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.
Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”
The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.
A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.
Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).
Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.
Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.
Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.
When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor
in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.
The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):
The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.
We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.
Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.
I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on OrthodoxyToday.org. Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai
Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:
Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.
So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?
My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”
Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.
Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.
Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.
Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”
The Acton Institute released a new short video to mark Religious Freedom Day. The proclamation from President George W. Bush points to religious freedom as a fundamental right of Americans and, indeed, people of faith all over the world.
Religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society. On Religious Freedom Day, we recognize the importance of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. We also celebrate the first liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which guarantee the free exercise of religion for all Americans and prohibit an establishment of religion.
Our Nation was founded by people seeking haven from religious persecution, and the religious liberty they found here remains one of this land’s greatest blessings. As Americans, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Though we may profess different creeds and worship in different manners and places, we respect each other’s humanity and expression of faith. People with diverse views can practice their faiths here while living together in peace and harmony, carrying on our Nation’s noble tradition of religious freedom.
The United States also stands with religious dissidents and believers from around the globe who practice their faith peacefully. Freedom is not a grant of government or a right for Americans alone; it is the birthright of every man, woman, and child throughout the world. No human freedom is more fundamental than the right to worship in accordance with one’s conscience.
More on religious freedom from the Acton Institute:
The Acton Institute is co-sponsoring a symposium hosted by The Heritage Foundation at the University of Michigan’s campus. The event will take place:
Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 12:45 PM
Michigan Union Building
530 South State Street
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The future of liberty depends on reclaiming America’s first principles. What are those principles, and what do they mean for today? The First Principles Initiative is one of the 10 Transformational Initiatives making up The Heritage Foundation’s Leadership for America campaign. The publications and programs of this Initiative seek to provide a much-needed education for students, policymakers, and citizens about the ideas of liberty and constitutional self-government, with the objective of reorienting our politics and public policy to the principles of the American Founding.
Director of Acton Media and Research Fellow, Jay W. Richards, will speak on the topic of Conservative Answers to Environmental Questions at 2:15PM
For more information, please contact Emily Sankot Kayrish at (202) 608-6266 or e-mail: email@example.com
The Birth of Freedom premiered in Washington, D.C., on June 19 to a sold-out crowd! A special screening has been scheduled for those who were unable to attend the premiere and is kindly being coordinated by the Heritage Foundation. This screening is scheduled for July 16 and begins at 7:00 p.m. at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Auditorium. If you would like to attend, please be sure to RSVP on Heritage’s website.
Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico was invited to deliver the Krieble Lecture at the 31st Annual Heritage Foundation Resource Bank Meeting on April 24 in Atlanta. His talk ranged widely over “the simple idea of human liberty” and what is required to preserve it.
“People live off of a legacy of the past and all too many people find themselves incapable of defending the heritage of Western civilization,” Rev. Sirico said in his lecture. “Each day people assume that prosperity is just part and parcel of the natural law. Wasn’t it always so?”
The Heritage Foundation’s Annual Resource Bank Meeting gathers more than 500 think tank executives, public interest lawyers, policy experts, and elected officials from around the world to discuss issues, strategies, and methods for advancing free market, limited government public policies. The Resource Bank is also conducted in partnership with groups such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, State Policy Network, and World Taxpayers Associations.
Listen to an audio recording of Rev. Sirico’s Krieble Lecture here.