Posts tagged with: economic freedom

Blog author: kmarotte
posted by on Tuesday, January 17, 2012

One month ago today, the people of North Korea learned that their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, had died. While the news triggered hysterical shock in Pyongyang, the event brought new hope to those who work hard to penetrate North Korea’s hermetic society. One after another, many of these NGOs and ministries released statements postulating that maybe, just maybe, Kim’s youngest son and anointed heir—Jong-un—would break with family tradition by promoting genuine liberty for his people.

Such hopes are certainly understandable. Due in large part to the regime’s aversion to private markets, extreme poverty is a fact of life for large swaths of the population. The World Food Programme, North Korea’s largest distributor of multilateral food aid, estimated in 2011 that six million people needed food assistance, while one in three children were chronically malnourished. Such issues have been endemic since the mid-1990s, when an extraordinarily bad famine claimed millions of lives.

North Korea’s record on religious freedom is no better. Once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its large Christian population and deployment of missionaries, all manifestations of Christianity were eradicated as Kim Il-sung consolidated his power in the early 1950s. Understanding the dissonance between Christianity and utopian government schemes (such as communism), Kim reportedly commented: “We came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” Today’s North Korea has sustained this policy, throwing Christians into labor camps (a death sentence for many), executing them for Bible ownership, and punishing families to the third generation for any sign of Christian influence.

Optimists who see promise in the leadership transition contend that Kim Jong-un’s time attending school in Bern, Switzerland exposed him to the fruits of a free society. Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, they remind us, likewise benefited from his time in Paris. But the rule is not a hard-and-fast one; both Mussolini and Marx spent a good deal of time in relatively freedom-oriented countries (Switzerland and England, respectively), but still settled on philosophies and policies incongruent with freedom and individual dignity. Optimists respond that Jong-un seems to have taken to Western culture, as he is a big fan of NBA basketball and Michael Jordan. His father’s penchant for Elvis Presley and Rambo, however, never did translate into wholesale adoption of Western-style democracy.

Whatever our hopes, change in the near term is highly unlikely. While Kim Jong-il had some 15 years to prepare for leadership under his father’s tutelage, Kim Jong-un had one-fifth that, having been seemingly tapped after his father’s stroke in 2008. On the fly, he will be forced to learn the delicate balance of political power in that country. His first priority will be to consolidate power, proving his legitimacy to the political establishment as well as the highly influential military apparatus (to this end, expect more saber-rattling toward South Korea). Intent to retain their current clout and influence, the powers-that-be are not particularly enthused about the prospect of an economically free and spiritually rich North Korea; Kim Jong-un will thus have strong incentive to squelch dissent wherever it appears.

The foundations have already been laid for heightened vigilance. After Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korean and Chinese border patrols were beefed up, new roadblocks and checkpoints were added, new barb-wire fencing was installed, and journalists were prevented from entering the border area. Small, tightly controlled markets were shut down (some of which have since reopened), and religious restrictions were tightened. Kim Jong-il would not have selected a reformist softy as his successor—and in Jong-un, he did not.

But what of a coup? Any sort of organized, successful upheaval would likely not come from the citizenry. After all, those reduced to boiling tree bark for dinner hardly have the wherewithal to overturn a highly consolidated and centralized system like North Korea’s. If anything happens—and at this point, the likelihood is small—it would likely emanate from the officer corps. There is said to be discontent among mid-level military professionals, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the regime and received little in return. Others may be bitter about the high military honors conferred upon Kim Jong-un and his uncle and close confidante, Chang Sung-taek—neither of whom was required to earn his way through the ranks. If an uprising along these lines did occur, the consequences would be far from clear, with liberty not necessarily an automatic result. “Revolution,” quipped a ruthless but clever Mao, “is not a dinner party.”

I pray that my skepticism is proven wrong. But until more promising evidence comes to light, new leadership in the halls of Pyongyang sadly signifies only a continuation of the brutal and miserable status quo.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

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:

Policy
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.

I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.

But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)

So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?

Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.

Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

AEI President Arthur Brooks answers the question from MSNBC’s Matt Miller, “What do we do when huge forces beyond our control shape our destiny?”

A mere mention of North Korea brings to mind the repressive regime of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.  Although Kim has been satirized in the West as an impish consumer of cognac and NBA paraphernalia, his grip on society is both chilling and inescapable.  The country frequently receives news coverage for its nuclear aspirations, unjust penal system, and horrendous human rights record.  However, a recent academic study by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland uncovers yet another facet of the North Korean case: the power and inevitability of markets in the face of economic despair.

Since the reclusive nature of North Korea precludes any serious study of public opinion and social change, Haggard and Noland pursued the next best sample: North Korean defectors.  In Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, the authors describe the results and implications of two surveys, conducted between 2004 and 2008, completed by approximately 1,600 refugees living in China and South Korea.  While the study sample is not random, multivariate regression demonstrates that most of the findings are generally applicable to the North Korean population at large.  Simply put, this study gives us a unique look into the collective heart and mind of an otherwise impenetrable nation.

Before delving into the surveys, the authors provide a brief history of the North Korean economy.  Due to rapid mobilization of its labor base, as well as generous support from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea registered strong growth for the first several years of its existence.  But in the late 1980s, as famines set in and the Soviet Union disbanded, the North experienced profound economic pangs.  With famine at its peak in the 1990s, households came to rely on a range of coping strategies—limited consumption, barter, foraging, and purchasing food from emerging markets.  Though marketization was catalyzed by the need for food, it eventually became instrumental vis-à-vis a wide range of consumer goods, as well.  Indeed, the unofficial market became so significant during this time period that in 1994, it equaled 25 percent of the official output.  Military and state functionaries became covert distributors, and the government even decriminalized certain market activities.

Haggard and Noland offer, however, that even when the government seemed to pursue pro-market reform, those measures were accompanied by simultaneous efforts to “reassert state control,” including an administered price structure and higher wage levels for certain groups.  Such bipolar policymaking was unfortunately short-lived, as North Korea has since reversed a number of reforms that had been conducive to market activity.

It is difficult to imagine a situation more disquieting than the North Korea of today, where citizens continue to die of starvation and malnutrition due to dwindling supplies of food and insufficient work.  But just as they did during the 1990s, North Koreans continue to turn to the market in their times of serious need.  Instances abound: nearly half of South Korean respondents reported that all their income came from private business activities, while 69 percent said half or more of their income came from such activities.  More than 70 percent of respondents in that group were involved in trading.  In the China sample, 62 percent reported the market as their primary source of food, while 95 percent of non-farm respondents obtained some amount of food through the market.  Haggard and Noland call this phenomenon ‘marketization from below’—also seen in Eastern Europe—in which market growth is “primarily a function of state failure rather than a proactive reform process.”

It is important to note that, unlike many of us, who come to embrace free enterprise after starting a business or reading Hayek, North Korean engagement of the market is borne of extreme desperation.  After spending years under the yoke of a totalitarian regime that regulates almost every aspect of market and man, courageous Koreans have come to regard the market as a natural elixir to the malady of severe economic deprivation.

Unsurprisingly, involvement in the market often corresponds with other sorts of taboo activities, signifying a deep desire for personal autonomy.  “Taken together,” write the authors, “these results point to a kind of ‘market syndrome’ in which participation in market activities is associated with higher arrest rates, more consumption of foreign news, more negative assessments of the regime, a greater willingness to communicate those views to one’s peers, and a greater propensity to cite political motives for emigration.  On its own terms, the regime is right to fear the market.”

Given the persistence of harsh food shortages, as well as the delicate transfer of power to Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, North Korea will attract increased attention and interest over the coming years.  Against this backdrop, Witness to Transformation uses refugee testimony to paint a helpful picture of this infamously opaque, but increasingly important country.

Here is the new trailer for the 7-part Birth of Freedom DVD Curriculum, created by Acton Media and released next month by Zondervan.

You can pre-order the curriculum at the Acton Book Shoppe.

As part of its First Principles series in Political Thought, the Heritage Foundation has published The Moral Basis for Economic Liberty by the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute. You can read the paper online or download as a PDF.

Abstract:

Today, those who defend free markets and capitalism often do so solely on managerial or technical grounds, but economic liberty needs a moral defense as well. Defense of economic liberty without reference to morality will ultimately prove injurious to liberty itself. Rightly understood, capitalism is simply the name for the economic component of the natural order of liberty. It means expansive ownership of property, fair and equal rules for all, economic security through prosperity, strict adherence to the boundaries of ownership, opportunity for charity, wise resource use, creativity, growth, development, prosperity, abundance. Most of all, it means the economic application of the principle that every human person has dignity and should have that dignity respected.

And a key insight:

So long as economic liberty—and its requisite institutions of private property, free exchange, capital accumulation, and contract enforcement—is not backed by a generally held set of norms by which it can be defended, it cannot be sustained over the long term. Into the moral vacuum left by capitalism’s defenders rush notions hostile to economic liberty, notions drawn largely from the values and vocabularies of interventionism and socialism.

Further, if a principled defense of markets based on the sanctity of private property and the virtue of voluntarism is absent from public life, it is very likely that the moral center of the buying public has begun to slip as well. In any market, the kinds of goods and services producers provide reflect the values of the consuming public. What consumers are willing to purchase will determine what kinds of goods and services are most prominent in the market.

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spurred on by listening to and reading Samuel Gregg, I’ve been making my way through Wilhelm Ropke’s A Humane Economy which is really a special book.

The following passage (on p. 69) really caught my attention with regard to our current situation:

Democracy is, in the long run, compatible with freedom only on condition that all, or at least most, voters are agreed that certain supreme norms and principles of public life and economic order must remain outside the sphere of democratic decisions . . . It is this fundamental agreement which imbues the concept of inviolable law as such with an absolute content, and once it can no longer be taken for granted, we are in the presence of mass democracy of a pretotalitarian kind.

Ropke is making a very important point here. We are naturally quite comfortable with saying that certain rights are not really within the ambit of the democratic process. For example, a simple majority cannot take away my right to stand on a soapbox on a street corner and declaim on American politics. The right of free speech has our fundamental agreement, despite the fact that our mood may change from time to time. The right is firmly enshrined. But shouldn’t that same agreement hold with regard to our economic freedom? What good are our so-called civil rights if we enact a system that continues to eat up giant chunks of our economic prerogatives?

The Supreme Court, for example, has made much of how important it is that we each be able to make our own decisions about the mysteries of sex and reproduction. Are the questions of how we earn our living, how we plan for our financial future, how we choose to protect ourselves against health problems, and the ability to start a business without excessive encumbrance from the government not equally massive in their implications?