The American Spectator features a piece from Acton’s Director of Research Sam Gregg today regarding Americans’ distrust of the federal government. While disdain for politicians is nothing new, Gregg says there is something beyond simple dislike for political shenanigans:
There is, however, another dimension to this problem that’s now receiving more attention. This is the emergence over the past two decades of what the 2006 Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps calls in his new book, Mass Flourishing, the “new corporatism.” This is a set of political and economic arrangements, Phelps maintains, that’s crippling economic growth while simultaneously creating a new set of “insiders” and “outsiders” in America — with most politicians being firmly in the “insider” category.
At the Washington Examiner, Timothy Carney writes (HT: The Transom), “When liberals talk about community, conservatives are too quick to raise the Gadsden Flag and shout, ‘Leave me alone!'” He goes on to examine “the reactions to catchphrases made famous by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — ‘You didn’t build that’ and ‘It takes a village.'”
Despite the negative reaction from many conservatives, says Carney, Obama’s statement
in its full context, ‘you didn’t build that’ is true. Obama’s line began this way: ‘If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive …’
This is actually something conservatives frequently celebrate. Entrepreneurs often need investors and they always need customers.
I explore this dynamic at some length in my new book, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action). As I write in chapter 1, “The Human Person, Family, and Civil Society,” the dichotomy of collectivism/individualism is highly problematic: “The dynamics of community life, which are the source and school of civic virtue, are often cast simply in terms of the atomistic individual or the all-encompassing collective.”
I argue with respect to the “you didn’t build that” statement that “even though the president’s words here may have been designed to cater to a base more inclined toward collectivism, conservatives and independents should not respond by rejecting the kernel of truth contained in the president’s remarks.” I go on to examine the ways in which we are interdependent, in the context of the family, business, and the church.
As I conclude, “We shouldn’t let the president’s overemphasis on the government’s role in fostering and sustaining community lead us to abandon a more comprehensive, variegated, and richer vision of community and social life. A proper understanding of human community is a corrective to, not a symptom of, collectivist thinking.”
A recent Boston Globe headline reads: “Marketing to millennials can be a tough sell.” The article relates the differing approaches of Campell’s, Lindt USA, and GE when it comes to marketing to Millennials, highlighting a general skepticism and indifference toward advertising in the target demographic:
For instance, marketing materials for GE’s Artistry series of low-end appliances featuring retro design touches, due out this fall, says it focuses on “the needs of today’s generation of millennials and their desire to uniquely express themselves.”
Lindt USA recently introduced a line of chocolates — they include Berry Affair and Coconut Love flavors — that are wrapped in vibrant packaging and are being promoted through social media.
And packaging for Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in microwavable pouches with ingredients such as chickpeas, quinoa, and smoked Gouda, features photos of young people with thought bubbles. The sayings include cutesy snippets like “Make your momma proud” and “What’s kickin’?”
The idea is to hook millennials now and remain connected with them as they progress to bigger and more expensive products.
But marketing specialists and consumers like Volain question the effectiveness of that approach.
“My immediate reaction to targeted marketing is to picture a bunch of people sitting around in a room saying, ‘How can we get these people to buy these products?’” [Anna] Volain [a millennial] said.
While I am sympathetic to Volain’s sentiment here, I think something deeper is at work. There is an erroneous anthropological assumption that people of a particular, generic group must be homogeneous enough that all one needs to do is figure out the perfect calculus for appealing to their sensibilities, and they will be hooked on a brand for life. In particular, I think the problem is ultimately a Marxist error: assuming that one can perfectly categorize a whole group of people and then act on their behalf. (more…)
In the Western world there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals, says David T. Koyzis, but all adhere to the basic principles of liberalism:
The liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. After all, the Declaration of Independence is a liberal document, unquestioningly accepting that popular consent stands at the origin of political authority. As Alasdair MacIntyre has put it, in the Western world there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals, but all adhere to the basic principles of liberalism.
So what accounts for the differences between Democrats and Republicans, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? What separates them is that each represents a different stage in the larger development of liberalism. Those who do not like what liberalism has become in recent decades have not repudiated it as such but have tried instead to hold onto it and return it to an earlier form—one thought to be purer and closer to its original meaning. I believe liberalism can be traced through five stages of development.
On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg addresses the “considerable fractures” that continue to divide conservative and libertarian positions on significant policy issues as well as on “deeper philosophical questions.” He pulls apart the “often tortuously drawn distinctions” surrounding the political labels and then offers some reasons why the “often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged.”
Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.
Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
“If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments,” writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new article in the American Spectator, “it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.”
Gregg writes that “modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.” In fact, that neutrality looks more and more like coercion. Gregg:
And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”
In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.
Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.
Long-time Acton Institute friend and Markets and Morality contributor Jean-Francois Orsini has a new book out. In Fight the Left (yes, it has a polemical edge!), Orsini argues that there are essentially two approaches to the world: liberalism and conservatism. His use of liberalism is decidedly contemporary (i.e., modern, not classical liberalism). His conservatism is sympathetic to the free market but, more importantly, it is “first principled,” meaning that he lays out the foundation on which conservatism must be based. In particular, it must recognize the truth about man: a being, created by God, endowed with the ability to choose good or evil. From this anthropology flows the rest of Orsini’s discussion, including a brief historical survey of conservative giants (Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan); an exposition of Catholic social teaching; and a few policy applications.
Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America. Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda. But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with. Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power. Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life. For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change. Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc. All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life? And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals. The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference. Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market. We already know how that story ends. And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.
It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are. Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place. The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit. The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries. As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.
At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address: