According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession ended almost two years ago, in the summer of 2009. But we’re all uneasy. Job growth has been disappointing. The recovery seems fragile. Where should we head from here? Is that question even meaningful? Can the government steer the economy or have past attempts helped create the mess we’re still in.
John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek never agreed on the answers to these questions and they still don’t. Let’s listen to the greats. See Keynes and Hayek throwing down in “Fight of the Century”.
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.
If you’ve been following the news recently, no doubt you’re aware of the controversy in Wisconsin surrounding Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposals – which include curtailing collective bargaining for state employees – which have led to massive union protests in Madison and the state Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to try to delay the vote and force changes in the bill.
Last week, a couple of radio shows turned to Acton for insight on the Wisconsin situation. On Monday, Rev. Robert A. Sirico joined guest host Sheila Liaugminas on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio to discuss how to properly value the work of public employees, Catholic teaching on unions, and some of the problems posed by public sector unions:
On Tuesday, Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio to discuss both the Catholic Church’s historic teaching on unions and its response to the present situation:
A new article from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter here.
A Tale of Two Europes
By Samuel Gregg
The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.
These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.
While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.
No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.
Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)
The Tea Party Movement: How Does it Gel With Catholic Social Teaching?
Since their not-so-quiet arrival on the U.S. political scene, the tea party has garnered a great deal of attention and found growing support among disgruntled Americans, many of whom are Catholics. A study commissioned earlier this year by the National Review Institute found that 28 percent of tea party supporters identified themselves as Catholic. Yet while the movement may include aspects that are attractive to practicing Catholics, there are also serious questions about whether the at times radical views and controversial practices seen from tea party protesters fit with the teachings of the Church. Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute is here to look at the Tea Party and Catholic Social Teaching.
If the recent analysis by the New York Times on the success of the tea party movement is correct, the influence of this movement favoring limited government and low levels of taxation may have a decided impact in the upcoming elections, particularly in holding the Republican leadership’s feet to the fire on a variety of related issues.
The influence and more especially the authenticity of the tea party movement also is being debated in religious circles where some writers have expressed a skepticism as to how the evident religious sentiments expressed by many (but not all) tea party activists can be compatible with the undeniable Christian obligation to tend to the needs of “the least of these my brethren.”
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said in critique of the tea party approach, “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”
One of the leaders of the evangelical left, Jim Wallis, renders what I think is a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks when he says, “When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.”
From my conversations with numerous supporters of the tea party movement from around the country, these comments fail to grasp the essential point of what this movement is about, and why religious people are attracted to it.
I have no doubt there are people on the fringes of the tea party movement who hate government. Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.
It is not that tea party folk believe in “the myth of the sinless market.”
It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.
And so we come to what may be the real deficiency of this popular movement — it has yet to define a set of clear principles that permit it to consistently outline its view of society and the proper role of the state.
Such a set of principles exists within both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions and are known respectively as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. Each term in different yet complementary ways states that needs are best met at the most local level of their existence and that higher orders of social organization (that is, mediating institutions and the public sector) may only temporarily intervene into lower spheres of social organization in moments of great crisis. This intervention by higher authorities should happen to assist, not replace, local relationships.
In his monumental encyclical “The Hundredth Year” Pope John Paul II outlined the principle of subsidiarity and demonstrated an understanding of the reaction that can occur in the social sphere when the limits of the state are not clearly maintained. Although written almost a decade ago, his cautions and observations could have been penned today:
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.
In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”
Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”
Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.
Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.
Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.
The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.
Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Policy Institute examines the usefulness of Ayn Rand for political engagement by friends of the market economy in a WSJ op-ed, “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?” She concludes,
Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.
As Wilhelm writes, “For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life.” But this is also her greatest weakness, in that it opposes her to collaboration with those who might share inclinations toward limited government, but do not buy into the comprehensive “blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism.”
This is a more thorough-going critique of Rand’s viability as a model than simply noting the vigor of her polemic. As Acton Institute president Rev. Robert A. Sirico says, “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”
Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter juxtaposes Frank Capra’s George Bailey (of It’s a Wonderful Life) with Rand’s Harold Roark (of Fountainhead). Carter concludes that the two figures represent sharply different visions. Indeed, “Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.”
This is something that Rand and her disciples would find odious. Thus “those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark.”
Update:Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward passes along the words of Rand’s “one-time intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, as a kind of addendum to Rev. Sirico’s comment:
The luckiest beneficiaries of [Ayn Rand’s] work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal with her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.
Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”
I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.
But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.
The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).
As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.
On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.
Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)
Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.
Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.
Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.
Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”
A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”
Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.
There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.
Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.
For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.
For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.
As Lord Acton said,
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.
It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”