Posts tagged with: political economy

Blog author: dpahman
Monday, February 24, 2014
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Today at Red River Orthodox, I offer a brief introduction to the liberal tradition for Orthodox Christians living in the West:

Liberalism, historically, is a broad intellectual tradition including a large and disparate group of thinkers. The epistemological differences between John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant do not stop them all from being liberals. In economics the range extends from Friedrich Hayek to John Maynard Keynes. In political philosophy, from John Rawls to Robert Nozick. For that matter, both the American and French Revolutions have liberal foundations, though often (and rightly) contrasted.

I conclude by encouraging a more nuanced engagement with the West than is sometimes the case in the East:

[F]or a responsible, “liberal engagement” with the West from an Orthodox Christian perspective, it will not do to dismiss anything we don’t like as Western and liberal and, therefore, wrong. As Solzhenitsyn put [it], “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And if that is true, then both East and West, including Western liberalism, have plenty of good and evil to go around.

How might Orthodox Christians better evaluate one of the many liberalisms that make up the water in which we swim in the West today?

To give an example, I would positively recommend to my fellow Orthodox Christians the German ordoliberal school of economic thought for the following reasons: (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 13, 2014
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"I don't build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!"

“I don’t build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!”

At Slate Miya Tokumitsu writes that the motto “Do What You Love” really functions as a kind of capitalism-supporting opiate: “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism.” While Tokumitsu singles out Steve Jobs, perhaps Howard Roark might agree.

If that’s true (and it is more than debatable), then this Think Progress piece which touts the Affordable Care Act as a liberation of workers to do what they love ends up being a funny kind of justification for the capitalistic status quo: “People need to work, sure, but that doesn’t justify forcing people to do a particular kind of work — one they wouldn’t choose to do otherwise — at the pain of bad health.”

The problem with these perspectives, and they both represent ends of a continuum, is that work isn’t either all about you or all about someone else (society, your boss, lords of capital, our elected royalty, and so on). Work is something that concerns both us and others; it has a subjective and an objective aspect that must be balanced.

The reality is that a flourishing society needs people working at occupations all across the spectrum, from more subjectively and inwardly focused artistic, creative, entrepreneurial, and inventive types to those who are working primarily with the service of others in mind, whether to provide for their families or to do the dirty work necessary for others to thrive. But all occupations need to have some element of both the subjective and the objective element, even if the ratio is somewhat different in each individual case.

Even so, the best way to balance these horizontal concerns, I argue today at Think Christian, is by triangulating them vertically, to add attention about God’s divine call into the mix. That gets us beyond, I think, “the conflict that inevitably follows the calculation of labor against capital, dog against dog, me against you.”

As Michael Novak observes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “A successful corporation is frequently based upon the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, concrete decisions must be made on the level closest to the concrete reality. Managers and workers need to trust the skills of their colleagues. A corporate strategy which overlooks this principle–and many do–falls prey to all the vices of a command economy, in which all orders come from above.”

According to a study by Melba J. Duncan in the Harvard Business Review, such delegation makes economic sense: “Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”

A recent BusinessWeek article updates the case for executive assistants. Anyone who has had significant contact with corporate settings knows that the EAs are the ones who really get things done. But for such delegation to be effective and efficient, it must be empowering. As Duncan writes, “The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant.”

Even the “lowest-cost employee” has a stewardship responsibility.

Of course, delegation can go too far, too.

Over at the IFWE blog, Elise Amyx takes a look at Brian Fikkert’s argument about the origins of the modern American welfare state:

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”

While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.”
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Today at Ethika Politika, I critique David Bentley Hart’s recent (non-)response to the critics of his attack on natural law in public discourse last month, appearing in the most recent issue of First Things. My article, “Hart’s (Non-)Response to His Critics: Trying to Have It Both Ways?” is a response to Hart’s recent article, “Si Fueris Romae.”

While Hart’s most recent article may seem unrelated, it starts to sound remarkably similar to his article on natural law from last month about half way through. It is this convergence between the two that I examine and critique.

Ultimately, Hart seems to be trying to “have it both ways” when it comes to natural law. I find this to be particularly evident from his conclusion, in which he criticizes US policy toward China, writing,

Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

While at Ethika Politika I critique his reliance upon the concept of natural rights even while claiming that only our “cultural context … makes it intelligible,” there is another point to consider here. Putting aside the inconsistency of his principles, would his recommendation — more restricted “fiscal or trade policy” — really have the effect that he hopes? (more…)

Trade and Mutual AidIn the forthcoming issue of Comment magazine, I examine how free trade orients us towards the good of others. In doing so, I argue against the value of pious banalities and cheap slogans. I include examples like, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” or, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” The latter is often attributed to Bastiat, and while it captures the spirit, if not the letter of Bastiat’s views, the closest analogue is actually found in Otto Tod Mallery: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war,” wrote Mallery in 1943, then “goods must cross them on missions of peace.”

I was struck by the disconnect between ideology and reality, or between idealism and realism, in an anecdote from a recent foreign policy speech from Sen. Rand Paul. As Paul notes,

In George Kennan’s biography, John Gaddis describes President Clinton asking Strobe Talbot “why don’t we have a concept as succinct as ‘containment.'” Talbot’s response [was] “that ‘containment’ had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a bumper sticker. The president laughed… “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

I guess that’s also the reason that I’ll never be a politician, either. As Lord Acton observed, “Every doctrine to become popular, must be made superficial, exaggerated, untrue. We must always distinguish the real essence from the conveyance, especially in political economy.” The key for responsible governance is not to lose sight of the complexity that lies behind popular exaggerations and conveyances.

As I argue in “Trade and Mutual Aid,” the temptation to rest easy with simple formulas to complex problems is common, but must be resisted: “Divorced
from a more comprehensive conception of the human person and social flourishing, an uncritical reliance on free trade to solve the world’s problems can well become destructive.” Even so, I conclude, “Free trade is a system that imperfectly, and yet with some measure of success—as Bono and countless others are beginning to recognize anew—orients us toward the good of others.” In the course of this piece, I draw on a variety of sources, including Frédéric Bastiat, Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Pope Paul VI, and Friedrich Hayek.

To get your copy of the Comment issue on the topic of persuasion, including my piece on the fundamental persuasive nature of exchange, “Trade and Mutual Aid,” subscribe by March 1. You’ll also find content from new editor James K.A. Smith, Anne Snyder, Jim Belcher, Ashley Berner, Jonathan Chaplin, Marilyn McEntyre, Janet Epp Buckingham, D. Bruce Lockerbie, Calvin Seerveld, Natalie Race Whitaker, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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My friend John Teevan of Grace College sends out a monthly newsletter, “Economic Prospect.” He passes along this in the current edition:

I found this note from a newly retired accountant (age 66) who has not gone on social security yet. His income as a part-time accountant in his town was $60,000.

“My income is $60,000 and my IRS taxes are 10,000, my FICA deduction is $8,000, my state income tax is $2500, and my property tax is $6000. So I pay a total of $26,500 in taxes leaving me $33,500.

However, I have additional costs that I would like to (but can’t) deduct from my income. As I watch ‘government accounting’ I realize that these should be considered real costs.

I have saved $200,000 and invested the money in bonds earning 1% ($2000).

I could have invested that money in CDs earning 5% (10,000), but as the Fed has lowered the interest rate the cost to me is the difference: $8000.

In addition I am now entitled to social security and at my level of income over the years I would have received $28,000 this year, but I have chosen not to take Social Security saving Uncle Sam that money.

So I have contributed a total of $36,000 to Uncle Sam in foregone interest and foregone Social Security payments. Who got the benefit of that $36,000?

Uncle Sam; not me.

So if I add up my total contributions to the government this past year I paid $26,500 in taxes and paid $36,000 in lost income. These two come to $62,500…more than the $60,000 I earned.

While I enjoy my new job, when I think about this, I start to feel like one of Pharaoh’s slaves toiling to roll immense stones up from the Nile to his pyramid.”

Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his “Economic Prospect” list. It’s always a great read.

JMM_15.2_WebThe newest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been published. The issue is available in digital format online and should be arriving in print in the next few weeks for subscribers. This issue continues to offer academic engagement with the morality of the marketplace and with faith and the free society, including articles on economic engagement with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, schools as social enterprises, the Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s economic theory, and much more.

As we have done in the past, Jordan Ballor’s editorial is open access, even to non-subscribers. In “Between Greedy Individualism Editorial and Benevolent Collectivism” he examines the enduring impact of Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, writing,

At the time of its publication, Novak’s work must have been like a window thrust wide open in a dank room, introducing a breath of fresh air and the sanitizing rays of sunlight. Against ideologies that posit state power as a neutral or even benevolent force arising of necessity against the rapaciousness of the market, Novak observed instead that it was democratic capitalism that arose first as a system designed to check the invasiveness of state tyranny. The “founders of democratic capitalism,” wrote Novak, “wished to build a center of power to rival the power of the state.” Indeed, “they did not fear unrestrained economic power as much as they feared political tyranny.” Still more would they fear the union of economic and political power that we find all too often today in corrupt and cronyist regimes.

You can read his full editorial here. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 24, 2013
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Life of Michael Angelo, 1912 - The Prophet JeremiahWhy do the wicked prosper? This plaintive query is a consistent cry from the psalmist and the prophets. As Jeremiah puts it, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

The concern in large part has to do with injustice; why do those who are so morally and spiritually bankrupt enjoy such great temporal blessings?

Over at the IEA blog, John Meadowcroft passes along an answer, at least insofar as it relates to the political structures of social democracy. Drawing on Friedrich Hayek, Geoffrey Brennan, and James Buchanan, Meadowcroft writes that “we should expect that the people most willing to work to attain political office will be those who expect to gain the most from holding it.” And it turns out that quite often those who stand to gain most from political office are those who, in the words of Brennan and Buchanan, “place higher values on the possession of such power.”

Meadowcroft concludes by invoking Hume’s “dictum that political institutions should be designed as if every person was a knave with no end other than his or her own private interests, even though we know that not all people behave knavishly.” The lesson for political power is that it ought to be limited such that the knaves who seek it for their own selfish ends (or those who are turned into knaves by the exercise of their power) ought to have their ambitions blunted by the constrained scope of their authority.

In the context of political power, the wicked tend to prosper, that is, they tend to become powerful precisely because it is so important to them to become powerful. The truth of this insight from public choice theory can also be applied more generally to the prophetic concern.

Why do the wicked prosper? The answer is in part, at least, because the wicked under examination here are the ones who are so attracted to material or temporal gain that they are willing do to pretty much anything to get it. They often achieve their goals, and thus prosper in this limited sense for a season. But in enabling them to achieve what they so desire, God allows their desire to become its own judgment.

A corollary to all this is that there is an obligation on the part of the church and other morally-formative institutions to do their best within their mandates to encourage and promote the development of those who might seek to exercise authority (whether political or otherwise), not as selfish knaves but as suffering servants. Since there are no systems or structures that are incorruptible, it is perhaps just as important to develop non-knavish leaders as it is to limit the scope of any particular leader’s power.

In the Washington Times, Nile Gardiner praises Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future, the new book by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Gardiner, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation and a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst for The Telegraph, says Becoming Europe “should be on the desk of every member of the House and Senate who cares about the future of America as a prosperous and free nation.” Gardiner recommends the book for its “rich detail describing the economic and social ‘Europeanization’ of America, from the rise of vast welfare systems to growing skepticism of the merits of the free-enterprise system.” Excerpt from the review:

“Becoming Europe” is a meticulously researched and well-argued thesis that lays out what is at stake for the world’s superpower, as it faces a stark choice between European-style decline or a return to the original vision of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as the classical liberal teachings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith. Mr. Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute, paints a grim picture of the direction America is taking but, nevertheless, conveys a positive message to his readers. Mr. Gregg argues that while America is indeed on the path to the European model, it can still turn back and avoid the fate that Europe looks doomed to suffer. In many respects, this is an optimistic book based upon faith in America’s ability to renew itself through rediscovering the principles of economic liberty.

I agree with Mr. Gregg’s assessment. As Gallup polling consistently shows, America is still at its core a conservative nation, one that cherishes the foundations of individual liberty. The fire of freedom still burns brighter on this side of the Atlantic than it does in the Old World, where the suffocating supranationalism of the European Union marches on, with the EU heading toward ever-greater political and economic centralization. The European nightmare can be avoided here, however, only if America’s leaders, at both a national and state level, are willing to stand up for economic freedom and reject the destructive ideology of big government. Washington is already on the path to Brussels, Paris and Athens, but it still has an opportunity to reverse course and avoid the road to economic ruin.

Read Nile Gardiner’s full review of Becoming Europe in the Washington Times.