The 2014 Acton Lecture Series got underway last week with an address from Jay Richards on the topic of “Why Libertarians Need God.” In his address, Richards argued that core libertarian principles of individual rights, freedom and responsibility, reason, moral truth, and limited government make little sense in an atheistic and materialist context, but make far more sense when grounded in a theistic belief system. The video of the full lecture is available below; I’ve embedded the audio after the jump.
Each Independence Day, I make a point of re-reading President Calvin Coolidge’s speech given on the 150th anniversary Declaration of Independence. I’d encourage you to do the same.
Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:
Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)
When discussing economics, we frequently encounter the zero-sum fallacy: the notion that the economic pie is fixed, that there is always a winner and a loser, and that, for someone to grow rich, another must become poor.
Yet in a market wherein rule of law, contracts, and property rights are properly established, the pie will surely grow. We are not static balls of flesh nestled comfortably in a static universe. We are spiritual beings made in the image of a creative God, and mutual trade and exchange help accelerate our efforts to create and collaborate alongside our neighbors. As Jay Richards notes, the uniqueness of the human person feeds into how economic value is actually determined.
But although we typically discuss the errors of such thinking in matters of basic material exchange, we should note that such a fallacy can just as easily filter into our broader social and spiritual activities in the workplace. Such limited thinking can trap us in a sort of self-centered tunnel vision, whether with our clients, co-workers, or competitors, leading us to assume that success cannot come if we allow any wiggle room for generosity, whether in basic service, various collaborations, or even end-game negotiations.
In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith touches on these themes by highlighting a new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, wherein organizational psychological Adam Grant seeks to challenge such zero-sum thinking, arguing that by having a fuller, more healthy perspective of mutual gain, we can move forward together toward a more productive, more fulfilling economic and social environment. (more…)
I recently discussed our pesky human tendency to limit and debase our thinking about economics to the temporary and material. Much like Judas, who reacted bitterly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment, we neglect to contemplate what eternal purposes God might have for this or that material good and the ways through which it might be used or distributed.
C.S. Lewis captures the tendency powerfully in his book, The Great Divorce, providing a clear contrast of heaven and hell through a series of conversations and spiritual choices.
Beginning the story in a dreary town described as being “always in the rain and always in evening twilight,” Lewis provides us with a setting very much like earth but with a bit more darkness and—take note—a bit more surface-level comfort and security (“they have no Needs,” as one character describes it).
Lewis follows one man’s journey beyond the town (which we quickly discover to be hell or some type of purgatory), toward an ever-increasing light (which we quickly discover to be heaven). Along the way, he encounters a series of fellow travelers, each struggling with his or her own obstacle to the divine—an earthbound idol that must be pried from their paws.
In one particular conversation, Lewis points specifically to the economic sphere, using a character he calls “the Intelligent Man” to propose an economic solution that, according to his limited, earthbound assumptions, will certainly relieve what he believes to be an inevitable, ever-increasing darkness:
What’s the trouble about this place? Not that people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on earth. The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in…I’d start a little business. I’d have something to sell. You’d soon get people coming to live near-centralisation. Two fully-inhabited streets would accommodate the people that are now spread over a million square miles of empty streets. I’d make a nice little profit and be a public benefactor as well.
His approach has some charming elements, to be sure. Indeed, if I myself were to encounter a dreary town such as this, I, too, would be quick to emphasize the positive socializing effects of market collaboration and cooperation. “The townspeople boast an unhealthy and isolating sense of entitlement,” I might be tempted to say. “Thus, we should proceed to foster a healthy web of bottom-up independence, interconnectedness, collaboration, and specialization.” (more…)
We humans have a pesky tendency toward earthbound thinking. The natural world comes more easily to us, for obvious reasons, and thus, even when we aim to overcome our disposition and contemplate ways to improve things beyond the immediate, it’s hard for us to break out of the box.
Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.
It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.
This call to active and continuous spiritual discernment reaches into every dusty corner of our day-to-day lives, and it involves plenty of overlap with what we might call the “natural realm” (unhealthy dualism in the other direction is, of course, a competing temptation). Thus, in exploring something as overarching and all-encompassing as our social and economic thought, we should be wary of allowing these natural tendencies and earthly values to serve as the dominating inputs, legitimate and valuable though many of these features may be when properly ordered (e.g. “happiness”).
When we attempt to subvert God’s transcendent reality, the problem can play out in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Most clear, perhaps, at least in recent memory, is the example of Soviet Communism — an orientation that Whittaker Chambers once described as “man’s second oldest faith,” whose “promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”:
[Communism] is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.
But although the glaring errors of atheism help illuminate where things can turn sour, the trickier questions lie with the rest of us who do seek to place God at the center of all things, yet still find ourselves persistently struggling with how that should look in our day-to-day endeavors. (more…)
At the online Prager University, lecturer Frank Pastore asks: “Do you have the ability to shape your own destiny? Is there a difference between your mind and your brain? Or is free will just a convenient delusion? Are you really just a product of physical forces beyond your control?”
Forbes recently ran a profile of Christian billionaire and Hobby Lobby CEO David Green. According to Forbes, Green is “the largest evangelical benefactor in the world,” giving “at upwards of $500 million” over the course of his life, primarily to Christian ministries.
Yet, for Green, his strong Christian beliefs don’t just apply to how he spends his wealth; they’re integral to how it’s createdin the first place:
Hobby Lobby remains a Christian company in every sense. It runs ads on Christmas and Easter in the local paper of each town where there’s a store, often asserting the religious foundation of America. Stores are closed on Sundays, forgoing revenue to give employees time to worship. The company keeps four chaplains on the payroll and offers a free health clinic for staff at the headquarters–although not for everything; it’s suing the federal government to stop the mandate to cover emergency contraception through health insurance. Green has raised the minimum wage for full-time employees a dollar each year since 2009–bringing it up to $13 an hour–and doesn’t expect to slow down. From his perspective, it’s only natural: “God tells us to go forth into the world and teach the Gospel to every creature. He doesn’t say skim from your employees to do that.”
Economists have increasingly recognized the ways in which healthy stewardship and property rights are linked—how increased ownership leads individuals to weigh costs and benefits more thoughtfully and effectively. Green’s comments add a slight twist to this approach, calling Christians in particular to reconsider who the “owner” actually is and how we might weigh particular costs/benefits and subsequent action accordingly:
Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.
That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:
The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.
A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:
If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.
You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:
But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.
It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:
So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.
What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).
Calvin Coolidge quipped shortly before his death, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” The words came not long before FDR’s ascendency to the presidency and not long after the upsurge of government activism that started in the Herbert Hoover administration. Coolidge, even for his time, was seen as old fashioned, a throw back to simpler values, ethics, and principles. Coolidge cut the name tags out of his suits when he asked his wife to resale them, so not to profit from his name and position. He was lampooned for his hands off approach to the presidency. Ronald Reagan was even teased by the Washington Press Corps for hanging up a portrait of Coolidge in the White House. By many academics today, Coolidge is chiefly mischaracterized as a simpleton largely from quotes like “The chief business of the American people is business.” In that speech in 1925 delivered to newspaper editors, Coolidge also went on to say, “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.”
I can’t help but feel that a new appreciation for Coolidge is long overdue. Why? Because almost everything Coolidge warned against is happening now. As the nation faces government mismanagement, rapid growth of centralized power, crippling debt, decline of purpose, and moral decay, the clarity of his ideas are magnified. Coolidge is also the subject of a new biography by Amity Shlaes due out in June. As a public servant, he is vastly underrated for his writing and speeches. He spoke in a manner that was easily understood and he popularized the message of thrift, limited government, religious principles, and conservatism. But there too was an intellectual depth to his remarks about conservatism not seen today by the popular dispensers of those ideas.
One wonders if there will be a major candidate in the general presidential election to offer a defense of the free economy. And in doing so, can defend the great need for morality and virtue within the free market.
Below is a speech Coolidge gave in 1916 as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts on the issues of character, the commercial society, and materialism. The remarks were given to the Brockton, Mass. Chamber of Commerce. Coolidge’s remarks are printed in their entirety.
Man’s nature drives him ever onward. He is forever seeking development. At one time it may be by the chase, at another by warfare, and again by the quiet arts of peace and commerce, but something within is ever calling him on to “replenish the earth and subdue it.”
It may be of little importance to determine at any time just where we are, but it is of the utmost importance to determine whither we are
going. Set the course aright and time must bring mankind to the ultimate goal.
We are living in a commercial age. It is often designated as selfish and materialistic. We are told that everything has been commercialized. They say it has not been enough that this spirit should dominate the marts of trade, it has spread to every avenue of human endeavor, to our arts, our sciences and professions, our politics, our educational institutions and even into the pulpit; and because of this there are those who have gone so far in their criticism of commercialism as to advocate the destruction of all enterprise and the abolition of all property.
Destructive criticism is always easy because, despite some campaign oratory, some of us are not yet perfect. But constructive criticism is not so easy. The faults of commercialism, like many other faults, lie in the use we make of it. Before we decide upon a wholesale condemnation of the most noteworthy spirit of modern times it would be well to examine carefully what that spirit has done to advance the welfare of mankind.
Wherever we can read human history, the answer is always the same. Where commerce has flourished there civilization has increased. It has not sufficed that men should tend their flocks, and maintain themselves in comfort on their industry alone, however great. It is only when the exchange of products begins that development follows. This was the case in ancient Babylon, whose records of trade and banking we are just beginning to read. Their merchandise went by canal and caravan to the ends of the earth. It was not the war galleys, but the merchant vessel of Phoenicia, of Tyre, and Carthage that brought them civilization and power. To-day it is not the battle fleet, but the mercantile marine which in the end will determine the destiny of nations. The advance of our own land has been due to our trade, and the comfort and happiness of our people are dependent on our general business conditions. It is only a figure of poetry that “wealth accumulates and men decay.” Where wealth has accumulated, there the arts and sciences have flourished, there education has been diffused, and of contemplation liberty has been born. The progress of man has been measured by his commercial prosperity. I believe that these considerations are sufficient to justify our business enterprise and activity, but there are still deeper reasons.
I have intended to indicate not only that commerce is an instrument of great power, but that commercial development is necessary to all human progress. What, then, of the prevalent criticism? Men have mistaken the means for the end. It is not enough for the individual or the nation to acquire riches. Money will not purchase character or good government. We are under the injunction to “replenish the earth and subdue it,” not so much because of the help a new earth will be to us, as because by that process man is to find himself and thereby realize his highest destiny. Men must work for more than wages, factories must turn out more than merchandise, or there is naught but black despair ahead.
If material rewards be the only measure of success, there is no hope of a peaceful solution of our social questions, for they will never be large enough to satisfy. But such is not the case. Men struggle for material success because that is the path, the process, to the
development of character. We ought to demand economic justice, but most of all because it is justice. We must forever realize that material rewards are limited and in a sense they are only incidental, but the development of character is unlimited and is the only essential. The measure of success is not the quantity of merchandise, but the quality of manhood which is produced.
These, then, are the justifying conceptions of the spirit of our age; that commerce is the foundation of human progress and prosperity and the great artisan of human character. Let us dismiss the general indictment that has all too long hung over business enterprise. While we continue to condemn, unsparingly, selfishness and greed and all trafficking in the natural rights of man, let us not forget to respect thrift and industry and enterprise. Let us look to the service rather than to the reward. Then shall we see in our industrial army, from the most exalted captain to the humblest soldier in the ranks, a purpose worthy to minister to the highest needs of man and to fulfill the hope of a fairer day.
Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).
In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.
[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate
Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.
But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.
Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.
Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.
Domitrovic goes on:
The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…
And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:
By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.