Our friends over at AEI have a wonderful website—Values & Capitalism—devoted to many of the same topics we cover here at Acton: faith, economics, poverty, the environment, society. Values & Capitalism, which is capably managed and curated by my buddy Eric Teetsel, is an excellent resource that I recommend to all liberty-loving, virtue promoting Christians (i.e., all good Acton PowerBlog readers).
When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives* is how we view neutrality and bias. Because the differences are uncharted, I have no way of describing the variance without resorting to a grossly simplistic caricature—so with a grossly simplistic caricature we shall proceed:
Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.
At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.
Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.
Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”
When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)
I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reacts to musings by conservative writers David Brooks and Michael Gerson about Rick Santorum’s political rise in the GOP primaries and how his social views might be expressed in government policy. Would a President Santorum usher in a smaller but more “transformational” role for the state in addressing social ills? Gregg:
On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.
At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Problem with Compassionate Conservatism” on NRO.
In a report on the Republican roundtable debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez writes about the ongoing breakdown of the family and its role in economic life. She talks to Acton’s Samuel Gregg about the clashing views that often exist in the conservative world on economic questions.
“There are obvious tensions between those free marketers who have problems with objective morality and those social conservatives who have a bad habit of blaming the market economy for many of society’s problems,” says Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute. “But it seems to me that free societies characterized by a robust market economy, strong civil associations, and a limited state need (a) market institutions underpinned by a commitment to liberty and property rights and (b) social institutions that are characterized by unapologetically nonliberal conceptions of family and associational life. . . . Large, expansionist states tend to undermine not just the market but also civil society and strong families.”
Read “Love on the Campaign Trail” on National Review Online.
Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.
In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.
But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:
For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.
The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.
The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?
A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.
Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:
Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?
In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”
The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
Yesterday, five leading Republican candidates participated in the Palmetto Freedom Forum, a serious debate on constitutional principles. Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain answered questions from Tea Party congressmen Jim DeMint and Steve King, and Princeton professor Robert P. George.
National Review Online has gathered reactions to the debate from notable conservatives; Acton director of research Samuel Gregg and senior fellow Marvin Olasky are among them. Gregg’s take-away is that American politics is shifting in two ways: first, constitutional conservatism is now seen as a winning message, and candidates are unafraid to disavow progressivism as a whole; and second, issues, particularly economic ones, once on the margins of political debate are now up for discussion in the mainstream.
Here is the full text of Gregg’s response.
If there was any theme linking the responses to the questions posed by Senator DeMint, Congressman King, and Professor George to five of the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for president during today’s South Carolina debate, it was the need for America to return to its founding principles. Yes, there was substantive discussion of specific matters ranging from financial regulation to immigration. But again and again, most of the candidates articulated the principles—and subsequent policies—of constitutional conservation.
Politically this makes sense, because it helps to integrate American conservatism’s fiscal and social wings. But it also reflects many Americans’ consciousness that the last four years have seen an acceleration of a long drift away from the best of the American experiment. So whether it was different candidates quoting Jefferson at length, or Ron Paul and Robert George discussing the 14th Amendment’s finer details, evidence mounted that constitutional conservatism is going to be a major reference point for whoever ends up running against President Obama in 2012.
The second aspect of the debate worth underscoring is how issues once considered marginal to mainstream politics are becoming central. It’s no longer just Ron Paul talking about the need for sound money. The economic downturn and the failure of interventionist policies have turned the Fed and fiat money into live issues that no conservative candidate for office can ignore. Ben Bernanke—you’re on notice.
My contribution to this week’s Acton News & Commentary:
TV Bias Book Not Ready for Primetime
By Bruce Edward Walker
Reading Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV is similar to time traveling through the pages of a TV Guide. Dozens of television series from the past 50 years are dissected through Shapiro’s conservative lens – or, at least, what passes for Shapiro’s brand of conservatism – to reveal his perception that the television industry is – gasp! – overrun by social liberalism.
Trouble is, Shapiro finds signs of liberalism in nearly everything he’s viewed on the boob tube, and wields this bias indiscriminately against programming that may or may not possess a “liberal agenda.” His book may or may not be retaliation for a rejection the young author received for having his Hollywood aspirations dashed after producers vetting his background discovered Shapiro has authored a syndicated conservative column since his Harvard Law School days. This anecdote prefaces his lengthy jeremiad against the liberal establishment in the television industry.
When reading Primetime Propaganda, one is reminded of Harvard University professor Irving Babbitt who railed so much against Jean Jacques Rousseau that his students speculated he checked under his bed each evening to ensure the French philosopher wasn’t hiding there.
Like Kevin McCarthy warning against the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Charlton Heston discovering the little crackers in Soylent Green are made from people, Shapiro casts himself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness about the prevalence of liberalism in television, portentously outlining the thesis for his work:
After reading Primetime Propaganda, you’ll be awakened to what’s really going on behind the small screen, and you’ll be stunned to learn that you’ve been targeted by a generations of television creators and programmers for political conversion. You’ll find out that the box in your living room has been invading your mind, subtly shaping your opinions, pushing you to certain sociopolitical conclusions for years.
That Hollywood is predominantly liberal is no surprise to anyone and there are plenty of examples to support this. But that doesn’t prevent Shapiro from hammering as hard as he can to fit pegs of all shapes into an ill-defined liberal hole. Such an approach amounts to nothing more than buckshot as he fails from the outset of his enterprise to define adequately the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Read without this crucial critical perspective, I suppose anything that offends the author’s sensibilities is deemed the former and anything he enjoys must fall into the latter realm. However, Shapiro confesses to enjoying such programs as Friends and The Simpsons, which he also classifies as promoting social liberalism. Apparently, he reconciles this inconsistency by possessing immunity to the sociopolitical mind control to which the rest of us without Harvard Law degrees are susceptible.
Further, Shapiro takes the too easy path in many instances to declare programs such as All in the Family as liberal indoctrination. On this in particular, I beg to differ. The 1970s program was indeed created by liberal producer Norman Lear and featured the outspoken activist actor Rob Reiner in a featured role, but to malign the program for this and its admittedly intermittent liberal subject matter is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Lear’s All in the Family might have accomplished more for the civil rights movement than any number of protests, documentaries, and marches simply by creating a lovable, bigoted curmudgeon whom viewers loved despite his innumerable prejudices. Shapiro writes that the program made fun of blue-collar conservatives through its depiction of a racist dockworker. If an unreformed Archie Bunker represents the type of conservatism Shapiro advocates, I’ll take a pass. The under-30 Shapiro may not recall the rampant racism of the early 1970s, but this writer certainly does.
By listening to Archie Bunker’s stridently offensive and indefensible rants, millions of 1970s television viewers – some possessing similar if not identical views – witnessed the absurdity of his intolerance, and warmed to the black Lionel Jefferson and Italian house-husband Frank Lorenzo far more quickly than did Archie. This may not adhere to Shapiro’s version of conservatism, but it certainly tracks with conservative Judeo-Christian principles of loving one’s neighbor regardless of race, creed, or color.
Additionally, viewers also witnessed the hypocrisy of Rob Reiner’s avowedly counterculture character, Michael “Meathead” Stivic, who mooches off his in-laws and behaves chauvinistically toward his wife. In at least one episode, Stivic was revealed to be as intolerant in his countercultural views as Archie was in his bigotry. I hardly perceive of this as an affront to conservative values.
It’s undeniable that television programming is antithetical to many true conservative values, as it repeatedly attacks Judeo-Christian traditions, attacks religious beliefs at seemingly every opportunity, and promotes statist policies and alternative lifestyles. But what’s called for isn’t Shapiro’s broad-brushed approach but a far more incisive analysis of the television industry’s promotion of secular liberalism.
Is it conceivable to endorse the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged – as I do – while rejecting the flawed ideology which inspired it?
I would argue, yes. On the one hand, I place the Beatles at the pinnacle of 1960s pop music while concluding that their song “Mr. Moonlight” is wince-inducing to the point of being unlistenable. Likewise, I admire 99.9 percent of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work yet disagree with him on his assertion only men should vote. On the other hand, I disagree for the most part with Camille Paglia’s worldview yet admire her writing style and intellectual honesty.
So it goes with Ayn Rand. Her free-market views were a welcome antidote to New Deal policies and the malignant growth of government programs and crony capitalism. And for the same reasons I warmly welcome the first installment of the planned cinematic trilogy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – timed to coincide with the traditional Tax Day this coming Friday – which renders her themes in such a fashion they appear ripped from the headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal.
Atlas Shrugged-Part I captures the malaise of our times in its depiction of a United States of the near future when businessmen look to government to throttle competition by any means necessary (e.g. legislation and regulation) rather than innovating and investing to succeed. Part I ignores Rand’s anti-collectivism, rampant individualism, atheism and, for the most part, libertarian libertinism, to focus on her depictions of government looters and corporate rent seekers.
All this recommends the movie to lovers of liberty properly understood, to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. In fact, I’ll go so far as to encourage readers to see the film and skip the book.
My problems with Rand and Objectivism, the ideology of “enlightened self-interest” she founded, go beyond the oft-quoted admonition of Whittaker Chambers in which he expressed her autocratic intransigence led him to read Rand’s command to all detractors real and perceived “to the gas chambers go!” on every page. There is some truth to Chamber’s critique, to be sure, in that any worldview that rejects faith and community eventually succumbs to obduracy leading to what Russell Kirk labeled the “chirping sect” of libertarianism (a phrase he borrowed from T.S. Eliot).
By chirping sect, Kirk intentionally references Edmund Burke’s “insects of the hour” — those libertarians who splinter into ever smaller groups and thereby sacrifice both the personal and common good on the altar of their own narcissism masked as “individualism.” One need only read about the internecine strife within the Objectivist’s ivory tower to note the wisdom of Burke and Kirk. The CliffsNotes version: Arguing with Rand meant immediate exile to intellectual Siberia.
Contrary to Rand’s individualism, the United States since its beginning has congregated in townships and parishes where true democracy flourishes under the express influence of religious faith. Nineteenth-century writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson both noted these communal incubators and conservators of liberty – small collectives that reflect their respective faiths to advocate for the good of all within their sphere.
As Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America:
In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.
Among his many salient points against libertarianism enumerated in the essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” Kirk said:
What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.
Elsewhere in his essay, Kirk delineates the differences between individualism as expressed by Rand and her like and the community spirit so intrinsic to our national character by invoking Eric Voegelin, whom, Kirk states:
[R]eminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats – that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.
In short, capitalism and the toxic individualism of Rand and others for the instantaneous benefits supposedly granted leads to liberty misunderstood in the forms of materialism and licentious behavior – both antithetical to liberty properly understood as the fully realized temporal life in community and faith.
So I’m thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called “philosophy” and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.