Posts tagged with: politics

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 5, 2012
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Sam Gregg’s response to President Obama’s latest invocation of the “my brother’s keeper” motif brings out one of the basic problems with applying this biblical question to public policy. As Gregg points out, the logic of the president’s usage points to the government as the institution of brotherly love:

But who is the “I” that President Obama has in mind? Looking carefully at his speech, it’s most certainly not the free associations and communities that Alexis de Tocqueville thought made 19th-century America so different and alive when compared to his own already state-centric native France. No: Our number-one “keeper,” in our president’s mind, is the federal government.

To this idea that the president is the “keeper in chief,” I echo the question attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards? Who watches the watchmen?

Or more to the point: Who keeps the keepers?

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg discusses remarks made by President Barack Obama at a March 30 campaign stop at the University of Vermont. From the White House transcript of the speech, here is some of what the president said:

The American story is not just about what we do on our own. Yes, we’re rugged individualists and we expect personal responsibility, and everybody out there has got to work hard and carry their weight. But we also have always understood that we wouldn’t win the race for new jobs and businesses and middle-class security if we were just applying some you’re-on-your-own economics. It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried. It did not work. (Applause.)

Gregg on NRO:

… it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”

Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.

Read “So Who Is Our Keeper, Mr. President?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

The Hunger Games TrilogyEric Teetsel, who runs the Values & Capitalism project over at AEI, invited me (among others) to pen some alternative endings to the Hunger Games trilogy. Eric is concerned that at the ending of the series, “Collins’s characters deteriorate into self-interested, cynical, vengeful creatures. The parallels of their behavior post-victory with the actions of their former dictators are made clear. Katniss even votes in support of another Hunger Games, this time featuring the children of the elites who have been overcome. It’s a Blue State ending to a Red State story.”

Although I don’t really write creative fiction (as you’ll quickly find out when you read my alternate ending), I’m not convinced that the general thrust of the books’ conclusion is quite so clearly at odds with the rest of the trilogy. What you’ll see is that I didn’t much like the kind of “happily ever after” ending that Katniss and Peeta experience.

But I did find that Collins’ basic point had to do with the corrupting power of politics, and in this vein I resonate much more with John Tanny’s recent piece for Forbes, “Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ Illustrates the Horrors of Big Government,” than with the piece that helped inspire the V&C alternate endings project, “‘The Hunger Games is a blue-state ‘Harry Potter'” by Rebecca Cusey.

In an alternative ending sure to please neither Team Peeta nor Team Gale, my alternate ending picks up after Katniss has killed the head of the new Panem administration, Alma Coin. I tried to keep in mind a couple of things. First was Lord Acton’s dictum and the theme here at the Acton Institute PowerBlog: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Second was Augustine’s query, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”

In a new analysis in Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines “the shifting critiques” of the pontificate of Benedict XVI including the latest appraisal that the world is losing interest in the Catholic Church particularly because of its declining geopolitical “relevance.” But how do some of these critiques understand relevance?

On one reading, it involves comparisons with Benedict’s heroic predecessor, who played an indispensible role in demolishing the Communist thug-ocracies that once brutalized much of Europe. But it’s also a fair bet that “relevance” is understood here in terms of the Church’s capacity to shape immediate policy-debates or exert political influence in various spheres.

Such things have their own importance. Indeed, many of Benedict’s writings are charged with content which shatters the post-Enlightenment half-truths about the nature of freedom, equality, and progress that sharply constrict modern Western political thinking. But Benedict’s entire life as a priest, theologian, bishop, senior curial official and pope also reflects his core conviction that the Church’s primary focus is not first-and-foremost “the world,” let alone politics.

Read “Benedict XVI and the Irrelevance of ‘Relevance’” on the website of Crisis Magazine.

Concerning the HHS mandate, somehow getting lost in the shuffle is the primacy of religious liberty. Mollie Hemingway offers a good post at Ricochet on the media blackout.

Certainly, political partisanship and lust for power is clouding the centrality of the First Amendment. I recently heard two women chatting in a public place about this issue. They had convinced themselves that Rick Santorum wanted to snatch their birth control pills away from them. You have an administration ratcheting up the partisanship to mobilize their base for the reelection. Tuning into the 24 hour news cycle, one can watch punditry on the political right make embarrassing statements and then doubling down to defend it. If you jump on social media, so many are engaged in a “he said,” “she said,” but she said it even worse gotcha game about Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke, and a host of partisan commentators.

Some are now or already have dug into the past of a Georgetown Law student to discredit her opinions, however goofy and misinformed they well may be. The fake outrage when somebody is offended is equally disturbing. It’s all for power, votes, and influence mind you. A friend pointed out: Would you really be sent into a tizzy if a stranger was called an inappropriate name, unless it was your daughter, wife, or a close friend? So much of politics is about symbolism and news bites, until the symbol is used up and cast away.

I know it’s all just a reflection of our modern culture and lack of critical thinking as lightning fast statements and words are rushed to the microphone or publication. That the current executive branch is unwilling to accommodate the Catholic Church on religious conscience is truly troubling. More troubling indeed is a real trampling of the “First Freedom,” religious liberty. It’s all largely lost and subservient to contemporary partisanship.

It used to be with some presidents that their word was golden. And I don’t mean to say we’ve never had a dirt bag president and certainly we will have some in the future too. Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O’Neal cut many deals in the 1980s over the bond of their word. I am currently reading a lot about Calvin Coolidge this year and in almost every election he ran, he refused to mention his opponent by name. After the election, he’d write his opponent a gentlemanly note praising his character, even if his opponent lacked character. Coolidge would then do everything to strengthen their friendship.

Partisanship is good and there are clear moral differences that have to reconciled through governing and the civil authorities. This country faces daunting issues that unfortunately, for the most part, are being sidelined or ignored. The federal debt is over $15 trillion. An alarming number of our problems are really cultural and moral problems and no amount of politcking will solve it. I think David Paul Deavel pointed this out very well in “One Percent or 33: America’s Real Inequality Problem” in Religion & Liberty .

In 2010, Jordan Ballor and I hosted an Acton on Tap on the topic of “Putting Politics in its Place.” The comments we made are worth revisiting. Jordan words are here and you can find my remarks here.

It may not be cool as it once was to like George Washington in this country. But as a leader, he set the benchmark. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee eulogized our first president stating: “The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.” In a remarkable 2006 essay by David Boaz on Washington, he concluded by saying:

The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice – at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.

Acton On The AirDr. Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research, has become something of a regular guest on Kresta in the Afternoon of late; below you’ll find audio of his two most recent appearances.

Leading off, Sam appeared with host Al Kresta on February 15th to discuss Pope Benedict’s concept of the dictatorship of relativism in the context of the HHS mandate debate, and the potential consequences of the death of absolute truth. Listen via the audio player below:

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Then, on the 22nd, Dr. Gregg made another appearance with Kresta to discuss the concept of ordered liberty, contrasting the concepts of freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference. You can listen to the interview below, and if you’re interested, head over to the Acton bookshoppe to pick up a copy of On Ordered Liberty, his book on the same topic.

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Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
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Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg takes a look at a recent Charles Blow op-ed in the New York Times in which the writer hyperventilates about statements made by Rick Santorum on the subject of income inequality.

Economically speaking, income inequality reflects the workings of several factors, many of which are essential if we want a dynamic, growing economy. Even your average neo-Keynesian economist will acknowledge that, without incentives (such as the prospect of a higher income), many entrepreneurial projects that create wealth — not to mention jobs and often greater incomes for others — may lie dormant forever. Either that or the entrepreneur will simply leave for a more friendly economic environment in which his ideas, willingness to assume risk, and potential job-creation capacities are taken more seriously.

Part of Mr. Blow’s unhappiness with Santorum was that he made his inequality remarks in Detroit, despite Blow correctly noting that “income inequality in the Detroit area isn’t particularly high.”

But Detroit’s well-documented economic problems have little to do with income inequality per se. They have far more to do with decades of corporatist collusion between bailed-out car companies and the UAW, rampant political corruption, and assorted crony-capitalist arrangements — the same arrangements that recently helped, as a recent University of Illinois study illustrated, the Chicago metropolitan region merit (yes, merit) the unenviable title of “the most corrupt area in the country since 1976.”

Read “Inequality Anyone?” by Samuel Gregg on National Review Online.

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:

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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.

Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.

In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,

The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.

The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,

I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.

The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.

As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Acton On The AirA couple of Acton radio appearances to let you know about: First of all, Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg joined host Al Kresta yesterday to discuss the modern papacy on Kresta in the Afternoon. He focused on the social and political thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. You can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Additionally, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller provided some additional commentary on the controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate decision on America’s Radio News, which you can listen to below:

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