In a nation founded upon (at least in part) the ability to practice one’s religious beliefs without government interference, we Americans are in a weird spot. It seems that everywhere we turn, folks who practice their religious beliefs are under assault. Again, weird, since most of us who do practice our faith don’t try to cram it down anyone’s throat. Even groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses – well-known for their door-to-door proselytizing – are happy to step off your front porch if you aren’t interested in what they have to say. (more…)
No, that’s not the name of a new James Bond movie. Rather, it’s a Public Discourse post by Anthony Esolen that discusses society’s ability (and disability) to get a handle on evil actions and morality.
The cry, “You can’t legislate morality” is, of course, false. That is exactly what law does, as Esolen points out.
All laws bear some relation, however distant, to a moral evaluation of good and bad. We cannot escape making moral distinctions. One man’s theft is another man’s redistribution of income. One man’s defense of family honor is another man’s murder. Even people who reduce law to utilitarian calculations cannot evade this truth.
Today at Public Discourse, I explore the dubious connection between educational attainment and upward income mobility, arguing instead that a focus on cultivating social capital would be far more effective than the conventional wisdom: “Stay out of trouble and stay in school.” Staying out of trouble is still a good idea, but staying in school — when it comes to higher education — is becoming less and less effective on its own at predicting economic improvement.
In addition, while I believe education to be desirable for itself, I do not think that one can turn a blind eye to the great cost, decreased quality, and decreased utility of higher education today. I write,
In a new article on Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg explores social contract theory and how that may apply to the current budget battles:
In very broad terms, social contract theory is a way of understanding the relationship between governments and the people. It holds that, having agreed upon the need for a government, individuals create a state on the basis of mutual promises. This permits the state to claim that its authority is based on a delegation of people’s rights to pursue their particular interests in their own way.
Our present economic disputes are, at a deeper level, about the precise content of those mutual promises. One influential interpretation may be found in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.
On the basis of what reasonable people in an imaginary “original position” and blinded by a “veil of ignorance” about their future abilities, social status, etc., would want, Rawls argued that each person had “an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties with a similar system of liberty for all.”
As part of this calculation, Rawls maintained that no one in the original position would risk being abandoned at the bottom of the social heap. Rawlsian social contract theory has thus, economically speaking, usually been interpreted as translating into extensive entitlement programs and large welfare states.
At the other end of the social contract spectrum is an older concept. This was given prominent expression in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
In Locke’s view, what he called “the Law of Nature” meant that individuals were morally bound not to damage other people’s lives or property. The only way to ensure that this was given effect was through a government that defended everyone against anyone else’s attempts to damage their lives or property. The citizens thus agreed to set up a state that would protect the life, liberty, and property of everyone living under its sovereignty.
In economic terms, this position broadly equates to a state that focuses upon protection of property rights and adjudication of contractual disputes. Issues of distribution according to criteria such as need are deemed beyond the state’s competence.
The significance of these understandings of the social contract is difficult to overstate. The Lockean conception profoundly shaped the Declaration of Independence and much of today’s movement for limited government. By contrast, the Rawlsian interpretation represents the most contemporary philosophical underpinnings of modern American progressivism.
Not only does Gregg explain the problems with different ideas of social contracts, but he articulates what is needed for people to flourish in a society. Gregg states that many times it is the principle of subsidiarity that allows people to be successful:
Subsidiarity’s genius is the manner in which it uses this attention to free choice, human flourishing, and the need for support to provide guidance concerning how we apply subsidiarity’s two axioms of non-interference and assistance. It helps us determine (1) what economic roles can only be performed by the state (such as the provision of courts to adjudicate contractual disputes); (2) when the state should allow other communities to provide assistance (private banks should normally be the first place of call for loans); (3) when the state should intervene outside its normal economic responsibilities (when those communities that would normally assist are clearly unable to do so); and (4) when such interventions should cease (when they start impeding human flourishing or when the communities that normally provide assistance are now able to do so).
Click here to read the full article.
In a new essay for Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg explains why we shouldn’t only focus on public sector unions as examples of organizations that seek government power and taxpayer dollars to advance their ends. “A considerable portion of the business community is equally culpable,” Gregg writes. Excerpt:
The attractions of business-government collusion are enhanced when the state’s involvement in the economy grows. This is partly a question of incentives. The larger the scope of government economic intervention, the more businesses are incentivized to cultivate politicians in much the same way that public sector unions have.
As a result, consumers become displaced as the focus of business activity. Nor do the incentives for people of an entrepreneurial bent lie with creating something that the entrepreneur thinks consumers will value.
Instead the incentives become increasingly aligned with successful political entrepreneurship. Competition becomes less about a company’s ability to offer new and better products for consumers at lower prices. Instead, it become a struggle among businesses to secure state subsidies, to lobby legislators to establish tariffs that stack the deck against foreign competition, or to persuade governments to provide one company with exemptions from regulations that apply to every other company in the same industry.
It’s a form of soft corruption that produces higher prices for consumers, undermines value creation in the marketplace, and facilitates unwholesome relationships between politicians and businesses. It also represents the gradual subversion of the market economy by mercantilist arrangements. Smith identified the core of the problem in his Wealth of Nations (1776): “in the mercantile system, the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and consumption.”
In the end, however, everyone loses.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “Business vs. the Market” on the Public Discourse website.
At Public Discourse, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg examines why many European governments are so hesitant to engage in much needed but painful economic reforms – especially reforms that involve diminishing the size of expansive welfare states. The causes are many, but in “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State,” Gregg zeroes in on a potentially damaging linkage between democratic systems of government and the growth of large welfare states that seek to provide economic security to ever increasing numbers of people. Substantive economic reform becomes extremely difficulty in these circumstances. Gregg writes:
No doubt, this reflects a disinclination of many European politicians—on the left and right—to concede that the post-war European effort to use the state to provide as much economic security as possible has encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of economic reality. Yet it is arguable—albeit highly politically incorrect to suggest—that it also reflects the workings of a potentially deadly nexus between democracy (or a certain culture of democracy) and the welfare state.
One justification for democracy is that it provides us with ways of aligning government policies with the citizenry’s requirements and of holding governments accountable when their decisions do not accord with the majority’s wishes. But what happens when some citizens begin viewing these mechanisms as a means for encouraging elected officials to use the state to provide them with whatever they want, such as apparently limitless economic security? And what happens when many elected officials believe it is their responsibility to provide the demanded security, or, more cynically, regard welfare programs as a useful tool to create constituencies that can be relied upon to vote for them?
Read more of “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State” on Public Discourse.
The Public Discourse recently published my article, Rethinking Economics in the Post-Crisis World. Text follows:
In the wake of the financial crisis, we need an economics with greater humility about its predictive power and an increased understanding of the complicated human beings who, when the discipline is rightly understood, lie at its center.
Apart from bankers and politicians, few groups have received as much blame for the 2008 financial crisis as economists. “Economists are the forgotten guilty men” was how Anatole Kaletsky, former economics editor and current editor-at-large for the London Times, put it earlier this year when explaining why “a bank with just $1 billion of capital [would] borrow an extra $99 billion and then buy $100 billion of speculative investments.”
Greed and sheer imprudence played a role, but so too, Kaletsky argued, did those (unnamed) economists who posited that their models proved that events such as the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 or Long Term Capital Management in 1998 were mathematically likely to happen once every billion years.
Kaletsky’s broader point was that contemporary mainstream economics had been sufficiently discredited by the financial crisis that the entire discipline required what he called an “intellectual revolution,” or it risked being dismissed as a rather suspect sub-branch of statistical analysis and mathematical modeling.
Kaletsky is hardly alone in arguing that economists need to rethink key aspects of their discipline. Though unwilling to call for a total paradigm shift, the Economist recently opined that the financial crisis has raised profound questions of coherence about two areas of economics: macro-economics and financial economics. “Few financial economists,” the Economist observed, “thought much about illiquidity or counterparty risk, for instance, because their standard models ignore it.” Likewise, the Economist commented, “Macroeconomists also had a blindspot: their standard models assumed that capital markets work perfectly.”
All this is certainly true. But the key expression to note here is “their standard models.” (more…)