On this edition of Radio Free Acton, your humble host bravely battles a late-spring cold to bring you an interview with Jonathan Witt, Managing Editor at TheStream.org, and author of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and The West Forgot. Was Frodo a small-government type? Was Tolkien a card-carrying member of the local Republican party? Or were the hobbits short-statured hippies who really enjoyed their pipe weed and the free healthcare provided by the Shire’s smooth-running, benevolent bureaucracy? Find out on Radio Free Acton!
In light of the discussion about distributism in the recent comments, I’m posting John Zmirak’s excellent Religion & Liberty review of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards (Ignatius Press, 2014) here on the PowerBlog. Note how he ends the review with a discussion of Tolkien and whether his work lent support to distributism. Have at it.
In Praise of the Bourgeois, Liberty-Loving Race of Hobbits
By John Zmirak
"First they ignore it, then they ridicule it, then they willfully misunderstand it, then it becomes a classic." Mohandas Gandhi never said that about great works of literature, but it does describe the trajectory of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. We are long past the days when critics could lightly sneer at the book as "escapist," or convince people that it is secretly "militarist" or "racist." Too many tens of millions have actually read the work to swallow such poison pills. So readers of Tolkien who profoundly misunderstand the book and reject its central message have taken another tack: They have tried to misconstrue the work as a plea for radical environmentalism, Marxist revolution, or the use of the violent force employed by the state in the service of other agendas (such as Distributism) that were utterly alien to Tolkien. The Hobbit Party, by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards does a brilliant job of exposing these crass or crafty misreadings of Tolkien, presenting in plain English and scholarly detail the true complexity and beauty of Tolkien's epic, and more honest applications of his insights.
The Hobbit Party is an easy and pleasurable read, deeply informative and grounded in a fundamental sympathy with the vision of the good that Tolkien wove through all his works. If you only bought one book on The Lord of the Rings, this would be an excellent choice. It's especially worthwhile as a gift for students who are already fans of the book, since it will connect them to Tolkien's intellectual roots and moral aspirations.
I want to thank Bradley Birzer, a Hillsdale College prof who is currently Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder, for offering Religion & Liberty an advance look at his forthcoming book on Kirk. A special thanks also to Annette Y. Kirk for her gracious help locating photos of her late husband in the archives of The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan, and sharing these with our readers. Be sure to check out the website of the Kirk Center for news about its academic programs and publications.
Kirk was a long time advisor to the Acton Institute. Here is the audio from his last public lecture, hosted by Acton in 1994, on “Lord Acton and Revolution.”
In this issue of Religion & Liberty, we review two new books. Economist David Hebert tells us that Russ Roberts’ How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life – An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness is a helpful reminder about the “limits of pure economics.” Even though the books and film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic fantasies are phenomenally popular today, John Zmirak points out that his “bourgeois virtues were widely sneered at” by his contemporaries. He reviews The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards. (more…)
Jonathan Witt, research fellow at Acton, recently wrote a piece at The Federalist about “social business.” He argues that it might do more good to own and operate an ethical business that follows through on its contracts and “respects the dignity of employees and customers,” rather than trying to have a “social business.” Witt begins by talking about a cardboard bike. In 2012, Izhar Gafni became relatively famous by creating a sturdy cardboard bike that could be sold to the poorest around the world for $20. After two years and unsuccessful Indiegogo campaign, this potentially revolutionary project has failed to go anywhere. Witt argues that “social business” is to blame:
After talking up the virtues of a “social business model,” the start-up behind the bike, Cardboard Technologies, expended considerable energy trying to raising capital from Indiegogo donors uninterested in profit. The lack of a profit motive may have played a role. It also didn’t help that the price of the bike kept shifting—from $20 to $290 to $95 plus $40 shipping. Would-be investors had to wonder: Was the bike going to have a revolutionary everyman price, or wasn’t it?
CEO Nimrod Elmish tried to explain, saying the bicycle’s price will fluctuate depending on where you live, costing more for buyers in wealthy countries and nothing for those in developing countries. “We want to bring a social business model that will make [it] available to all,” Fortune quoted him as saying. “We don’t have a price tag, we have a value tag.”
Many who reject capitalism in favor of some “third way” do so because they often mistake it for government-corporate cronyism, says Jonathan Witt in this week’s Acton Commentary. But in countries that have begun extending true economic freedom to the masses, capitalist activity has already lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty.
Happily, a new piece in The Economist magazine offers some helpful medicine for the confusion, insisting on the distinction between cronyism and capitalism while also pointing to some hopeful signs that a rising middle class around the globe is gaining the clout to fight the power structures that still wall millions out of the wealth creation game. My reservation about the article is that it misreads America’s Progressive era, and in the process, leaves cronyism’s favorite trick unexposed.
According to the piece, crony capitalism in America “reached its apogee in the late 19th century, and a long and partially successful struggle against robber barons ensued. Antitrust rules broke monopolies such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The flow of bribes to senators shrank.” Later, it tells readers that while developing countries are making progress against cronyism, “governments need to be more assiduous in regulating monopolies.”
No, it’s not a Sherlock Holmes book. It’s reality: American is losing doctors.
When most of us have a medical concern, our first “line of defense” is the family physician: that person who checks our blood pressure, keeps on eye on our weight, looks in our ears and our throat for infections, and does our annual physicals. And it’s these doctors that are becoming scarce.
The newly released movies, Lone Ranger and Iron Man 3 both feature an evil capitalist as the villain. Writing at The American Spectator, Jonathan Witt addresses this common practice in Hollywood:
This media stereotype is so persistent, so one-sided, and so misleading that an extended definition of capitalism is in order. First a quick bit of housekeeping. Yes, there are greedy wicked capitalists—much as there are greedy wicked musicians, greedy wicked landscape architects, greedy wicked manicurists, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum—just as there are good people in each of these professions.
Now onto what capitalism is and isn’t. Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private (rather than state) ownership of businesses, a system where investments are determined by private decision, and where prices, production, and the distribution of goods and services are determined mainly by free choices in a free market overseen by the rule of law and stable property rights. In cultural terms, most of us are what you might call functional capitalists. At least when we’re not wrestling with theoretical abstractions, we buy, sell, trade, invest, donate; and we much prefer to do so free from the dictates of one or more government bureaucrats. (more…)
When I watched Eric Metaxas deliver his remarks at this year’s national prayer breakfast, I was awed with the way he challenged the president on the issue of life and religious liberty. His words were wrapped in humor and informed by a powerful history that gave an edge to his remarks.
Metaxas challenged the president and the audience with the witness of historical figures such as William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He invited them to live out their faith and to defend the innocent and our religious freedoms. “Wilberfoce suddenly took the Bible seriously that all of us are created in the image of God, to care for the least of these. You think you’re better than the Germans of that era? You’re not,” said Metaxas. He asked: “Whom do we say is not fully human today?” If you haven’t heard his address it’s well worth your time.
In the new issue of Religion & Liberty, Metaxas defends religious liberty and offers insight into the challenges facing the culture and nation. He will keynote Acton’s Annual Dinner in October of this year.
Three great book reviews can be found in this issue. Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse offers an analysis of Leon Aron’s Road to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. Rev. Gregory Jensen reviews Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and Jonathan Witt reviews Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. All three reviews uplift universal truths about God and man, something we are proud of and strive to do in the pages of R&L.
The issue also includes an excerpt titled “Desiccated Christianity” from Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market . The “In the Liberal Tradition” figure is Acton’s good friend Charles W. Colson (1931-2012). Acton had the privilege of conducting the last media interview with Colson. It’s a powerful testimony.
There is more content in the issue and be sure to check out my editor’s notes for additional comments and insight.
Over on The American Spectator website, Acton research fellow Jonathan Witt explains that contrary to the misunderstanding of many on the political and religious left, business, justice, and the Gospel are already social: