Posts tagged with: America

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2012

One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”

As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”

The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”

That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.

Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.

Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.

Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.

With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.

This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.

Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has a piece over at The American Spectator that may surprise big government liberals. (We know you read this blog.) In “Free Market Sweden, Social Democratic America,” he lays out the history of Sweden’s social democracy — its nature and its effects on the country’s economy — and then draws lessons for the United States. The Scandinavian country isn’t quite the pinko nanny state Americans like to look down upon, and we’ve missed their reforms of the last two decades.

Gregg explains that Sweden’s dramatic mid-century expansions of government were portrayed as rooted in the traditional values of the homeland, so Social Democrat governments escaped the soft-Marxism tag, and were able to do pretty much as they pleased. Social programs were also characterized as coverage of universal rights, to be imposed by general taxation. Then came

the decision of governments in the 1970s to hasten Sweden’s long march towards the Social Democratic nirvana. This included expanding welfare programs, nationalizing many industries, expanding and deepening regulation, and — of course — increasing taxation to punitive levels to pay for it all.

Over the next twenty years, the Swedish dream turned decidedly nightmarish. The Swedish parliamentarian Johnny Munkhammar points out that “In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages inSweden increased by only one percentage point.” So much for helping “the workers.”

Economic reality was painful, but Sweden responded, and began to unravel some of its “progress,” reducing the public sector and even allowing private retirement savings. Unemployment was still high though — about 20 percent — in large part because the country’s tax structure encouraged joblessness.

But with a non-Social Democrat coalition government’s election in 2006, Sweden’s reform agenda resumed. On the revenue side, property taxes were scaled back. Income-tax credits allowing larger numbers of middle and lower-income people to keep more of their incomes were introduced.

To be fair, the path to tax reform was paved here by the Social Democrats. In 2005, they simply abolished — yes, that’s right, abolished — inheritance taxes.

But liberalization wasn’t limited to taxation. Sweden’s new government accelerated privatizations of once-state owned businesses. It also permitted private providers to enter the healthcare market, thereby introducing competition into what had been one of the world’s most socialized medical systems. Industries such as taxis and trains were deregulated. State education and electricity monopolies were ended by the introduction of private competition. Even Swedish agricultural prices are now determined by the market. Finally, unemployment benefits were reformed so that the longer most people stayed on benefits, the less they received.

By 2010, Sweden’s public debt had fallen dramatically and its rate of economic growth was 5.5 percent. Compare that with America’s 2.7 percent growth in 2010, and just try to restrain your jealous impulses.

Gregg cautions that Sweden’s economy is still hampered the Social Democrats’ legacy. High minimum wages keep a full quarter of the country’s youth unemployed, and a carbon tithe to the religion of environmentalism retards growth, but

It’s surely paradoxical — and tragic — that a small Nordic country which remains a byword for its (at times obsessive) commitment to egalitarianism has proved far more willing than America to give economic liberty a chance.

Full article here.

Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.

It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.

In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.

Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.

We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.

Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.

Full post here.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg has a piece in Public Discourse today as part of a series on the 2012 presidential election. “Fix America’s Economy: Two Principles for Reform” explains why limited government is better government, and how the principle of subsidiarity can guide regulation that governments undertake. From the essay:

The economist Arthur Brooks is exactly right when he notes that the end-game of America’s free enterprise culture is not the endless acquisition of wealth. The goal is human flourishing.

In much of Europe, a contrary attitude has long been characteristic of its economic culture: that if people are to lead fulfilling lives, they need to be given things and protected from risk. In policy and institutional terms, this translates squarely into the European social model, which is presently collapsing before our very eyes throughout the Old Continent.

Ironically, however, there is a scarcity of evidence that such policies actually help make people happy. Why? Because people who are always given things know that they have not earned what they have. As evidence, Brooks points to studies that underscore correlations between unearned income and dissatisfaction with life. These illustrate, for example, that welfare recipients are generally less happy than those who earn the same income through employment.

Still, there is a need for governmental regulation of free economic activity—for exceptions to the rule of non-intervention:

But how do we prevent the exceptions from becoming the rule and thus a rationalization for endless economic intervention by the government? Part of the answer lies in a second principle: the much-misunderstood idea of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity may be summarized in the idea that “higher” organizations (such as governments) should normally not directly intervene in the life of “lower” communities (such as families, businesses, and churches).  Intervention by higher bodies is permitted, however, when (1) a “lower” community has proved itself manifestly incapable of addressing problems that properly fall within its sphere of responsibility; and (2) other communities closer to the problem are unable to resolve the difficulty.

Subsidiarity consequently tells us that in normal circumstances, the function of child-raising is properly performed by families. It also tells us that when a family proves incapable of addressing particular problems associated with child-raising, non-governmental actors such as churches should usually be the first to render assistance.

As Gregg writes in his conclusion, because the principles of economic freedom and subsidiarity both stem from our human nature, successful government cannot ignore them.

If the economy features as the biggest single issue in the 2012 election, defenders of the market should be willing to supplement empirical economic arguments with full-bodied contentions about the nature of human happiness and how we realize it. To do so would not only be consistent with the very best of the American Founders’ vision; it would also breathe new life into America’s great and ongoing experiment of ordered liberty.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Commodifying Compassion,” I look at the instinct to judge a society’s commitment to charity by the level of material expenditure, particularly by the government. One of the things I think is true in this conversation is that our material commitments do show something about our spiritual concerns. So I can agree with Brian McLaren, then, that “America’s Greatest Deficit is Spiritual, Not Merely Financial.”

But where I can’t go with him is to the conclusion that changing levels of material assistance by definition has some kind of spiritual consequence or cause. Thus, even while McLaren writes that we need to “face our basic spirituality deficit,” he still judges the “compassion deficit” in terms of cutting material “services to the poor, the elderly, the sick, minorities, and to children.”

Over at The French Revolution, David French asked pointedly in this regard, “Does more spending equal more compassion?” He focuses particularly on the “how” question of social spending:

All too often it seems that the religious left virtually takes for granted that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent fighting poverty and funding education (to take two examples) represent money well spent and that cutting that funding is “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” or “sacrificing our children’s future.”

French makes some very good points, particularly about the cultural (rather than merely material) aspects of poverty.

But in my piece this week I also focus on the “who” and the “why” questions of material assistance. I contend, “An EBT card issued by a government official shouldn’t be judged to be the same as a ‘cup of cold water’ given by a Christian in the name of Jesus Christ.” I also conclude by examining what the case of the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1-4 NIV) teaches us.

Blog author: rsirico
posted by on Friday, July 1, 2011

It is no claim to Manifest Destiny, nor act of hyper-nationalism or xenophobic patriotism to say that America is the boldest, most liberal (in its original etymology), most successful and most prosperous experiment in human experience. To state thus is to state history. It behooves us, then, to recall Lord Acton’s axiom to the effect that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”

All who love freedom have their part to play in the cultivation of that fruit and to bring liberty to its right end: the truth about human dignity and human destiny. It is a worthy call.

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.”