The August issue of Southern Living magazine offers a very good story on the faith of Smithville Baptist pastor Wes White and the community of Smithville, Miss. Smithville was devastated by a tornado that wreaked havoc across the South in late April.
Even in the days we were living with segregation, we all had a hope for a better day. And right now, that’s what we’re doing in Tuscaloosa: We’re hoping for a better day, hoping we come from the ashes of destruction and into a beautiful, more livable American city.
The devastation is a reminder to pray for our fellow citizens who are in the path of Hurricane Irene, and pray that the hurricane has a dull bite. But as my piece in Religion & Liberty points out, if there is to be any destruction along the East Coast, it will largely be the Church and religious organizations that are the first on the scene. They are the ones who will be making a lasting impact in the recovery and restoration of affected communities.
While insensitive political commentators might be looking at the storm as a great opportunity for job creation, most of the effort will come from volunteers. An August 19 story from CNN on the Joplin tornado points out, what many of us already know, the faith community stays in the recovery effort for the duration. Anybody from the Gulf Coast or anybody who has been involved in Hurricane Katrina relief, is aware of the deep commitment and staying power of many charitable faith groups.
We live in the information age, or more accurately referred to as the age of “information overload.” Anyone who has a Twitter account knows what I’m talking about. You may feel like you’re drowning in a flood of Facebook statuses, emails and YouTube videos. With information coming at us every which way, how can we process it all? How do we even know it’s true?
Neoclassical economics assumes people act on the basis of perfect information. With all the information that’s out there, this might seem like a good assumption. Dr. Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, does not agree with this theory. In his critique of neoclassical economics at Acton University, he said,
Perfect ignorance is a better starting assumption than perfect information.
Rather than perfect information, perhaps we only need “good enough” information. Economist Vernon Smith claims markets converge toward equilibrium by trial and error. Experiments outlined in his book Rationality in Economics show equilibrium can be reached with a limited amount of information. Similarly, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argues that prices are sufficient in signaling value and enabling efficient economic decision making.
An experiment conducted by Paul Andreassen in the late 1980s tested two groups of MIT business students to see how information affects stock investments. One group could only see changes in prices while the second group was allowed to read The Wall Street Journal, watch CNBC and consult experts on market trends. Unexpectedly, the group with less information earned twice as much as the well informed group. His analysis suggests the high-informed group was distracted by the rumors and insider gossip from the extra information. The excess information encouraged them to engage in much more buying and selling than the low-informed group because they were confident their knowledge allowed them to operate more efficiently in the market. In this case, price signals and the invisible hand of the market proved more efficient than an overload of information.
In a world that seems to have all the technology and science to answer life’s greatest questions, we realize it is still imperfect and demand more. For example, many believe that overwhelming forensic evidence was enough to convict Casey Anthony of the murder of her daughter Caylee, but the verdict proved otherwise. The jury demanded more than just DNA; they wanted the exact time of death and a stronger motive.
Information is a necessary prerequisite for belief, but we must be careful not to fall into the trap of doubting Thomas (though we have all been there). Always demanding personal evidence and more proof in order to believe something will only lead to skepticism. A skeptic says he will only believe it if he sees it, but rarely do we ever experience information from a primary source. Should we believe the facts we read in our textbooks? Should we believe what the experts say on the news? Belief always takes a step of faith.
In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II asks,
Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.
In the age of technology and information overload, we should be humbled in our human limitations. Because information is imperfect, it takes a little faith in the invisible hand to reach equilibrium in the free market. But we should not center our faith in free markets because markets are imperfect and will fail as everything else in the world. Information, which is necessarily imperfect, and faith is required in the human pursuit of truth. Whoever knew markets could teach us so much about faith?
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.
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.
On February 17, those in the Grand Rapids area should plan on attending Acton on Tap at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids for a discussion about the faith of Ronald Reagan and its impact in America and the world. The discussion starts promptly at 6:30 p.m., plan on arriving a little earlier for a good seat. My commentary from last week is a good primer for the event. Paul Kengor also has an excellent piece in USA Today about Reagan and his faith.
February of 2011 marks Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday. At the end of last year, President Barack Obama said he was reading Lou Cannon’s biography of the popular president, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Many commentators have speculated that President Obama is studying the popular president in order to strengthen his connection with the American people. Join us as Acton’s Ray Nothstine leads a discussion about Ronald Reagan’s America, his faith, and the relevancy of his life and presidency for today.
Radio Free Acton hits the web once again today, this time featuring an exchange between Hunter Baker, author of The End of Secularism, and Jonathan Malesic, author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity. Their conversation continues an exchange begun in the Controversy section of the latest issue of Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality. Should Christians be overt about their faith when operating in the public square, or should Christian identity remain concealed in order to protect the faith from being drained of any real meaning? Baker and Malesic provide some thought-provoking perspectives on this vital question. [Ed. note: As an exclusive for PowerBlog readers, you can read the Malesic/Baker controversy in the Journal of Markets & Moralityhere.]
Additionally, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Rev. John Armstrong recorded after his December 1st Acton On Tap event on Ecumenism and Ideology, in which we discuss what authentic ecumenism really is, as opposed to ideology.
To listen, use the audio player below:
Patriarch Kirill gives an emphatic “no” in a TV interview. He points to the catastrophe of the Bolshevik Revolution and what followed. Here’s a snip from Interfax:
“And then everything was broken. Eventually with great efforts, including terror, high economic indicators were reached,” the Patriarch said explaining further collapse of the USSR with the fact that the “backbone of national life was destroyed” in years of revolution.
“Today our life is worse not because we are Orthodox, but because we ruined our country and spiritual foundation of our life two times during one century. Protestant countries live better not because they are Protestant, but because these countries have not been at war, they developed their economy staying in rather favorable conditions,” the Patriarch summed up and wished so that God “gives us reason to save our political, social stability and develop ourselves both spiritually and economically.”
Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”
But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,
The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.
No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.
President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation, Oct. 3, 1863.
A blessed Thanksgiving to all from the Acton Institute!
On FrontPageMag.com, Ismael Hernandez talks about his journey from anti-American activist to his disillusionment with socialism and eventually the founding of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. Hernandez, a frequent lecturer at Acton conferences, was asked by interviewer Jamie Glazov to recall the estrangement from family and friends that resulted when his “passion for socialism” faded away.
For the first time in my life, I began to weakly contemplate the possibility that things were not as I had been told. There I was, still spewing words of hate against America and out of nowhere, and based only on my achievements, I had been offered a reward. Why? About a year before my arrival, I was leading an anti-American campaign in my hometown of Isabela calling on young Puerto Ricans to refuse to fight in the first Persian Gulf War. Paying for anti-American propaganda posters myself, I took pleasure in distributing hundreds of them calling for the refusal. Why? Why offer me any benefit at all? Yet, America embraced me and gave me opportunities I never dreamed of.
I soon found myself attended by heretical thoughts that I never before anticipated. A revolutionary wave was sweeping across my soul and I fought it with iconoclastic zeal. It is not possible, not for me. The fall of the Berlin Wall threatened to pierce another nail in the coffin of my self-confident ideology. It was not supposed to happen. Beginning to read what I previously considered meaningless “Yankee” propaganda, the shades of socialist orthodoxy suddenly failed to come to my rescue and a new world opened before me. One day, I picked up Mr. Horowitz’s book because the theme sounded familiar. I had no idea who he was at that time. As I read his account of his childhood, I wept often at his stories and anecdotes, as they brought familiar pains and similar situations to me in the context of my beloved father. Not being able again to talk to my father about my views and to see friends still hurts me.
Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:
I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.
None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”
[…] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods