If the Great Recession of 2008 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t detach economic prosperity from moral issues. Greed, imprudent spending by individuals and by government, debt, all of these things brought our economy to where we are today. As I’ve said many times on BreakPoint, our economic collapse is the result of our moral and ethical collapse.
We don’t teach our kids that there are such things as right or wrong, and we wonder why they grow up to cheat and steal.
And the social costs of disintegrating traditional families in terms of crime, divorce, juvenile delinquency, are truly staggering.
You don’t think supporting traditional families — and marriage — matters? Well, then you’ve never been inside a prison, like I have. You haven’t met the thousands of young men and women I have who have told you about their missing fathers or their drugged-out moms.
No society that rejects the moral good can possibly stay solvent. The price tag for moral corruption, as we have learned, is simply too high.
Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:
I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.
None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”
[…] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods
One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.
Historian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).
Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as conducive to our flourishing.
As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:
What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).
All three were distinguished for
- consistent antistatism,
- appreciation for modernity and commerce,
- love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
- a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
- a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.
[….] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition […] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.
As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.
Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:
“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton
During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.
This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.
Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.
People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy. Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.
In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.
Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.
In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.
Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.
Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.
On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.
People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.
My commentary this week is a simple message about the importance of returning to our founding principles and embracing the liberty granted to all of us as Americans. Independence Day should always serve as a significant reminder of the freedom narrative of this country that has provided so many people with opportunities to flourish and live out their dreams:
America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom
Ralph Waldo Emerson described America as “the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” Many Americans don’t feel that way as pessimism has replaced a once vibrant optimism about the future. Economic malaise, crippling debt, and a mammoth oil gush in the Gulf Coast are daily reminders of seemingly unmovable obstacles.
Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times column echoing the sentiment of an aimless America titled “When Greatness Slips Away.” While many claim to have the answers to our economic woes and lack of confidence, we would do best to return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding, and our freedom narrative. In past crises, they have been sources of American endurance and strength. They can be again.
Those sacred words from the Declaration—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—have been an inspiration to billions of people at home and abroad for centuries. Freedom from excessive centralization of power and the right of the citizenry to flourish without undue interference are hallmarks of what it means to be American. And while the federal government has used activism for good at times, most notably for securing civil rights in the American South, it is revealing itself more and more as the obstacle to progress.
Many in the academy and the modern left scoff at what they call the “Horatio Alger myth.” Alger wrote stories such as “Ragged Dick” and “Only an Irish Boy.” He told stories of poor children achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and virtue. But Alger also depicted an important spiritual component to his impoverished characters. He gave them dignity and natural rights, just as our founding document did. His tales reflected the kind of egalitarianism that asserts that the value and dignity of a destitute human person is equal to that of another born into prominence and prosperity. These ideas grew right out of our religious heritage and founding.
But if Alger’s stories were not myths before, they will be soon. Future generations’ enjoyment of the liberty to flourish is in jeopardy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week called the $13 trillion national debt the “biggest threat to our national security.” Annual interest on the national debt in 2012 will grow larger than the entire defense budget. Currently 43 cents of every federal dollar spent is borrowed.
This kind of dependency is antithetical to our tradition of self-reliance. Pick up any honest textbook about American history and the march of America is about freedom and opportunity. On the day of the invasion of the greatest army of liberation ever assembled, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his armed forces “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” These men are often called “The Greatest Generation.
Succeeding generations may call our own “the debt generation” as their dreams become enslaved to deficits so colossal that they sap their entrepreneurial spirit, savings, and earning potential.
Big government activists are already using the BP oil spill to double down on their claim that the federal government is too small, even while the federal response is crippled by a multilayered bureaucratic decision making process and excessive regulation. Others say the BP oil spill is the perfect sign that America’s economic and moral might has peaked.
In his 1993 Inaugural address, President Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” It’s a simple yet profound point. Similarly, the primary reason Russell Kirk penned The Roots of American Order in 1974 was to remind his country of the moral bedrock at its base, and to thereby show the way to how it could maintain greatness. In the first chapter, Kirk quotes a passage from the book of Job saying if the nation lacks foundation and order “even the light is like darkness.”
As American citizens pontificate about the future of America this July 4th, they should ask themselves what they can do to curb the contraction of liberty and promote its expansion. It is the citizens, thankfully, who will decide America’s destiny.
We of course have a ton of content in our blog archives at the Acton Institute. Radio legend and former Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away yesterday. The infectious joy and moral quality he exuded was so grand it is worth pointing you to a post I wrote in 2008. It has a good deal of information on Harwell, including these lines:
Harwell has many thrilling encounters and prestigious awards in his long life, but his most important encounter he says came on Easter morning in 1961 at a Billy Graham Crusade in Bartow, Florida. “Something told me I should go, and then I turned to Jesus, and ever since then my life hasn’t been the same since,” Harwell says.
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.