Posts tagged with: Classical liberals

Members of  the “Acton Club” of West Catholic High School

Members of the “Acton Club” of West Catholic High School

Culture has either an overly optimistic view of youth culture, or an overly dour and depressing one. However, neither view is entirely true, nor are such disparate opinions very helpful.  The unavoidable truth is this: younger generations will have to bear increasingly more difficult levels of financial, and societal responsibility in the coming years. To put it mildly their future will not be an easy walk in the park.

However, in my experiences at Acton, I am witnessing a renaissance, a flowering of maturity in which young men and women are not waiting for someone to offer them a free hand-out, but rather are seeking a better version and a more compelling vision for their future. Certainly the root of this renaissance has been occurring over the past ten years with college students at Acton University, but the flowering I am talking about is happening amongst high school students.

In the spring of 2014, a group of students from West Catholic High School in Grand Rapids made an appointment to tour our offices and to learn more about Acton’s work. After the tour, I expected the students to simply say, “thank you” and then depart, but the leader of this intrepid band said, “Mr. Cook, we have a core group that are serious about our Christian faith, and we want to be successful, ethical and virtuous business leaders. We want to learn how we can live our faith as Christian business leaders in our world today.” Then he said something really amazing.

“Do you think it’s possible for us to start an ‘Acton Club’ in our high school?’


81396fYesterday, Acton research associate Dylan Pahman made the connection between inequality and poverty alleviation. Today, he continues that argument and explains how the connection affirms the moral merits of economic liberty:

Hayek argued for a stronger connection between inequality and economic progress in his 1960 work The Constitution of Liberty. “New knowledge and its benefits,” writes Hayek, “can spread only gradually, and the ambitions of the many will always be determined by what is as yet accessible only to the few . . . This means that there will always be people who already benefit from new achievements that have not yet reached others.”

Hayek’s basic point is simple: Before many social advancements become common, they first exists as luxuries. “The new things,” writes Hayek, “will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few.” This applies to much of what the average person in a developed society today takes for granted: automobiles, air-conditioning, refrigeration, tablet computers, smart phones, and so on. Go back far enough, and we might even add clean water and basic sanitation to the list.

Read 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…)

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and LeftI recently read Yuval Levin’s new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, and found it remarkably rich and rewarding. Though the entire book is worthy of discussion, his chapter on choice vs. obligation is particularly helpful in illuminating one of the more elusive tensions in our social thought and action.

In the chapter, Levin provides a helpful summary of how the two men differed in their beliefs about social obligation and individual rights. How ought we to relate to our fellow man? What preexisting obligations do we have to our neighbors? How do those obligations come to be? What role ought the State to play in guiding or intervening in the social order?

For Paine, Levin explains, society is a “means to enable choice, or the freedom to shape our own future uncoerced—a means to the radical liberation of the individual from the burdens of his circumstances, his given nature, and his fellow man.” “The right to choose,” Levin paraphrases, is “the end toward which we aim in politics.” Or as Paine himself puts it: “The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me, and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.” We choose our obligations, and y’all best let Paine choose his.

For Burke, however, this lopsided emphasis on choice amounts to “a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition,” as Levin summarizes: “The most essential human obligations and relations—especially those involving the family but also many of those involving community, the nation, and one’s religious faith—are not chosen and could never really be chosen, and political and social life begins from these, not from an act of will.” We may think we can escape or subvert certain obligations, but for Burke,  they are “nevertheless binding.” Therefore, in structuring our society and acting therein, we ought not pretend otherwise. (more…)

Guidance For Christian Engagement In GovernmentChristian’s Library Press has just released the first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program), under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government.

First published in 1879 with the goal of preparing citizens for participation in the general elections, Kuyper’s stated purpose was twofold, as summarized by translator and editor Harry Van Dyke: “to serve antirevolutionaries as a guide for promotional activities and to prepare them for the formal establishment of an Anti-Revolutionary Party.”

As for what is meant by “anti-revolutionary” in this particular case, Kuyper lays the groundwork as follows:

Our movement’s first name, given its origin, is “antirevolutionary.” It took its rise from opposing something offensive, something that clashed with what is just and sacred. We are therefore at heart a militant party, unhappy with the status quo and ready to critique it, fight it, and change it. (more…)

One of the more famous quotes from the eminently quotable Lord Acton is his dictum, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Actually, this appears in his writings in a slightly different form, as is seen below.

It is clear from the quote itself that Acton is contrasting two different views of liberty. But from the larger context we can rightly describe these two views as corresponding to Acton’s conception of the Catholic view of liberty in contrast to the modern view. Thus he writes,

There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state. It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority. According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding on him. Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails: whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in America, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority, — it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised. (emphasis added)

The source of this quote is an essay on “The Roman Question” from The Rambler (January 1860), in which Acton considers the temporal power of the Roman pontiff in the context of modern revolutions.

One confirmation of the validity of Acton’s contrast, at least as regards the status of his definition of Catholic liberty, what we might identify as a basically Augustinian definition of liberty, is the appearance of this definition in an almost verbatim form in Pope John Paul II’s homily at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Blog author: jsunde
Friday, March 22, 2013

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…)