The 2015 Acton Lecture Series continued on January 29th with a presentation by American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks, who delivered a great talk on what really leads to happiness in life. In an era when Americans are finding less and less satisfaction with their nation while enjoying great abundance compared to much of the rest of the world and overall human history, what can we do to regain our confidence in the American enterprise system that has lifted much of the world out of poverty? Brooks explains, and you can hear his explanation via the video player below.
Such an attitude, worldview, and moral orientation isn’t all that appealing to someone such as myself, particularly when paired with the lovely parental advisory sign located at the counter. Yet I feel no inclination to enlist the muscle of the magistrates to manipulate them toward watering things down. I can consume their chicken blindly (not advisable), take my business elsewhere, or start a delicious chicken shop of my own.
Respond to the market signal with your own market signal. Heed your conscience. Shape and create the culture. Bear witness to the Truth. Etc.
Yet for those like Kirsten Powers, these folks should simply subdue their strident beliefs and get back to plain-old materialistic business. “Most people just want to eat a chicken sandwich,” she might say. “It’s not clear why some chicken shops are so confused about their role here.” Or, as Andy Stanley might put it, “leave gay rights out of it.”
I bring this up simply to re-affirm a point I’ve already made: businesses are culture-making enterprises, whether they or we like it or not. When we detest or disagree with particular cultural outputs of particular cultural enterprises, we should respond with healthy Christianly output, not systemic strong-arming and stifling.
This means maximizing the freedom to shape culture and maximizing it for all. That includes religious freedom for the baker, the florist, and the photographer, just as it includes the ramblings of the supposedly a-religious chicken shop.
Wayne Grudem believes that by engaging in work and business we glorify God because we are emulating God's creative work.
Many of you know Jay Richards from his regular lecturing at Acton University. He has a newly co-authored piece in The Daily Caller, “Enterprise is the most ‘effective altruism.’” There’s more to be said on the complex issue of helping the poor than can be put in a single op-ed, of course, but there’s some great food for thought here, particularly for those who view business and markets as necessarily part of the problem. Jay and Anne Bradley use the example of Microsoft to explain the confusion:
The Gates Foundation has saved an estimated 5 million lives thus far. But we rarely hear of the countless lives saved or improved by the profit-seeking activities of Microsoft…. One effect is the Foundation itself. To be able to start such a large aid organization, Bill Gates first had to be a successful entrepreneur. As a philanthropist, Gates is not “giving back” to the world, as if he had taken from it in the first place. His philanthropic giving is possible only because he first “gave” as an entrepreneur.
… Microsoft succeeded only because they provided value for hundreds of millions of people. Gates had to meet the needs of his customers … And to stay ahead, he had to invest wisely rather than consume or give away all the profits.
Over a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”
In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.
For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:
“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”
Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business. (more…)
At some point in tonight’s foreign policy debate between the two presidential candidates, Governor Mitt Romney should send his very capable inner wonk on a long coffee break and press a big-picture truth that otherwise will go begging: America’s strength on the international stage requires economic strength, and our economic strength cannot long endure under the weight of a government so swollen in size that it stifles human enterprise.
The connection between economic freedom and economic growth is well-established. The connection between the relative strength of a nation’s economy and its strength on the international stage is also well established.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s maybe easiest to grasp by thinking about technology. Our strength rests partly on our position as a technology leader, which allows our military to do more with less. But we’re unlikely to maintain that position of leadership if our government habitually suffocates our high-tech entrepreneurs under high taxes and hyper-regulation.
“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
Even if you’ve read that passage many times (like me) you might have glossed over (as I did) the word “enterprise.” Jacqueline Otto explains why it is significant:
Is it possible then, as Lewis asserts, that by making men without chests, we make men that are not inherently moral—who are not capable of being enterprising? Men who do not understand the moral urgency of freedom?
Of course, the power of the use of the word and is that it suggests the interdependency of virtue and enterprise. If we continue to make men without chests, not only will we end up with amoral men—traitors, even—but we will end up will a society not capable of engaging a free market.
We will end up with a people who, like Brooks rightly points out, claim to love free enterprise but who will do nothing to defend it. They will be a people lacking the capacity for freedom.
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:
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.
Business Weekly, a production of BBC World Service, had an informative feature on Toby Sheta, a Zimbabwean mobile phone trader, who provided insights into the courage and tenacity required of entrepreneurs under Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship (you can download the original Business Daily story in MP3 format here).
During the worst times of the Mugabe regime, Sheta would illegally buy and sell fuel coupons, a profitable enterprise because of the chaos of governmental interference in international trade and domestic fuel markets. Sheta says in the context of survival the “black market actually became the formal market,” the place where products were available. “For us the black market was the real market.”
Sheta says that what he gained as an entrepreneur in the emergency economy translate into more normalized economic conditions: “The skills that were learned and some of the principles that we’re using apply in any situation.” Sheta says, “Zimbabweans overall have gone through a school, a very informal school that was first upon us, in some ways in a positive way for us, to actually think and work for ourselves, work with our hands and see where we can see opportunity.”
Risk is a constant feature of enterprise, and Sheta testifies to the survival of the human spirit of innovation: “What I’ve learned is, even as I think of Haiti right now, as long as you’re human, and you’ve got your two feet, your two hands and your brain is still functioning, you’ll survive.”
“As you go into the problems you also go in terms of our creativity and learn how to survive,” he says.
As put by dairy farmer Brad Morgan, featured in Acton’s The Call of the Entrepreneur, “You put your butt in the corner, you’d be surprised what you can achieve.”
In terms of Zimbabwe’s future, Sheta points to stabilization in 2010 and beyond, in part because of the dollarization of the economy, and he concludes that Zimbabweans have “graduated to another level” from the emergency school of economics under Mugabe, looking forward to “see opportunities where in the past we wouldn’t have seen those opportunities.”
Got the socialism blues? Worried that a friend or maybe a teenage son or daughter may contract a nasty case of it? Marvin Olasky at World magazine recommends former Acton research fellow Jay Richards’ 2009 HarperOne book, Money Greed and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and not the Problem:
Among the myths Richards demolishes: The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its real alternatives), the Piety Myth (focusing on good intentions rather than results), and the Materialist and Zero-Sum Game Myths (believing that wealth is not created but simply transferred).
Richards, one of that rare breed with a theology doctorate but an understanding of economics, also points out the errors of the Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed), the Usury Myth (that charging interest on money is immoral), and the Freeze-Frame Myth (that what’s happening now regarding population, income, natural resources, or so on, will always happen).
Want to administer some of the immunizations in delicious DVD form? Try a high-quality, narrative-driven Acton documentary that was irenic enough to air on scores of PBS stations around the country but with enough red meat to also air on Fox Business: The Call of the Entrepreneur shows why entrepreneurs and capitalism are part of the solution, and why socialism delivers the opposite of what it promises. The story of Jimmy Lai–the boy who escaped Communist China, founded a media empire, and confronted the Chinese leaders behind the Tiananmen Square Massacre–is alone worth the price of admission.