Posts tagged with: Political philosophy

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters makes some comments about my book Becoming Europe based on a review he had read by Fr. C.J. McCloskey. Here are the most pertinent of his observations:

I know that American exceptionalism lives on both the left and the right, but when did the right become so Europhobic? And why? National Catholic Register has a review of a new book by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg entitled Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, & How America Can Avoid a European Future. I confess, come August, when Europeans sensibly take the month off and head to the beach or the mountains for time with their families, I am envious of them, not scornful. When I look at Europe’s lower rates of income inequality, I am envious, not scornful. When I look at the creative ways Germany minimized unemployment during the recent economic downturn, I was deeply envious.

Of course, given the fact that Gregg works for the libertarian Acton Institute, where the false god of the market is worshipped day in and day out, it should not surprise that he misses the Catholic and Christian roots of the modern social welfare state as it exists in Europe.  And the fact that Rev. C. John McCloskey misunderstands the Christian roots of the modern social welfare state shows the degree to which some members of the Catholic clergy have bought into what can best be described as the Glenn Beck narrative of the relationship of faith and culture.

Alas, Mr. Winters apparently hasn’t actually read the book. Because if he had, he would know that Becoming Europe (1) notes several good economic things happening in Europe (such as in Germany and Sweden) and (2) addresses at considerable length the various Catholic and Christian contributions to the development of European welfare states and the European social model more generally. In the case of the latter, I’d direct his attention to Chapters 2 and 3 of Becoming Europe where these matters are discussed extensively. The point is that it is always prudent to perhaps read a book before venturing criticisms of its arguments.

Then there is the label of “libertarian.” Again, if Mr. Winters took a moment to read a few of my writings, he’d know that, in books such as On Ordered Liberty, I‘ve articulated critiques of libertarian thought, especially with regard to the way that libertarian thinkers approach, for instance, moral questions. Figures such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman have many interesting economic insights. But I have always viewed their philosophical positions (which include, among others, commitments to nominalism, epicurism, utilitarianism, social-evolutionism, and social contractarianism) to be less-than-adequate. In many ways, their conceptions of the human person are virtually indistinguishable from modern liberals such as John Rawls. (more…)

Update: Acton now has a PDF of this article available. You can download a color or black and white copy of it here:

Gregg on Social Justice

Gregg on Social Justice (black & white)

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about “social justice” and what that term actually means. In order to provide some clarity, and precision, to better understand the concept, Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg, wrote an essay for Library of Law and Liberty , published today.

He begins by looking at justice generally:

Natural law ethics has identified justice as one of the cardinal virtues ever since Aristotle commenced his treatment of justice with the general notion of “legal justice” (the terms “legal” and “general” being more-or-less interchangeable). By this, he meant comprehensive virtue with regard to relationships with other persons. Justice-as-a-virtue was henceforth understood in this tradition as having a uniquely social dimension in the sense that one of its key elements is other-directedness.

As a virtue, general justice properly understood involves one’s general willingness to promote the common good of the communities to which one belongs. Here the common good should be understood as the conditions that promote the all-round integral flourishing of individuals and communities. Another element of justice which presents itself very early in the tradition is that of duty in the sense of what we owe to others. This is closely associated with a third element: equality. This should not be understood in the sense of everyone somehow being entitled to precisely the same, regardless of factors such as need or merit. Instead it means fairness as expressed in the Golden Rule. Injustice can after all involve doing things to people that entail no violation of any prior undertaking. Robbing someone, for instance, involves no breaking of any freely-entered-into agreement with the person from whom I steal. But does anyone doubt that an injustice has been done?

These three elements—other-directedness, duty (or what might be called rights today), and the Golden Rule—are closely linked and substantially overlap with each other. But attention to all three elements underscores that the same common good which is the end of general justice requires more than simply a broad inclination on the part of individuals and groups to promote the flourishing of others and themselves. On one level, as Aquinas specifies, it is a special concern of the rulers since they have a certain responsibility to promote the common good. But Aquinas also notes that it is a concern of every citizen: that is, those who participate in some way with the ruling of the community.

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In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg turns to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to show how democratic systems can be used to strike a Faustian bargain. “Citizens use their votes to prop up the political class, in return for which the state uses its power to try and provide the citizens with perpetual economic security,” Gregg explains. This, of course, speaks to the current catastrophe that is the European welfare state. French workers, for example, “clearly expect the government to protect them from the economic consequences of their curious work habits,” he adds.

Some 180 years ago, Tocqueville predicted in his magnum opus “Democracy in America” that something similar would be one of democracy’s long-term challenges. Though Tocqueville never used the expression “welfare state,” he worried about the potentially corrosive effects of democratically elected governments that tried to use their powers to guarantee economic security for as many people as possible.

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit of the “soft” variety. He spoke of “an immense protective power” that took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness—just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville projected, would “resemble parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

But here’s the catch. Many people today forget that Tocqueville wasn’t writing for an American audience. His book was for French readers and therefore, by extension, much of Europe’s 19th-century political elite. What would some of those elites today—such as a career-politician and confirmed statist like Arnaud Montebourg—make of his compatriot’s warnings?

Read “What Tocqueville Knew” in the Wall Street Journal.

And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 15, 2013

Sam Gregg writes of Argentina, whence the new Pope Francis hails, “Over and over again, Argentina has been brought to its knees by the populist politics of Peronism, which dominates Argentina’s Right and Left. ‘Kirchnerism,’ as peddled by Argentina’s present and immediate past president, is simply the latest version of that.” For a bit of the current economic context in Argentina, here’s the latest on Kirchnerian political economy as related by John Teevan:

Cristinakirchnermensaje2010That’s the Argentine Way: In order to prevent the outflow of dollars from President Cristiana Kirchner’s silly-but-harmful economy, she created a new trade policy that permits only as much importing of foreign goods as can be paid for by equally matched by exports. So how is Newsan, an Argentine maker of Sanyo and JVC electronic equipment, going to create the exports necessary to buy the parts it needs to import? Easy, they added a seafood business that now exports shrimp and is paid in dollars. Similarly, Argentine BMW exports rice. Better to partner with Argentina’s wineries which produced $865m in wine exports. The words to describe this urgent economic inefficiency are not ‘free market’ nor even ‘social economic planning’ but ‘a Byzantine labyrinth.’ Why is it necessary? Because Ms. Kirchner also has currency rules or controls that ration how much foreign currency people can hold. Why? Because her policies have made the Argentine currency worth less threatening her dollar reserves. All this is to help ‘manage trade’ as she says so that Argentine jobs can be protected from ‘cheap imports’. President Cristiana is contorting herself to put many fingers in her leaky dike. She’s running out of fingers and looks ridiculous.

The above is from John’s monthly email, “Economic Prospect.” Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his list.

In a story about looming budget cuts associated with the federal sequestration, Acton Research Fellow Kevin Schmiesing was called on by Aleteia to suggest “ways Catholic social teaching might be used to guide the cuts.” Schmiesing pointed out that the “cuts” are really “only a slow-down in the rate of growth in federal spending.” More:

“Much more dramatic cuts and/or revenue increases are needed to reach a position of fiscal responsibility,” he said in an interview. But the principle of “solidarity,” from Catholic social teaching, he suggested, would guide specific cuts in spending to be made in a way that “expresses shared responsibility for our nation and its problems.”

“For example, firing a lot of lower staffers while preserving intact the comfortable salaries and benefits of the higher-level staffers might be seen as a violation of solidarity,” he said. “It puts all of the sacrifice on one segment of the population.”

Schmiesing suggested too that cuts should be “managed in a way that encourages rather than undermines the institutions that operate at a level more local than the federal government.” This would be based on the principle of subsidiarity, which, to cite one example, would be violated by “closing a military base – cold turkey – that serves as the foundation of a local community comprised of families, churches, and businesses.”

In addition, budget decisions “must keep foremost in mind the effect on those who are most vulnerable,” Schmiesing said. “It would not be in line with Catholic social teaching (and its principle of a preferential option for the poor) to preserve inviolate the comfortable salaries of upper middle class bureaucrats while at the same time firing” lower-wage office staff.

Read “The Concrete Impact of Sequestration” on Aleteia.com

What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”
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The February issue of Sojourners magazine presents various perspectives on the surge in evangelicalism’s interest in exploring new national and international peace initiatives. For example, The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Initiative acknowledges “that in our zeal for evangelism, we have often overlooked the biblical mandate to pursue peace. We commit ourselves anew to this mandate within our homes, churches, communities, and among the nations.” Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) promotes itself as an evangelical organization that “consistently campaigns at the grassroots and policy level for a world that is pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-creation care.” “We want Christians to look deeply, act justly, and love radically,” says ESA.

Justice and peace are, of course, themes we can all support. What Christians are there in the world who are pro-war and pro-injustice? Even with these themes, however, is it possible that those who are oppressed and suffering need more than a society that is merely peaceful and where people are acting justly? Because “peace” and “justice” are normally situated in light of negative realities, more often than not, the discourse tends to focus on what we should not do in society instead what allows people to be free to live out their vocation to be human. The solutions offered tend to narrowly focus on lofty hoped for visions that deny trade-offs necessary in a broken world.

Additionally, we find the surprising promotion of a ruling class of elites in government having concentrated decision-making power over those with less money and less political power, rather than considering ways to allow people to make decisions that empower them to seek their own solutions to meeting their needs. We need to do more than “end slavery” or “end poverty.” We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how we can put people in positions, in accordance with their design by their Creator, to live well. In other words, we need to focus our attention on human flourishing.

In a 2003 article on human flourishing,” Dr. Edward W. Younkins helps us get a sense of the advantages of focusing on human flourishing: (more…)

In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)

I have wrapped up a brief series on the principle of subsidiarity over at the blog of the journal Political Theology with a post today, “Subsidiarity ‘From Below.’” You can check out the previous post, “Subsidiarity ‘From Above,’” as well as my introductory primer on the topic as well.

For those who might be interested in reading some more, you can also download some related papers: “State, Church, and the Reformational Roots of Subsidiarity” and “A Society of Mutual Aid: Natural Law and Subsidiarity in Early Modern Reformed Perspective.”

There’s also this recent coverage from the PowerBlog of a paper by Patrick Brennan and further responses (here, here, and here).

Ken Endo, who has done a great deal of work on the historical and legal background to the idea of subsidiarity, has a helpful summary of the two basic constructions as differing emphases of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism:

Founded on a strong sense of autonomy and self-determination that could be influenced by the Protestant tradition, the local municipalities and regions in Sweden and Finland considered subsidiarity indispensable if they are to join the European Community….

Their approach towards subsidiarity as well as that of Denmark and perhaps the Netherlands takes on a bottom-up character, and does not necessarily coincide with the conception of southern European countries, which are in general coloured by Catholicism.

Of this latter view, Endo is referring to the idea that “the Catholic Church presupposes the hierarchical view of Society in which all its components should be located in the ‘proper’ places. Moreover, the Church considers that other components of Society than the State are subordinated to the State in a harmonious way as if they were part of its body (to put it in a different way, in accordance with the common good.”

You can download the text of Endo’s lengthy essay, “The Principle of Subsidiarity: From Johannes Althusius to Jacques Delors,” in PDF form.

National Review Online asked Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg to weigh in on President Barack Obama’s second term inaugural address.

Gregg points to “our president’s worldview that the government is the primary way in which we address our common problems and realize our responsibilities and obligations to each other as citizens and as human beings.” He wonders if it has occurred to Obama that “many such responsibilities and obligations might be realized outside the realm of politics … ”

Gregg goes on to suggest, for the presidential reading list, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Jacques Maritain’s writings on civil society in the United States.

Read “Why Barack Obama Needs to Read Alexis de Tocqueville” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013).