As has been mentioned today on the PowerBlog, Margaret Thatcher was a recipient of Acton’s Faith and Freedom Award in 2011. Due to her declining health, she was unable to accept the award in person. Accepting the award in her place was John O’Sullivan, the Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and former senior aide in the Thatcher government. The comments of O’Sullivan on Margaret Thatcher, her government and her character are below.
Tyler Cowen has an interesting column in last Sunday’s New York Times, arguing that despite run-of-the-mill objections to “cold” and “heartless” economic analysis, economics is, as a science, “egalitarian at its core”:
Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.
James Poulos offers an healthy response, reminding us that “no matter how solid the economic foundation for moral egalitarianism, there’s a thing or two of great moral significance that’s missing.”
Indeed, in attempting to avoid the cliché of cold-heartedness, Cowen risks perpetuating a different one: that economists ignore the mystery and spiritual significance of humanity and human behavior. The instilling of egalitarian sensibilities when it comes to seeing people as people is one thing, but part of this reorientation needs to include a recognition of the features that make each us different. Leveling things is helpful when the earth is rocky, but the bigger problem for the modern economist seems to be his propensity to create craters in the pretty green grass. (more…)
Joseph Sunde’s fine post today on vocation examines the dynamic between work and toil, the former corresponding to God’s creational ordinance and the latter referring to the corruption of that ordinance in light of the Fall into sin.
Joseph employs a distinction between “needs-based” work and something else, something privileged, a first-world kind of “fulfilling” work. The point DeKoster makes is right on target; we need to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, break through from the “it” of the work to the “you” (ultimately the divine “You”) that we meet in the work itself.
The discussions of these kinds of distinctions between “hard” work and “head” work have a long pedigree. There was a philosophical dispute running throughout the ancient and medieval eras about the value of the active versus the contemplative life. But I’d like to highlight a more proximate antecedent for some of this thinking, the British controversialist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).
I recently discussed our pesky human tendency to limit and debase our thinking about economics to the temporary and material. Much like Judas, who reacted bitterly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment, we neglect to contemplate what eternal purposes God might have for this or that material good and the ways through which it might be used or distributed.
C.S. Lewis captures the tendency powerfully in his book, The Great Divorce, providing a clear contrast of heaven and hell through a series of conversations and spiritual choices.
Beginning the story in a dreary town described as being “always in the rain and always in evening twilight,” Lewis provides us with a setting very much like earth but with a bit more darkness and—take note—a bit more surface-level comfort and security (“they have no Needs,” as one character describes it).
Lewis follows one man’s journey beyond the town (which we quickly discover to be hell or some type of purgatory), toward an ever-increasing light (which we quickly discover to be heaven). Along the way, he encounters a series of fellow travelers, each struggling with his or her own obstacle to the divine—an earthbound idol that must be pried from their paws.
In one particular conversation, Lewis points specifically to the economic sphere, using a character he calls “the Intelligent Man” to propose an economic solution that, according to his limited, earthbound assumptions, will certainly relieve what he believes to be an inevitable, ever-increasing darkness:
What’s the trouble about this place? Not that people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on earth. The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in…I’d start a little business. I’d have something to sell. You’d soon get people coming to live near-centralisation. Two fully-inhabited streets would accommodate the people that are now spread over a million square miles of empty streets. I’d make a nice little profit and be a public benefactor as well.
His approach has some charming elements, to be sure. Indeed, if I myself were to encounter a dreary town such as this, I, too, would be quick to emphasize the positive socializing effects of market collaboration and cooperation. “The townspeople boast an unhealthy and isolating sense of entitlement,” I might be tempted to say. “Thus, we should proceed to foster a healthy web of bottom-up independence, interconnectedness, collaboration, and specialization.” (more…)
As noted already at the PowerBlog today, Sam Gregg has a fine piece on the complex relationship between law and morality, or constitutions and culture, over at Public Discourse.
As a follow-up (read the piece first), I’d like to point to an interesting aspect of James Buchanan’s advocacy of a balanced-budget amendment. As Gregg notes, Buchanan is an example of someone who thought that “America’s constitution required amending to bestow genuine independence upon a monetary authority,” or advocated for the “constitutionalization” of money. A related effort would be Buchanan’s efforts in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the American Constitution, as explored by James Alvey in his piece, “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.”
Book Note: “Walzer, ‘In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible'”
Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
In this eagerly awaited book, political theorist Michael Walzer reports his findings after decades of thinking about the politics of the Hebrew Bible. Attentive to nuance while engagingly straightforward, Walzer examines the laws, the histories, the prophecies, and the wisdom of the ancient biblical writers and discusses their views on such central political questions as justice, hierarchy, war, the authority of kings and priests, and the experience of exile.
Eric Teetsel, who runs the Values & Capitalism project over at AEI, invited me (among others) to pen some alternative endings to the Hunger Games trilogy. Eric is concerned that at the ending of the series, “Collins’s characters deteriorate into self-interested, cynical, vengeful creatures. The parallels of their behavior post-victory with the actions of their former dictators are made clear. Katniss even votes in support of another Hunger Games, this time featuring the children of the elites who have been overcome. It’s a Blue State ending to a Red State story.”
Although I don’t really write creative fiction (as you’ll quickly find out when you read my alternate ending), I’m not convinced that the general thrust of the books’ conclusion is quite so clearly at odds with the rest of the trilogy. What you’ll see is that I didn’t much like the kind of “happily ever after” ending that Katniss and Peeta experience.
But I did find that Collins’ basic point had to do with the corrupting power of politics, and in this vein I resonate much more with John Tanny’s recent piece for Forbes, “Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ Illustrates the Horrors of Big Government,” than with the piece that helped inspire the V&C alternate endings project, “‘The Hunger Games is a blue-state ‘Harry Potter'” by Rebecca Cusey.
In an alternative ending sure to please neither Team Peeta nor Team Gale, my alternate ending picks up after Katniss has killed the head of the new Panem administration, Alma Coin. I tried to keep in mind a couple of things. First was Lord Acton’s dictum and the theme here at the Acton Institute PowerBlog: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Second was Augustine’s query, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”
Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:
Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.
Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.
If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.
Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.
The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.
Read the full text here.
The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”
Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.
It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.
Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.
What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.
The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),
I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.
“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”
(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)
The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.
Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.
In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.
Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”
Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”
As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”