When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives* is how we view neutrality and bias. Because the differences are uncharted, I have no way of describing the variance without resorting to a grossly simplistic caricature—so with a grossly simplistic caricature we shall proceed:
“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.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism” on the website of the American Spectator.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reacts to musings by conservative writers David Brooks and Michael Gerson about Rick Santorum’s political rise in the GOP primaries and how his social views might be expressed in government policy. Would a President Santorum usher in a smaller but more “transformational” role for the state in addressing social ills? Gregg:
On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.
At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Problem with Compassionate Conservatism” on NRO.
On RealClearMarkets, Mark Hunter dismantles “The End of Capitalism and the Wellsprings of Radical Hope,” by Eugene McCarraher in the Nation magazine. McCarraher’s article appears to be destined for the ash heap of Marxist utopian literature. But Hunter’s critique is valuable for his reminder that capitalism, free enterprise, the market economy — all the systems of mutually beneficial free exchange by whatever name — have actually been ingrained in human culture as far back as the ancient spice trade and probably earlier.
McCarraher’s denunciation of capitalism is in fact an attack on human nature disguised as political discourse. The “pernicious” traits he attributes to capitalism are, in fact, traits globally present in every political/social order — in many cases far worse in non-capitalistic societies — because they are traits of humanity itself.
His entire argument against capitalism consists of nothing more than an elaborate correlation-proves-causation fallacy (cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this”). He wants us to believe that since capitalism contains greed it causes greed. Furthermore, McCarraher seems content to overlook the fact that capitalism is an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.
Criticizing capitalism for its avarice is not unlike condemning representative democracy for its failure to elect the wisest of men — each may occur, but it is not relevant to their fundamental purpose. Both capitalism and representative democracy maximize freedom by diffusing power and responsibility across the broadest spectrum of society. Rigid control is antithetical to freedom and it is this that most vexes the liberal intellectual.
Hunter, a professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., exposes the empty spiritual promise of collectivist schemes. McCarraher’s “radical hope” is:
… in the end enslavement. The only way to deliver mankind from the demon Mammon will be by removing the greatest gift of the gods – freedom. In this Faustian exchange we are guaranteed the Marxist security of bread, authoritarian certainty of order and utopian unity of world government.
It’s not clear if Hunter’s definition of freedom as the “gift of the gods” is meant literally, in a pantheistic sense, or is merely employed as a rhetorical flourish. But he doesn’t make McCarraher’s mistake and propose capitalism as a path to salvation (For a deep going exposition of Christian anthropology, see Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk we posted on the PowerBlog yesterday).
Hunter defines capitalism as “an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.”
Read “To Attack Capitalism Is To Attack Human Nature” on RealClearMarkets.
Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.
Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.
Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).
Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.
This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.
That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.
But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”
Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:
…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).
As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.
Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.
If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.
Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.
Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Olasky’s basic narrative focuses on “young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world—but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.”
He has a number of salient data points and interesting interviews, including Caleb Stegall, the exemplar of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Economically-speaking an emphasis on localism can easily embrace distributism.
Thus, writes Olasky,
An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don’t overdose on technology.
But Olasky’s is, I think, a generally accurate assessment, and one that provides a good entry point to ongoing cultural developments. The Acton Institute has lived out this emphasis on decentralization, in one sense, and has from the beginning, by locating itself out of the Beltway by design. Olasky’s piece is sub-titled, “Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home.”
One shorter term economic driver is only mentioned in passing by Olasky: “…declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility.”
The housing bubble has crushed not only upward mobility but also mobility more generally. The myth of the rootless generation is going to be demolished by the mere fact that anyone who bought a house in the last ten years is generally going to be unable to get out from under it for perhaps the next decade. That’s just about a generation of relatively immobile homeowners.
In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:
“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.
This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.
And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)
Brooks and Wehner:
… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.
What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.
Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.
A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.
Read the full article on The American.
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:
A Tale of Two Europes
By Samuel Gregg
The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.
These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.
While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.
No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.
Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)