Posts tagged with: Political philosophy

Distributism is not a new idea—it wasn’t conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. As Belloc explains in The Servile State, their idea was a return to certain economic principles of medieval Europe—a guild system, wider ownership of the means of production, etc.—in order to right the injustices of capitalism. But distributism goes back further than that, to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the second century B.C., and the theory’s proponents would do well to learn from the tragic failures of the Gracchi.

Plutarch tells us that the two brothers were among the most virtuous men of their day. Tiberius, ten years older than Gaius, served with great distinction in the army and showed himself not only an excellent tactician but, in his famous dealings with the Numantines, a peacemaker also. He then returned to civilian life and was elected a tribune—a representative of the interests of the common man and one of the highest offices in the Roman Republic.

As Rome grew the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.

In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts. Whatever Tiberius’s intentions—and they were certainly noble—this was revolution, and the Senate reacted. Tiberius, who had with such skill arranged peace between his army and a barbarian tribe, became swept up in the political repercussions of his attempt to return Rome to her former glory, and was assassinated.

Gaius tried to accomplish the leveling that his brother had not, but he too made an enemy of the Senate and died violently. Plutarch says of them in his account:

What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?

In his defense of distributism for the journal Dappled Things, John C. Medaille argues that it is the only political-economic system capable of rendering distributive justice which is not a “cure worse than the disease.” Substantial government intervention or workforce unionization present dangers too “massive,” he says, to consider. But if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.

Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg has two new pieces today, in Public Discourse and The American Spectator.

The first is a response to Greg Forster’s “Taking Locke Seriously” on June 27 in First Things. In that article, Forster took issue with Gregg’s June 22 Public Discourse piece, “Social Contracts, Human Flourishing, and the Economy.” Gregg argues, in a July 29 response to Forster titled “John Locke and the Inadequacies of Social Contract Theory,” that Locke’s political thought is based in a false understanding of human nature, which any student must keep in mind. Locke’s unrealistic social compact theory, based as it is in a State of Nature myth, reveals his ignorance of man’s innate political drive, and thus his whole nature. Says Gregg,

Locke … has an inadequate grasp of the workings of intentionality, practical reason, and the will, and therefore of human freedom and human flourishing.

These insufficiencies might owe something to Locke’s metaphysics of the person, which essentially locates human identity in consciousness. As for Locke’s conception of the will, Locke specifies that “the will in truth signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose.” Taken together with his tendency to treat freedom as absence of constraint, these constitute a potent combination of dualism, voluntarism, and perhaps even nominalism.

Gregg’s other target is across the globe, but China’s leadership share the same nominalist confusion about human nature. What precisely they may think about human nature is not a matter of public record, but it’s a good bet they don’t agree with the Acton Institute. The Chinese government is having trouble controlling the economic freedom it has granted to citizens: it turns out morality and economics are connected, and now Chinese in free enterprise zones are turning to the Church for metaphysical answers Maoism can’t provide. That grounding is essential to a polity:

Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.

Beijing’s predicament, however, is that the same Christianity which provides people with a moral compass in rapidly changing societies also insists the state is not God and may not exercise religious authority over the Church. This position is especially pronounced in Catholicism. It receives doctrinal and canonical affirmation in Catholicism’s insistence upon the need for all Catholic bishops to be in full communion with St. Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome. Among other things, this means Rome’s approval must be granted before ordination as a Catholic bishop is considered licit.

China is a living example of what starts to happen when the metaphysic of a people is deeply and swiftly uprooted. The political theory of John Locke threatens to encourage that same uprooting if it is not tempered with Christianity. Let us rejoice that even in China, the state does not seem to be able to quash man’s religious impulse.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

David Lohmeyer turned up this excellent clip from the original Star Trek series:
Kirk opens the clip by referencing the Nazi “leader principle” (das Führerprinzip). Soon after Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a (partial) radio address and later lectured publicly on the topic of the “leader principle” and its meaning for the younger generation. These texts are important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Bonhoeffer compares the office of “leader” to a kind of inherent law of life (or natural law) that determines whether or not the leader is actually meeting his responsibilities and obligations. Thus the leader is not beyond the law, as the Nazi version of the principle held.

 

For “men seeking absolute power,” as Spock puts it, this rule of law must be denied. Therefore the reason that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that it arrogates power to a creature that is beyond its inherent nature as creature and distinct from and beholden to a creator. It makes a man into a god.

Thus, writes Bonhoeffer,

People and especially youth will feel the need to give a leader authority over them as long as they do not feel themselves to be mature, strong, responsible enough to themselves fulfill the demands placed in this authority. The leader will have to be responsibly aware of this clear restriction of his authority. If the leader understands his function differently from that thus established, if the leader does not repeatedly provide the led with clear details on the limited nature of the task and on their own responsibility, if the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a misleader, then the leader is acting improperly both toward the led as well as toward himself.

The leader’s function must be balanced, Bonhoeffer continues, with the other orders of the world: “The leader must lead the led into responsibility toward the social structures of life, toward father, teacher, judge, state. The leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.”

This is, as Bonhoeffer notes, the perennial temptation of those with political power, and it follows from the basic fallenness of humanity. Spock says rightly, “Your whole earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.” We are, as fallen creatures, constantly creating idols, out of ourselves and our surroundings. As Bones McCoy puts it, when “a man holds that much power, even with the best intentions, [he] just can’t resist the urge to play God.”

It is comforting, I think, that Lord Acton’s wisdom survives into the 23rd century: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Is it conceivable to endorse the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged – as I do – while rejecting the flawed ideology which inspired it?

I would argue, yes. On the one hand, I place the Beatles at the pinnacle of 1960s pop music while concluding that their song “Mr. Moonlight” is wince-inducing to the point of being unlistenable. Likewise, I admire 99.9 percent of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work yet disagree with him on his assertion only men should vote. On the other hand, I disagree for the most part with Camille Paglia’s worldview yet admire her writing style and intellectual honesty.

So it goes with Ayn Rand. Her free-market views were a welcome antidote to New Deal policies and the malignant growth of government programs and crony capitalism. And for the same reasons I warmly welcome the first installment of the planned cinematic trilogy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – timed to coincide with the traditional Tax Day this coming Friday – which renders her themes in such a fashion they appear ripped from the headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Atlas Shrugged-Part I captures the malaise of our times in its depiction of a United States of the near future when businessmen look to government to throttle competition by any means necessary (e.g. legislation and regulation) rather than innovating and investing to succeed. Part I ignores Rand’s anti-collectivism, rampant individualism, atheism and, for the most part, libertarian libertinism, to focus on her depictions of government looters and corporate rent seekers.

All this recommends the movie to lovers of liberty properly understood, to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. In fact, I’ll go so far as to encourage readers to see the film and skip the book.

My problems with Rand and Objectivism, the ideology of “enlightened self-interest” she founded, go beyond the oft-quoted admonition of Whittaker Chambers in which he expressed her autocratic intransigence led him to read Rand’s command to all detractors real and perceived “to the gas chambers go!” on every page. There is some truth to Chamber’s critique, to be sure, in that any worldview that rejects faith and community eventually succumbs to obduracy leading to what Russell Kirk labeled the “chirping sect” of libertarianism (a phrase he borrowed from T.S. Eliot).

By chirping sect, Kirk intentionally references Edmund Burke’s “insects of the hour” — those libertarians who splinter into ever smaller groups and thereby sacrifice both the personal and common good on the altar of their own narcissism masked as “individualism.” One need only read about the internecine strife within the Objectivist’s ivory tower to note the wisdom of Burke and Kirk. The CliffsNotes version: Arguing with Rand meant immediate exile to intellectual Siberia.

Contrary to Rand’s individualism, the United States since its beginning has congregated in townships and parishes where true democracy flourishes under the express influence of religious faith. Nineteenth-century writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson both noted these communal incubators and conservators of liberty – small collectives that reflect their respective faiths to advocate for the good of all within their sphere.

As Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America:

In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.

Among his many salient points against libertarianism enumerated in the essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” Kirk said:

What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Elsewhere in his essay, Kirk delineates the differences between individualism as expressed by Rand and her like and the community spirit so intrinsic to our national character by invoking Eric Voegelin, whom, Kirk states:

[R]eminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats – that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.

In short, capitalism and the toxic individualism of Rand and others for the instantaneous benefits supposedly granted leads to liberty misunderstood in the forms of materialism and licentious behavior – both antithetical to liberty properly understood as the fully realized temporal life in community and faith.

So I’m thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called “philosophy” and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.

The Detroit News today published a new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:

Civility, not just after tragedy

The Rev. Robert Sirico

The tragic shootings in Tucson that left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded and a score of others dead or wounded have sparked a national discussion about how we conduct our public discourse.

This is something we should all welcome, in an age of instantaneous media and its often vitriolic political and social debate.

For those of us who are Christians, our guide should always be to speak the truth in love. That is, we witness to the truths that are revealed to us by the Lord, without shying away from critical issues or glossing over important differences we have with others. This is especially important in an era of globalization and the need for greater interfaith relations, where words or phrases can so easily be misunderstood. And it’s possible to have this dialogue in a reasonable and respectful fashion.

Yet, I find it not a little strange that many of the voices calling now for civility and temperance in our political discourse were, not long ago, either silent in the face of hateful language or participants.

I speak, of course, of the religious left, which was so much a part of the “Bush derangement syndrome” in recent years and, with the rise of the tea party movement, seems to have shifted its fire in that direction.

Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, the self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee, who in recent weeks has become an apostle of civility. This is the same man who said this in response to the “shellacking” that the Democrats got in November: “There was very little values-narrative in this election. And there was almost no attention to the faith community and its concerns.”

Really? This was true of those millions of Americans who were pushing back against out-of-control government spending, ruinous debt, an intrusive and badly flawed health care bill, and a general sense that our nation was losing its moral bearings?

Remember, if you will, the invective and hate hurled at former President George W. Bush over the Hurricane Katrina response. Entertainer Kanye West famously said at the time that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”

Where was the hue and cry from the liberal pastors and priests over West’s outrage? In fact, former Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, said the Bush administration funding for AIDS relief and malaria eradication programs for Africa probably saved 10 million lives worldwide.

Following the election of Bush in 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a “civil rights explosion.” He stood in front of the Supreme Court and vowed to “take to the streets right now, we will delegitimize Bush, discredit him, do whatever it takes, but never accept him.” I had my differences with Bush on a number of important issues. But he endured eight years of attacks, some of them vile, like this and the “social justice” ministers said nothing about it.

We all need to raise the level of public discourse, and not just as it applies to our political favorites. The Christian’s calling is to purify the heart, because it is the seat of the passions. And all actions begin there.

St. John Chrysostom, in a famous homily on fasting, warned us not to be too legalistic in its observance. More important than the foods we are abstaining from are our actions and the “disgraceful and abusive words” which we sometime use to “chew up and consume one another.” In this he echoes the words of Jesus Christ, who taught us that “what goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean” (Matthew 15:11).

The point here is to remind us that our words have weight and effect. Yes, let’s proclaim the truth, and do it in a civil and even a loving fashion. That’s the civility that both the left and the right deserve.

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”

Excerpt:

… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.

While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.

Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.

Read all of “Socialism and Solidarity” on the Public Discourse website.

In today’s Acton Commentary I explore “The Legalism of Political Christianity.”

This quote from Ernest Lefever (not included in the piece but which does appear in my book) represents the basic position well:

It is dangerous for any Christian body to identify itself fully with any specific political cause or order, whether the prevailing one or a challenge to it. In identifying with a secular power or agency, the church runs the risk of losing its critical distance and of subverting its prophetic function, its capacity to judge all movements and systems by universal Christian standards.

For more reading of related interest, see the review survey at The Gospel Coalition of three recent books on politics from evangelical publishers.