According to a recent Pew Center report, “Record levels of bachelor’s degree attainment in 2012 are apparent for most basic demographic groups.” 33% of 25- to 29- year-olds are completing both high school and college. According to the report, this number is up from five years ago and at record levels for the United States in general. But what does it mean? Statistics like these are constantly being produced, but they are no good to us if we do not know how to interpret them. After attending the joint Acton/Liberty Fund conference this past weekend on Acton and Tocqueville, I have Tocqueville on the brain and wonder if, perhaps, he might have some insights that are still relevant today. (more…)
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the relationship between sacrifice and self-interest. One of the common complaints against market economies is that they foster selfishness.
But as Paul Heyne points out, it is crucially important to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness: “Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.” The failure to make such a distinction leads to some pretty strange conclusions about the motivations behind human behavior. If you want to know why people work, just look at what they do with the money they earn.
To this end, I also highlight the perspective of Herman Bavinck, who describes the rhythmic relationship between the spheres of family and work:
Through the family God motivates us to work, inspiring, encouraging, and empowering us to work. Through this labor he equips us to survive not for the sake of satisfying our lusts but for the sake of providing for our family before God and with honor, and also to extend the hand of Christian compassion to the poor.
We go out to work to provide for our families, and we return home from work to enjoy and share the fruits of our labors. We do this daily, in fact. There is a deeply intimate connection here in the cycle between home and work, the dual aspects of the cultural mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it.
Writing for National Review Online, Rev. Robert A. Sirico offers three salient points about last night’s election:
1. Americans give signs of moving in a morally and politically more progressive direction, by which I mean that the appeal to the wisdom of past ages and tradition is simply not as compelling as it once was. People today, not all, but many, seem to want the trappings of the tradition (the white gown at the wedding), but not its obligations (chastity before it), thus indicating they would rather live off the legacy of the past than work to create a new and enduring legacy for the future.
2. This tendency applies not merely to moral issues, but to economic and political ones as well. As expressed in the elections results, and confirmed over time in numerous polls, Americans want a prosperous economy with all the “toys” it will produce, but they also demand a wide assortment of political and governmental props to ensure they do not have to sacrifice too much or risk too much in order to attain it. In many respects it is as simple as wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too — writ large.
3. Finally, and with specific application to our religious institutions, now under more governmental threat than at most any other time in the history of the Republic, there must be a recognition of failure on our part to make persuasive, compelling, and authentic the message and identity we bear. The very existence of our social-service institutions is taken for granted at the moment that these have themselves lost their own raison d’être (witness the wholesale sell-out of Catholic Bishops by the Catholic Hospital Association in the face of the HHS mandate, among others). At least with regards to the Catholic bishops in the United States, along with various movements of Evangelical Protestants, there is a growing recognition of a failure in our role in forming a clear, vibrant, winsome, and effective “world view.” The recognition is growing, as I say, but what this election gives evidence of is that we have a great deal more yet to accomplish.
Read more of “One Election Cannot Fix What Ails Us” on National Review Online.
“Why Morality-Free Economic Theory Does Not Work: A Natural Law Perspective in the Wake of the Recent Financial Crisis.” The recent worldwide financial crisis has revealed a serious flaw in current thinking about markets and morals. Contemporary legal theorists and political economists commonly assume that markets can (and even should) provide morally neutral zones for the exchange of goods among free persons, constrained by nothing other than the laws of contract and the imperatives of self-interest. Professor Bruni’s lecture will challenge this dominant assumption, and will offer an alternative, ‘natural law’ perspective on the interrelatedness of markets, morals, and human sociality.
David Brooks recently took on the conservative movement for relying too heavily on pro-market arguments and tired formulas rather than emphasizing its historic features of custom, social harmony, and moral preservation.
As I’ve already noted in response to the Brooks piece, I agree that conservatism needs a renewed intellectual foundation brought about by a return to these emphases, yet I disagree that a lopsided devotion to “economic freedom” is what’s stalling us. If we hope to restore traditionalist conservatism, we’d do well to recognize that this means restoring economic conservatism along with it. Brooks is upset that dogmatic pro-market folks have seized the Republican Party, yet this is the same Republican Party that nominated the architect of Romneycare and can’t seem to get serious about the deficit.
Conservatism is faltering all around, and the reasons for each “sect’s” demise are more or less interrelated. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to restore a holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and economic strains together by grounding them both in Russell Kirk’s “enduring moral order.”
For David Brooks, restoration is all about “balance,” but for the true conservative, it needs to be about integration.
Brett M. Decker, editorial page editor of The Washington Times, recently interviewed Rev. Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of The Acton Institute, in response to Rev. Sirico’s latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. In his answers, Rev. Sirico addresses the market’s moral potential as well as the present state of the nation. Excerpt:
Decker: Your new book is about the moral case for a free economy. What is the morality of the marketplace and how does it work? How does the market take care of the masses better than a government safety net?
Sirico: The morality of a market is rooted in the morality of the human person who is the center of that market. In precise terms, the market itself is neither moral nor immoral, but it becomes a vehicle for the moral and economic expression of the acting human person, who has the free will to choose good or bad.
When we speak of taking care of the masses, we usually mean taking care of their material needs (though there is much, much more to people than their material needs). The material needs of people are best met in societies that are prosperous, both in terms of the abundance of economic opportunities available to them and the amount of superfluous wealth that can be used generously to support the needs of those unable to provide for themselves. The one thing we know about markets from a wide array of economic studies is that the less taxed and regulated a society is, the more prosperous it is.
Entire interview here.
July 31st marks the 100th birthday of the economist Milton Friedman. Celebrations planned by proponents of free-markets will take place across the country to recognize and pay tribute to his legacy and the power of his ideas. I am speaking at an Americans for Prosperity event in town on the topic of school choice on his birthday.
My commentary this week is on school choice. Nobody has influenced and shaped the school choice movement more than Friedman. In my piece, I stressed the moral power of pivoting away from bureaucratic centralized schooling and encourage greater parental involvement in education. Simply put, school choice allows for parents to better shape the spiritual formation of their children. Nobody can make better decisions about the education of their children than the parents.
Finally, schools that have to compete for students and tax dollars will be forced to improve and be innovative for today’s complex and global marketplace.
Brian Fikkert, a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and the Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, takes a look at Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise in this week’s edition of CPJ’s Capital Commentary.
I think it’s a pretty balanced review, and Fikkert rightly highlights some of the important strength’s of Brooks’ work. But he also highlights some specifically theological concerns that have animated my own engagement with “happiness” research:
At a fundamental level, Christians must reject Brooks’ ethical standard: human happiness as defined by autonomous human beings. Brooks’ ethics are rooted in Enlightenment humanism rather than the transcendent standards of God’s moral decrees. To determine if the free enterprise system is moral, Christians must determine if it satisfies biblical standards of justice, not autonomous humans’ notions of happiness.
It’s important to note, of course, that as the head of AEI Brooks is making a case to a much more heterogeneous audience than simply like-minded Christians. And he’s trained as a social scientist, not as a theologian. But I think it would be interesting to hear how Brooks would address some of these challenges not firstly as the president of the American Enterprise Institute but as a professing Christian.
American Enterprise Institute president and 2012 Acton University plenary speaker Arthur Brooks has a recent column in The Washington Post that lists five myths about free enterprise. Brooks’ five myths address some of free enterprise’s most common critiques and do so by giving free enterprise a moral aspect. The five points are especially relevant this election season, he says, because the two candidates represent such different fiscal perspectives. Here’s a look a myth #2:
2. Free markets are driven by greed.
I once asked Charles Schwab how he built the $16 billion investment company bearing his name. He never said a word about money. He spoke instead about accomplishing personal goals, creating good jobs for employees and the sacrifices along the way — including when he took a second mortgage on his home so he could make payroll.
Entrepreneurs are rarely driven by greed. According to Careerbuilder.com, in 2011, small-business owners made 19 percent less money per year than government managers. And as Northwestern University business professor Steven Rogers has shown, the average entrepreneur fails about four times before succeeding.
Free markets and entrepreneurship are driven not by greed but by earned success. For some people, earned success means business success, while for others, it means helping the poor, raising good kids, building a nonprofit, or making beautiful art — whatever allows people to create value in their lives and in the lives of others.
Earned success gets at the heart of “the pursuit of happiness.” The General Social Survey from the University of Chicago reveals that people who say they feel “very successful” or “completely successful” in their work lives are twice as likely to say they are very happy about their overall lives than people who feel “somewhat successful.” And it doesn’t matter if they earn more or less; the differences persist.
Those acquainted of Acton Institute president and co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico will recognize arguments such as these from Sirico’s recent title, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. Sirico, like Brooks, argues that free enterprise is the economic system that best complements morality.
To listen to Brooks’ 2012 Acton University Lecture, click here.
Prager University has a new course up and running. The lecturer? Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It as well as the recently published The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise. Brooks’ lecture, titled “Earning Happiness: The Moral Promise of Free Enterprise,” makes a case for the free market as the economic system most conducive to human welfare. In the lecture, Brooks says, “Free enterprise matters not just because of its unparalleled material benefits but because of its unparalleled moral benefits.”
The Prager University course page can be found here.