Posts tagged with: civil society

The eyes of many in the world have turned to Cuba over the last day or so. A great deal has been made of the historic changes in the relationship between the US and Cuba and whether such changes fundamentally alter the situation of the political leaders and the elites in the island nation.

More interesting to me, however, are the personal stories of suffering and loss during the years of the Castro regime and the hope that dawns,  however slight it may be, with the normalization of relations. Perhaps the changes will simply serve to prop up a tyrannical regime, but there is real possibility that the day-to-day existence for millions of people will improve with greater travel, access to markets, and communication.

One of the great tragedies of the Castro regime was its suppression of non-approved cultural artifacts and forms, including traditional Cuban music. The Buena Vista Social Club’s closure was representative of a larger tradition of cultural pluralism and civil society in Cuba that had no place in the communist regime.

The guitarist Ry Cooder visited Cuba in the 1990s, and was able to reunite many of the original members of the club. Cooder put together an international tour for these wonderful musicians, including a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. That created an album and later a documentary. Here’s a scene from the documentary where a couple of Cuban musicians are visiting New York City for the first time:

The audio cuts out a couple minutes in, but you can see the wonder and appreciation that is apparent in their reactions. They see immediately and instinctively that the vitality and vigor of the city, with its commerce, exchange, culture, and liberty, are a marked contrast to their experiences in Cuba. “Activity! Activity! Activity!” one of them celebrates.

“This is the life!” concludes the other. Let’s hope that increased liberalization of engagement between the US and Cuba can help unleash more of this kind of vibrant dynamism among a people that stand in so desperate need of it.

Do yourself a favor and check out The Buena Vista Social Club.

Throughout Western developed nations, there is dawning recognition that robust protections for religious liberty can no longer be taken for granted. Less understood are the ways in which infringements of other political, civil and commercial forms of freedom can subtly undermine religious liberty. Businesses and other institutions of civil society now need to consider how the restrictions of religious freedom by governments throughout the Western world is likely to affect them.

Today the Acton Institute, in conjunction with the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America, will hold a conference from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Washington titled, “The Relationship between Religious & Economic Liberty in an Age of Expanding Government.” The event brings together leading clergy and scholars—theologians, philosophers, economists—to discuss this increasingly important issue, and the manner in which is affecting institutions ranging from business to church organizations.

If you’re in Grand Rapids, you can watch the event live in the Acton auditorium at 98 E. Fulton St. Details here. Or watch the live web stream beginning at noon on the video player after the page break. (more…)

Blog author: ehilton
Thursday, August 7, 2014
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Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

There are days when I almost give into despair. When I read stories like this, I think all is lost. Humanity is not worth a bucket of warm spit.

Thankfully, good men like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia beg to differ. Today at Public Discourse, Chaput offers his thoughts on how culture can be saved, and the answer is Christianity. (Please read the entire piece; it is worth every moment of your busy day.)

Chaput begins by stating the basic facts of natural law, and how good human law must stand on this. He reminds us that, without natural law, “human rights have no teeth.” Rights separated from natural law become “inhuman.” Chaput recalls another basic of political and legal philosophy: laws are meant to help us be good. They may restrict us, but only in positive ways. They create justice, peace and ultimately freedom. He then discusses the argument that one should not force one’s morality on anyone else. (more…)

church-sunsetThe first kind of religious freedom to appear in the Western world was “freedom of the church.” Although that freedom has been all but ignored by the Courts in the past few decades, its place in American jurisprudence is once again being recognized.

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett explains how we should think about and defend the liberty of religious institutions:

To embrace this idea as still-relevant is to claim that religious institutions have a distinctive place in our constitutional order—and not only a distinctively worrisome or harmful one. It is to suggest that churches are not “just like the Boy Scouts” and that, while they to a large extent function in civil society in the same way and deliver the same Tocquevillian benefits as any number of voluntary associations, they are, in the end, different.

True, it is increasingly difficult, within the boundaries of argument set down by some versions of liberal political theory, to justify, on principled grounds, special treatment for religious liberty. Still, in our history and tradition, “religious” institutions and authorities have acted, and have been regarded, as special and distinct, whether or not “religion” has been understood as neatly separate from “culture,” “conscience,” or “morality.” We live under a written Constitution that “singles out” religion and we inhabit a tradition in which “church” and “state” have, in a special way, cooperated and contended. If it is anachronistic to invoke the freedom of the church, it seems even more ahistorical to deny the distinctive (for better or worse) place and role of religious actors in that tradition, and today.

Read more . . .

Rousseau Geneve

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Earlier this Spring at The Gospel Coalition I reviewed Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.

Naím explores in a variety of fields and with a great diversity of examples the way in which, as he puts it, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power” and “power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.” I think there’s a real sense in which Naím has identified a real phenomenon. Power is becoming more and more diffused.

But as I argue in my TGC review, that’s really only half the story. Naím often has to provide a caveat that in spite of much of the centralization that we see, power really is eroding full stop. My contention, however, is that what we’re really seeing is the eroding of power in civil society, an evacuation of the power and place of mediating institutions, in two directions: toward centralized structures and authorities and toward individuals. The inability to see this leads to conclusions that would only hasten and exacerbate the evacuation of power from such mediating structures.

Some of this echoes what Ross Douthat has been saying recently about individualism, following Nisbet in particular: “In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias.” I take my own proximate inspiration from Röpke and his identification of “enmassment,” but there are certainly resonances with Nisbet as well as older thinkers like Tocqueville.

I should note in response to Douthat’s observation that “from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together,” this dialectic certainly cannot be explained solely in terms of the Reformation, as perhaps Brad Gregory would argue. The role of the Renaissance more generally, and particularly the renewed engagement with the varieties of ancient and pagan philosophy has as much, if not more, to do with the Enlightenment project of the liberated individual constrained by the collective than the Protestant Reformation.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
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Today at Ethika Politika, I examine the longstanding claim of the Roman Catholic Church that the universal character of the common good in our present era necessitates a world political authority. The problem, I argue, lies in the tradition’s too closely identifying the good of political communities with the common good.

The recently canonized Pope John XXIII, for example, states that “[p]ublic authority” is “the means of promoting the common good in civil society” (Pacem in Terris, 136, emphasis mine). And Pope Benedict XVI continued the call made by John XXIII for a “world political authority” in Caritas in Veritate, specifically recommending that the U.N. be “vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights” (57, emphasis mine). The problem with the U.N., to the popes, is that it is not powerful enough.

In response, I write,

I would worry about a U.N. or any other global political authority endowed with such great power and means. If nation states have failed to ensure the global common good, as the pope admits, why should we expect a global government to be free from error in this regard? The only difference would be that the mistakes of such politicians would necessarily have global consequences. I like my U.N. nearly ineffective and mostly powerless, thank you very much. If anything, to ensure subsidiarity, the larger the political authority, the less power and means it should have. (more…)

edmund burke 1In his new book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the birth of America’s Left and Right by contrasting the views of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. I’ve written previously on his chapter on choice vs. obligation, and in a recent appearance on EconTalk, Levin joins economist Russell Roberts to discuss these tensions further, addressing the implications for libertarians and conservatives a bit more directly.

It should first be noted that Roberts and Levin offer a dream pairing when it comes to such discussions. Roberts, a self-professed libertarian and classical liberal, offers each guest a unique level of intellectual empathy, meeting even the most vigorous intellectual opponents at their best and brightest arguments (see his discussions with Jeffrey Sachs). Likewise, Levin, while a true-and-through conservative, is not prone to the variety of anti-libertarian caricatures that predominate the Right. If we hope to uncover the actual distinctions between the two, these men are up to the task, and the historical context makes it all the more meaty. Listen to the whole thing here.

About halfway through (36:39), Roberts asks Levin directly how a libertarian might discern between Burke and Paine, admitting sympathies for both sides. Levin answers with a lengthy response, noting, first, how libertarians typically take a more Burkean approach to centralized knowledge and power:

There is a strong and important strand of libertarianism that is very Burkean, because it emphasizes especially the limits of our knowledge and the kind of skepticism about the uses of power. And so ultimately believes that power needs to be restrained because there are permanent limits on what we can do…And it inclines many libertarians to market economics and to restraints on the role of government and the power of government. And in that sense aligns them with a lot of Conservatives who think more like Burke. (more…)

This past Saturday, I attended the Alleviating Poverty Through Entrepreneurship (APTE) 2014 summit. APTE is a student group at OSU in Columbus, OH, and they put together a wonderful cast of ten speakers on the subject of the future of social entrepreneurship. With seven pages of notes (front and back), I unfortunately cannot cover every detail of the conference, but instead I will briefly focus on a theme that recurred throughout the afternoon: private, often for-profit, solutions to public service problems facing the poor.

APTE brought together an impressive lineup of speakers for two rounds of individual presenters, followed by a Twitter Q&A, with a panel discussion on the city of Detroit in between the two groups: (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

The lives and deaths of cities in America is certainly topical. Drive through Detroit if you don’t think so. On one hand, block after block of decimated homes create a landscape of, let’s be honest, death. On the other, people in the city forge ahead, turning empty city blocks into burgeoning urban gardens, seeking out entrepreneurial options in cheap real-estate and office leases. Do the lives and deaths of cities “just happen” or is there planning involved?

courtesy of Biography.com

courtesy of Biography.com

Jane Jacobs, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, speaking out against what constituted much of urban planning. She said, in one interview, that urban planners were rather “hopeless”:

The chief planner of Philadelphia was showing me around. First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy. He was kicking a tire in the gutter. The planner told me that they were progressing to the next street over, where we had come from, which he obviously regarded as disgraceful. I said that all the people were over there, that there were no people here, and what did he think of that? What he obviously would have liked was groups of people standing and admiring the vistas that he had created. You could see that nothing else mattered to him. So I realized that not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care.

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