My recent posts on politics and austerity and this week’s Acton Commentary refer to a principled basis for limited government. I speak of “the limits of government rooted in a rich and variegated civil society.”
Here’s a good statement of that basis from Lord Acton:
There are many things government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.
David Bahnsen, writing on The Bahnsen Viewpoint, has a great report on last night’s Acton dinner:
“Good news – the President has announced a reduction of the government work force by one million people (20%). Bad news – the cuts were ordered by President Raul Castro in Cuba.”
So began the 20th anniversary dinner of The Acton Institute tonight in Grand Rapids, MI. Acton co-founder, Kris Alan Mauren loosened up the crowd with the aforementioned joke which served the dual purpose of making me laugh, and disturbing me deeply. But of course, the fact that Canada, Germany, France, England, China, and even Cuba are currently moving the ball in the opposite direction that we are here in the United States is now common knowledge. and as Kris said, it reinforces why the stakes are so high right now for lovers of liberty.
The event itself was a delight, as always. Kate O’ Beirne was a fantastic master of ceremonies. She is a national treasure. Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway and one of the wealthiest men in America, was awarded the Faith and Freedom Award. His testimony was extraordinary. Humble. Visionary. Principled. Devout follower of Christ. 600 people came tonight to celebrate the organization that, the more involved with I get, the more excited I am to see what they represent. Acton’s mission is almost exactly identical to the ruling passion in my life: the intersection of markets and morality. Acton is so much more than a think tank (though they surely do feature the great intellects in the fields of religion and economics). But they also are an activist and educational organization, producing content in a variety of media that literally challenge the presuppositions people bring to the subjects of work, calling, wealth, freedom, and virtue. They are producing DVD’s that are viewed by millions of people, and are revolutionary in terms of content and message. My commercial for the organization could go on and on, but just go to their website and see for yourself all they are doing.
The video vignette from their new documentary, “Poverty Cure”, was powerful. “How can you know what causes poverty if you do not know what causes wealth?” Acton’s approach to the great social ills of our day is extremely contrarian to the right and the left. They do not advocate a cold “eat what you cook” kind of capitalism, and they certainly do not advocate the dependency-creating solutions of the left. They know that free markets open up the widest lanes to a society that can create and sustain real alleviation of poverty. As an African priest put it in the video clip tonight describing the solutions they pursue in their own village: “We do not aim to create job-seekers; we aim to create job-makers”. Thoughtful, sensible, and deeply compassionate. But not an iota of coercion or redistribution.
As always, Father Sirico’s keynote address was remarkable. In describing the necessity of a perspective that understands the dignity of man he said, “If we don’t get the anthropology right, we get nothing right. Human beings are a composite of heaven and of earth. It is the ultimate tragedy when we decide to try and dichotomize the two.” What he means, of course, is understanding the theological principle that man is created in the image of God, yet not God; man is a part of the created order, yet possesses a dignity and ability to reason that no other part of creation does. Understanding these things is the very first step in understanding economics. To reduce economics to mathematical abstractions is to give way to the worst kind of moral relativism.
Much more here.
Also, Bahnsen tips us off about an event he is organizing in Southern California in February:
Yours Truly, Father Sirico, Jay Richards, Andrew Sandlin, and Dinesh D’Souza will all appear TOGETHER in my hometown of Newport Beach, CA on February 25 & 26 of 2011. The Virtue of Prosperity: The Moral Implications of Wealth and Work – coming soon. The promotional materials are at the printer, and the web page will be up shortly. I am producing the event (and speaking at it), but am working with my friends at CCL and Acton. After hearing Father Sirico tonight, I am glad I will be speaking Friday (and he Saturday). He would upstage some of the great orators and preachers of the last three centuries.
Political commentators have spilled a septic field of ink explaining what drives the Tea Party movement; and, sure, the movement is complex and varied, resisting any single attempt to blah blah blah. But the core of it boils down to the Saturday Night Live skit below. The analogy runs like this: The Steve Martin character and his wife represent the ruling political class in Washington; and the Tea Party is the book author.
I realize it’s not a perfect analogy. If it were a perfect analogy, the book author wouldn’t be nearly as detached, because the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before. Oh, and the husband would be accusing the book author of racism, or of being a flyover country yahoo without the sophistication to understand Keynesian economics or something.
[Hat Tip to Luke at Cornerstone University for the SNL skit.]
On his website, David Bahnsen reviews The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur C. Brooks:
The strongest points of the book, and the reason Brooks has done such critically important work here (World magazine has already recognized the book as its Book of 2010, by the way) are found in these two areas:
(1) The moral nature of the battle that exists
(2) The fundamental materialism that underpins the left’s approach towards creating income equality.
I heard Dr. Brooks speak about the latter at the annual Acton Institute dinner in 2009 and wrote about it here. Brooks concept of “earned success” is indisputably true and of fundamental importance in how we approach the problems in today’s world. Understanding the idea that true happiness comes from “earned success”, and not simply receiving a bigger slice of society’s overall wealth pie via government-coerced redistribution, is not mere economics. This latter point makes his former point all the more compelling. For what could be more immoral than advocating a policy worldview that dooms millions of people to unhappiness by robbing them of their human dignity? The arguments against the coercive and progressive and inefficient portions of our tax code are important (and all valid), but they miss the most important point of all: They fail to do what they set out to do, and make life worse for those they set out to help.
Read “The Battle for our Hearts and Souls” by David Bahnsen.
In preparing for an Acton University lecture last week on Christianity and Government (you can listen to it here)
I was reflecting on some of the core differences between a Christian vision of government in comparison to modern, secular visions.
While there is no single Christian vision of government and good Christians can disagree on a host of topics, one of the things that sets apart the Christian vision is a robust vision of the good life and integrated human flourishing directed toward certain ends that are fitting to man as a rational and free creature with an everlasting destiny.
The Christian idea of the good life is one of the reasons why for Christians, politics and the state, while necessary and ordained by God, are just not that important in the way they are to many ancients and modern visions.
Many critics say this is because the Church is focused on otherworldly matters. But this is insufficient. While it is true that the main concern of Christianity is eternal salvation, the Church is very concerned with living in this world—but its vision of the good life is found first in relationship with God, and then in the Church, families, and other associations in the place or places in which a person finds himself. This contrasts with certain ancient visions, or those influenced by the thought of Rousseau, which tend to see a plurality of associations as a dividing force and see man becoming integrated in and through the larger “community” of the state, thus making the state and politics central to life.
For Christians the purpose of politics is to create peace and order under which men can live out their freedoms, their responsibilities, and pursue an integrated vision of the good life. Politics is necessary and important, but by no means sufficient, primary, or the end of life–even life here on earth.
This is the vision of medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and the Reformed theologian, Johannes Althusius, who wrote that “politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” He called this “symbiotics” and said that “the end of the political symbiotic man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis…”
This is why Christians today need to be concerned with the revival of community, private charity, mutual aid societies, strong families, and vibrant churches. But it is also why we must beware of finding community in the state, but I’ll leave that for another post.
For those interested you can find Althusius’ Politica at Liberty Fund, and Acton colleague, Jordan Ballor discusses Althusius’ contribution in his new book Ecumenical Babel just out from Christians Library Press and available at the Acton Book Shop.
Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?
Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?
With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.
Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.
In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.
King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.
Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.
Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.
Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.
Commemorating America’s independence, the people at the rally were treated to a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, a lesson in the history of American liberty, and the reading of a letter from an auto dealer shut down as part of the government’s bailout of the big three carmakers. I spoke on behalf of the Acton Institute about the balance between virtue and limited government.
Virtue makes limited government possible. There is evil in the world and there is good that needs to be done. We have governments to make it possible for us to live together, and we do need the law to protect us from chaos, but we are able to live free of tyranny because virtue tells us to live up to our responsibilities.
Aristotle once said, “I have gained this by philosophy: to do without being commanded that which others do only from fear of the law.” Philosophia means the love of wisdom. When put into practice, this is virtue. Virtue lets us care for our families and neighbors, respect the wellbeing of other people, and live within our means without being forced to do so by the law.
Virtue is a potent force. The more that we are virtuous, the more we can be free. Limiting government from an institutional angle might be difficult for the time being due to politics. We can take actions now, though, that limit the need for government by doing good, avoiding evil, and encouraging others to do the same.
If we can do that, then America can see another 234 years of being known as the land of the free and the home of the brave, the just, the virtuous.
Update: The Michael Medved Show streams here.
Former Acton research fellow Jay W. Richards will be on the Michael Medved Show today talking about his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. He will be on during the show’s third hour. If your station carries it live, that’s 2-3 p.m. Pacific, 4-5 p.m. Central, and 5-6 p.m. Eastern.
Go here to see if a station in your area carries the show.
Jay is also scheduled to appear on The Dennis Prager Show Wednesday morning.
I had the chance to read an early copy of the book. Richards distills the core arguments for a free and virtuous society superbly. Money, Greed, and God is highly readable and yet more incisive than many academic books on the subject. Disciples of the nanny state and a naked public square beware.
“Power permits people to do enormous good,” Lord Acton once said, “and absolute power enables them to do even more.”
This wisdom from the nineteenth-century’s champion of state prerogative applies as well today. Politicians are crippled by the lack of the one thing they need to yank our hobbled economy out of the mire of recession: adequate power. It is our duty to grant it to them.
Yes, from time to time this commentary space has been critical of government meddling in economic affairs, surmising, for example, that trying to cure poverty by funneling more money through Washington would do less to assist the poor than to pad the salaries of middle-class bureaucrats. We have emphasized the effectiveness of private and faith-based charity, of its capacity at once to use resources efficiently and to respect the individual’s dignity. We have argued that persons, morally formed, acting freely, and operating within the context of a rule of law, will generate a bountiful and equitable economic environment without counterproductive interference by the state. We have posited that our current difficulties derive from a combination of moral turpitude and government bumbling.
We were mistaken. (more…)