Whenever Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg and Al Kresta of Kresta in the Afternoon get together, you’re bound to be in for a great discussion. They got together this afternoon, and ended up providing a great overview of Sam’s new book, Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. You can listen to the interview using the audio player below:
Sojourners’ Jim Wallis has been at the Davos gathering in Switzerland and is urging us to be guided by a new Davos “covenant.” If you’ve never heard of Davos, Michael Miller’s RealClear Politics piece “Davos Capitalism” describes the gathering and its unassailable hubris this way:
Davos capitalism, a managerial capitalism run by an enlightened elite–politicians, business leaders, technology gurus, bureaucrats, academics, and celebrities–all gathered together trying to make the economic world smarter or more humane…. And we looked up to Davos Man. Who wouldn’t be impressed by the gatherings at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, a Swiss ski resort? Sharply dressed, eloquent, rich, famous, Republican, Democrat, Tory, Labour, Conservative, Socialist, highly connected, powerful and ever so bright.
Then, when the whole managerial economy collapsed, the managers and technocrats lost faith in markets. But they did not lose faith in themselves, and now they want us to entrust even more of the economy to them.
As if on cue, Jim Wallis writes in a recent public letter:
This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we are looking to the future and asking “what now?” At a Saturday session — “The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant” — a document will kick off a year-long global conversation about a new “social covenant” between citizens, governments, and businesses.
Why dispense with the yeomen-like “contract” language in favor of a new “social covenant”? Wallis explains that “in the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a massive breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments…. Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made.” (more…)
At some point in tonight’s foreign policy debate between the two presidential candidates, Governor Mitt Romney should send his very capable inner wonk on a long coffee break and press a big-picture truth that otherwise will go begging: America’s strength on the international stage requires economic strength, and our economic strength cannot long endure under the weight of a government so swollen in size that it stifles human enterprise.
The connection between economic freedom and economic growth is well-established. The connection between the relative strength of a nation’s economy and its strength on the international stage is also well established.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s maybe easiest to grasp by thinking about technology. Our strength rests partly on our position as a technology leader, which allows our military to do more with less. But we’re unlikely to maintain that position of leadership if our government habitually suffocates our high-tech entrepreneurs under high taxes and hyper-regulation.
One line from last night’s debate leapt out at me. It wasn’t a stumble amidst the cut and thrust of open debate. It was during President Obama’s closing statement—400 words that I’m guessing he and his staff crafted with painstaking care.
About half way through his summation, the president gave his vision of government in a nutshell. He said that “everything that I’ve tried to do, and everything that I’m now proposing for the next four years,” was “designed to make sure that the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination, is – is channeled.”
In that one word, channeled, President Obama distilled the problem. It isn’t his job to channel America’s genius, grit and determination anymore than it’s a traffic cop’s job to tell you where to go when you hop in your car. The police officer has an important role. Government has an important role. But it isn’t to channel.
That isn’t how you free a country for greatness; it’s how you suffocate it, by having politicians and bureaucrats endlessly picking winners and losers, inserting themselves into the middle of every market bigger than a lemonade stand. (Oh wait, they got to the lemonade stand, too.)
President Obama quickly went on to explain what he meant by the federal government channeling, but the gloss was cold comfort. The good parts of the gloss—“everybody’s getting a fair shot,” “everybody’s playing by the same rules”—had nothing to do with channeling. And the part that was all about channeling—the government making sure that “everybody’s getting a fair share, everybody’s doing a fair share”—was just same failed, slightly creepy vision of an all-embracing nanny state that has Europe on the brink.
At least Obamacare comes at us head on. The greater legislative threat may be the one that most Americans have never heard of. Economist Scott Powell and Acton friend Jay Richards explain in a new piece in Barron’s:
While Obamacare received more attention, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, also known as Dodd-Frank after its Senate and House sponsors, … unleashed a new regulatory body, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to operate with unprecedented power.
Dodd-Frank became law in 2010 and is supposed to avert the next financial crisis. Yet banks are still too big to fail and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain wards of the state, while the CFPB has been given sweeping authority over consumer credit and other financial products and services that played no significant role in the crisis of 2008.
Powell and Richards then offer some specifics:
The White House has a plan to mobilize prayer vigils in front of the Supreme Court in defense of Obamacare. It was reported that the administration met with leaders at non-profit organizations and religious officials who support the new health care law. The court takes up the constitutional test of the health care mandate in a couple of weeks. The mandate has now been challenged in 26 states.
Cue the same stale big government religious prophets who confuse statism and centralization of power with real Gospel redemption. This will of course include agency heads of mainline denominations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and of course a liberal imam and rabbi for religious diversity. Liberal Catholics will no doubt be clamoring for camera time too. Unsurprisingly, the United Methodist lobbying building is hosting “radio row,” where advocates can take to the airwaves to gush over the new unpopular law. Fitting symbolism, given that the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society is woefully out of touch with the beliefs of so many of their own members in the pew.
Let me point you to a few excellent posts that have already addressed the irony of this prayer vigil given the religious conscience violation by the administration. Over at National Review Online, Yuval Levin gets right to crux of the issue with “Pray for the Mandate.” Fr. John Zuhlsdorf pretty much goes off, and appropriately so with his post, “The Obama Administration is organizing…. WHAT?!?”
In popular culture we hear lots of commentary and jokes about fundamentalists or “religious rubes.” They often reside in “flyover country” or the bible belt and are subject to sneers by the “elite.” These rubes, we’re told, frequently pray for greater morality and for a spiritual revival to sweep the country. Who can forget the snickering at the prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry for the nation in 2011? Or the giggling by the enlightened when Southern governors or governors of farm states issue prayer calls for rain during droughts? But increasingly, it seems like the real religious rubes are the stale big government apostles whose power and partisanship is baptized by a bureaucracy that to them is omnipotent.
Partisanship and different worldviews are understandable and should be encouraged in our society. But when spiritual leaders are at the bidding of the bureaucracy, and embody an unwillingness to think critically about religious conscience and mandates, inevitably they become more of a religious rube than the ones they find so unenlightening.
My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.
First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.
A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.
Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.
King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.
The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.
Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.
Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.
Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:
Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.
Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …
The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.
What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.
I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.
Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.
In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.
In terms of the blogosphere, I’m sure this polling data from Gallup published two days ago showing that fear of big government dwarfs fear of big business and big labor is ancient history. I only want to offer a few observations.
At one point in our history, I think a lot of Americans or even a majority of Americans looked at the federal government as a vehicle for fairness, progress, and justice. Certainly, the federal government has done quite a few things well over the years. However, as politics has become even more partisan and divisive, and more and more power has been centralized into the Washington beltway, these beliefs have eroded dramatically. In my August commentary “The Folly of More Centralized Power” I noted,
Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.
I also said in the piece,
People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.
Considering all the continued deficit spending, continued government growth, you might expect that some real progress would have been made to start digging us out of this massive hole. But more and more Americans are realizing that the federal government does not have their best interest at heart. It will be interesting to see how the disconnect between the governing and federal bureaucratic class continues to morph as even more and more money and capital is needed to preserve and protect the power structure. A lot of class warfare cards of course will be played and both political parties will do what is best to preserve their power.
When I think about liberals and the war on poverty and mobilizing the government for good, two famous photographs come to mind. I remember when LBJ visited Eastern Kentucky to declare a war on poverty and of course the famous photo of Robert F. Kennedy visiting the impoverished Mississippi Delta. But even liberals or the political left must look out on the political landscape, when well meaning and historic poverty programs were implemented generations ago by well meaning leaders who captured the nation’s conscious, and they must wonder what went wrong? With the political climate the way it is now, even the good intentions are gone and the rhetoric is so shortsighted and rings hollow.