight on torture, the hope we have as Christians, and what exactly is going on today with many of the uprisings we see in that region in the news.
The feature article, “But What if They’re All Republicans?” is written by Andrew Yuengert. He is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Yuengert argues that an overly politicized Catholic episcopacy damages the Church’s social witness.
David Deavel reviews a new work on Adam Smith authored by James Otteson. The book on Smith is part of the Bloomsbury series “Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers.” Deavel notes in his review, “In James Otteson’s short, witty, and well-sourced introduction to Smith, one can see why Kirk and Burke thought so highly of this figure— and why our contemporaries should, too.”
Samuel Gregg’s Tea Party Catholic is garnering a lot of attention and we offer an excerpt from the book in this issue. The article focuses on Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Carrollton was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last surviving signatory of the document.
Margaret Thatcher is honored as the “In the Liberal Tradition” figure. “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,” Thatcher once told the Sunday Times.
Last April 16, Acton’s Rome office co-sponsored a seminar in London on “The Morality of Work, Commerce and Finance: Lessons from Catholic Social Teaching” with St. Mary Moorfields, the only Roman Catholic parish in the Square Mile and located in the very heart of London’s investment banking district.
With several astute financiers, bankers, and business executives in attendance, the seminar’s expert speakers helped them articulate and ponder the moral and vocational aspects of the financial world in which they work. The seminar’s speakers also addressed the political and legal frameworks that regulate their sectors in light of traditional free market economic philosophy and the particular Catholic social teachings that both challenge and sustain modern practices in the sector.
Msgr. Martin Schlag, a moral theology professor at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, led off discussion with his talk “Personal Virtues in the Workplace”. Schlag spoke about the interplay of the classical virtues before raising a discussion on the uniquely Christian “theological” or supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg turns to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to show how democratic systems can be used to strike a Faustian bargain. “Citizens use their votes to prop up the political class, in return for which the state uses its power to try and provide the citizens with perpetual economic security,” Gregg explains. This, of course, speaks to the current catastrophe that is the European welfare state. French workers, for example, “clearly expect the government to protect them from the economic consequences of their curious work habits,” he adds.
Some 180 years ago, Tocqueville predicted in his magnum opus “Democracy in America” that something similar would be one of democracy’s long-term challenges. Though Tocqueville never used the expression “welfare state,” he worried about the potentially corrosive effects of democratically elected governments that tried to use their powers to guarantee economic security for as many people as possible.
Democracy, Tocqueville argued, was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit of the “soft” variety. He spoke of “an immense protective power” that took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness—just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville projected, would “resemble parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”
But here’s the catch. Many people today forget that Tocqueville wasn’t writing for an American audience. His book was for French readers and therefore, by extension, much of Europe’s 19th-century political elite. What would some of those elites today—such as a career-politician and confirmed statist like Arnaud Montebourg—make of his compatriot’s warnings?
Read “What Tocqueville Knew” in the Wall Street Journal.
And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.
When Adam Smith wrote his famous “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” he helped shift the terms of the discussion. Centuries earlier, work focused on different aspects of poverty. Jurists and city authorities analyzed whether the poor should be allowed to beg freely and move to other cities. Charities were set up to help the destitute. The great Florentine Saint, Antonino Pierozzi (1389-1459), even set up a charity to serve the “shameful poor” (poveri vergognosi). These were formerly rich people who were impoverished by government attacks and injustices, but who would prefer to die rather than beg. It is easy to be poor; it is harder to understand how wealth is created. Smith changed the approach.
PovertyCure tries to create a similar shift among those who work in this field. It seeks to move efforts from aid to enterprise and from paternalism to partnerships. We often ask how to alleviate poverty. But the real question is: How do people in the developing world create prosperity for their families and communities?
Read “From Aid to Enterprise: Intelligent Poverty Cures” by Alex Chafuen at The Blaze.