In a recent speech, President Obama invoked Scripture to justify his ambitious spending plans. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published May 25), Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg notes that the president said nothing about the role of private communities and associations in helping our brothers and sisters in need. What’s more, “our leader hasn’t noticed that even some European governments, many of whom have been handing out as much pork as possible to politically-connected, politically-correct crony-capitalists over the past 15 years, are concluding many of these projects aren’t likely to be economically-viable either now or in the distant future,” Gregg writes. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
France elected a new president yesterday, the socialist Francois Hollande who has vowed to rein in “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism and dramatically raise taxes on the “rich.” Voters turned out Nicholas Sarkozy, the flamboyant conservative whose five-year term was undermined by Europe’s economic crisis, his paparazzi-worthy lifestyle and a combative personality. But Sarkozy’s defeat exposes “a crisis of identity and purpose that presently afflicts much of Europe’s center-right,” according to Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new analysis on The American Spectator.
The reasons for this widespread disarray on Europe’s right are partly structural. Many European electoral systems are designed to prevent any one party from governing in its own right. Many center-right parties consequently find themselves in coalitions with left-leaning groups. This blunts their ability to challenge left-wing social and economic policies.
Tendencies to tepidness are accentuated by the fact that European politics is dominated by career politicians to an extent unimaginable to Americans who don’t reside in Chicago. European center-right politicians are consequently even more focused upon acquiring and staying in office than their American counterparts. That means they are extremely risk-averse when it comes to challenging the European status quo — such as becoming associated with proposals for substantive economic reform or confronting the intolerant leftist hegemony that dominates European educational institutions.
A far deeper problem facing Europe’s center-right, however, is its intellectual-ineffectiveness. By this, I don’t mean that there aren’t any intellectually-convinced European conservatives and free marketers. In fact, there are plenty of such individuals. Their impact upon the public square, however, is minimal.
Such ineffectiveness has several causes. First, most non-left European think-tanks are explicitly associated with existing political parties and usually government-funded. Hence, the willingness of people working in such outfits to criticize their own side for failure to promote conservative principles — something many American think-tanks often do — is limited, if not non-existent.
Gregg also offers suggestions for revitalizing Europe’s conservatives. Read “Europe’s Right in Disarray” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.
On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg addresses the “considerable fractures” that continue to divide conservative and libertarian positions on significant policy issues as well as on “deeper philosophical questions.” He pulls apart the “often tortuously drawn distinctions” surrounding the political labels and then offers some reasons why the “often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged.”
Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.
Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.
Read “Beyond Conservatism and Libertarianism” on Public Discourse by Samuel Gregg.
The pope turns 85 today. On the website of Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at this most prominent of “status-quo challengers.”
While regularly derided by his critics as “decrepit” and “out-of-touch,” Benedict XVI continues to do what he’s done since his election as pope seven years ago: which is to shake up not just the Catholic Church but also the world it’s called upon to evangelize. His means of doing so doesn’t involve “occupying” anything. Instead, it is Benedict’s calm, consistent, and, above all, coherent engagement with the world of ideas that marks him out as very different from most other contemporary world leaders – religious or otherwise.
Benedict has long understood a truth that escapes many contemporary political activists: that the world’s most significant changes don’t normally begin in the arena of politics. Invariably, they start with people who labor – for better or worse – in the realm of ideas. The scribblings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped make possible the French Revolution, Robespierre, and the Terror. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Lenin and the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia without the indispensible backdrop of Karl Marx. Outside of academic legal circles, the name of the Oxford don, H.L.A. Hart, is virtually unknown. Yet few individuals more decisively enabled the West’s twentieth-century embrace of the permissive society.
Read “Benedict XVI: God’s Revolutionary” by Samuel Gregg on Crisis.
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.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reviews a new document from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace titled, “The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader.” This follows the PCJP’s controversial “note” on the global financial system issued in October. Gregg says the “Business Leader” document:
Though it doesn’t shy away from making pointed criticisms of much contemporary business activity — and there is much to criticize — the Note articulates, perhaps for the first time in the Catholic Church’s history, a lengthy and thoroughly positive reflection from a body of the Roman Curia about the nature and ends of business.
Unlike the October 2011 Note, this new document avoids grand theorizing about the nature of economic development throughout the 20th century. Nor does the Note lend itself to absurd claims that the Church is to “the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues. Instead, this text’s analysis of life as a business leader is rooted in a sophisticated appreciation and application of the principles of Catholic moral and social teaching. It also reflects a background of solid natural law reasoning about what Benedict XVI has called “integral human development,” and recognizes the sheer diversity of forms assumed by business in the modern economy. To that extent, the Note reflects a very welcome (and much over-due) “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” method of analysis of life in business.
So what are some of the document’s key themes?
Read “In Praise of Business: A New ‘Note’ from Justice and Peace” by Samuel Gregg on National Review Online.
This week has seen some pretty substantial Constitutional drama unfold in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court as the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment is put to the test. Relevant Radio host Drew Mariani called upon Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, to give his thoughts on the course of the arguments so far and his thoughts on how Catholic social teaching applies to the issue of health care in general.
The interview lasts about 20 minutes; Listen via the audio player below:
On The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines how the left wages “a war of rejection and rationalization against whatever contradicts their mythologies.” Which explains why leftists get into a snit when you point out factual details like how Communist regimes “imprisoned, tortured, starved, experimented upon, enslaved, and exterminated millions” throughout the 20th century. And it makes it so much harder to wear that Che Guevara t-shirt without being mocked in public. Gregg:
Overall, the left has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record. Everyone today knows about the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. Yet does anyone doubt that far fewer know much about the atrocities ordered by the likes of Lenin, Castro, Mao, and Pol Pot? Do those Occupy Wall Street protesters waving red hammer-and-sickle flags actually understand what such symbols mean for those who endured Communism?
But while the left’s response to such awkward queries won’t likely change, the unanswered question is why so many left-inclined politicians and intellectuals play these games.
Part of the answer is the very human reluctance of anyone to acknowledge the dark side of movements with which they have some empathy. Even today, for example, there are Latin Americans inclined to make excuses for the right-wing death-squads — the infamous Escuadrón de la Muerte — that wrought havoc in Central America throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
The sheer scale of denial among progressivists, however, suggests something else is going on. I think it owes much to the left’s claim to a monopoly of moral high-mindedness.
Read “The Left Resumes Its War on History” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.
Would dissolving the European common currency, as proposed by the French free-market economist and entrepreneur Charles Gave in his book Libéral mais non coupable (“Liberal But Not Guilty”) free the Old Continent to stand upright on its financial feet again? Or would dissolving the currency drastically end the European project altogether, as some pro-Euro technocrats in Brussels fear?
Charles Gave, the chairman of the investment firm GaveKal, (and whose lecture I listened to at a 2011 Acton Conference Family Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty in Rome), offers an excellent economic policy analysis in answering these urgent questions. However, as you will read below, the European side of the financial crisis cannot be fixed in purely economic terms.
In his chapter “Europe: A Turtle on its Back”, Gave says that the EU’s already slow-moving economic tortoise is now in a worse position while laying flat on its back – its shell “heavily weighed down by a systemic debt trap” whose origins are found in keeping the common currency afloat at all costs.
Gave believes that the only way to get the turtle walking upright again would be lighten its load by effectively dissolving the heavily debt-tied euro and restoring national currencies to pre-1999 monetary standards. In Gave’s opinion, a restoration of national currencies across the Eurozone would force member states to return to a culture of self-reliance, that is to say, to count more on their own national fiscal and monetary means and standards.
The positive effect would also mean abandoning the quasi-idolatrous ways in which Europeans go to save their common currency while closing a blind eye to less responsible member states’ reckless spending.
Gave’s criticism of local/national responsibilities and the very origins of debt raise deeper questions about the cause of the European debt and monetary crises, but it is far from offering a more complete picture of the problem.
Europe does indeed face huge monetary challenges. Having a common currency while permitting euro-members to violate mutually-agreed debt limits was always a recipe for disaster. Greece could happily splurge on adding tens of thousands of public sector workers to the government’s payroll and financing Chicago-esque patronage politics, while Portugal built dozens of now-idle, often half-finished soccer stadiums. Why? Because everyone knew if things went bad, then preserving the euro (a ‘sacred cow’ for Europe’s political class) from the impact of nations’ defaulting meant that heavyweights like Germany would go to considerable lengths to try and prevent a currency-meltdown.
Yet this amounts to only a partial — and therefore inadequate — explanation of Europe’s present disarray…[It] can’t disguise the truth that there’s something even more fundamental driving Europe’s economic crisis.
From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal … was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East. In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state…with little-to-no experience of the private sector.
None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.
In sum, the idolatrous preservation of a European common currency and the ensuing “debt trap” and “domino default” which Gave articulates in his book is more fully understood when we link the European financial crisis to a crisis of Christianity — a faith which makes challenging demands on practicing members’ moral interrelationships, levels of risk aversion, and practical ways in which they care for fellow citizens and see their moral duties relation to their neighbor and society.
Christianity, as defined so well by the Catholic Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, demands that social problems must be first solved at the individual, local level. Only if the local and personal proves insufficient should the problem to be taken to higher levels, with the state as the means of last resort.
Subsidiarity – a guiding principle to all responsible Christians – helps limit public debt by relegating moral duties first and foremost to the private sphere. Subsidiarity is a check against forms of collectivization and the expensive public costs involved. When too much of the moral duty is placed on the state, public costs grow and debt is possible. When it is not, the state’s welfare machine is tends to shut down.
In conclusion, if it is true that the vast majority of Europeans no longer practice their Christian faith or take their charitable duties very seriously, one can rightly doubt how easily it will be them to free themselves from the weight of unsustainable debt (see also Sam Gregg’s ALS lecture below on this topic). If non-practicing Europeans tend to pass on more of their individual moral responsibilities to the state for the welfare of the elderly, sick and need people of society, it ends up being a costly delegation of Christian freedom and responsibility. In economic consequences, this makes the EU a fertile ground for a systemic debt traps and precarious monetary crises.
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.