Why, when I realize that journalists misrepresent topics that I know something about — such as religious liberty — do I trust them to accurately cover issues that I don’t know much about?
In my Christmas commentary this week, “Gratification and Civilization,” I examine the connection between making your kids wait until Christmas morning to open their presents and the development of civilization.
Self-denial and self-sacrifice form the basis of human life together. As Matthew Cochran puts it in a piece last week at The Federalist, “Civilization depends on the tendency of men to produce more than they consume for themselves.”
A key factor of driving forward the development of civilization, then, is the family unit. For Cochran rightly warns that civilization “depends on masculine ambition.” The ambition to grow a business for someone “could mean feeding himself & his workers, along with any family they might have. His ambition could be a huge boon to society. Take that away, and you have a bunch of men doing what they need to do to stay comfortable, but nothing more—nothing for any women or any increasingly hypothetical children.”
The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explores the link between family and civilization in his study of The Christian Family. Bavinck describes the triad of father-mother-child:
The two-in-oneness of husband and wife expands with a child into a three-in-oneness. Father, mother, and child are one soul and one flesh, expanding and unfolding the one image of God, united within threefold diversity and diverse within harmonic unity.
These relationships are of civilizational significance:
This three-in-oneness of relationships and functions, of qualities and gifts, constitutes the foundation of all of civilized society. The authority of the father, the love of the mother, and the obedience of the child form in their unity the threefold cord that binds together and sustains all relationships within human society. Within the psychological life of every integrated personality this triple cord forms the motif and melody. No man is complete without some feminine qualities, no woman is complete without some masculine qualities, and to both man and woman, the child is held up as an example (Matt. 18:3). These three characteristics and gifts are always needed in every society and in every civilization, in the church and in the state. Authority, love, and obedience are the pillars of all human society.
One can hardly discuss the family during this season of the year without also reflecting on the holy family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Bavinck describes them as “the divine counterpart” to Adam, Eve, and their children. “The holy family is the example of the Christian home,” writes Bavinck.
And on this Christmas let us remember and be thankful for the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus Christ!
Among many other bizarre claims in his most recent article at The American Conservative, Patrick Deneen writes,
Today’s conservatives are liberals — they favor an economy that wreaks “creative destruction,” especially on the mass of “non-winners,” increasingly controlled by a few powerful actors who secure special benefits for themselves and their heirs….
Pace Inigo Montoya, I actually have no idea what Deneen thinks creative destruction means in this context.
Setting aside the question of whether or not it is a bad thing (or accurate, for that matter) to say that “[t]oday’s conservatives are liberals,” I am far more concerned with how Deneen thinks creative destruction is “wreaked” upon “non-winners.” This is further complicated by his implication that creative destruction supports, rather than threatens, “a few powerful actors.” (more…)
Sustained prosperity is new and sustained prosperity for masses of people is completely unprecedented. What is sustained prosperity? It’s three or more generations of people who do not need to focus on survival or live in economic depression, but who can live comfortably even if they live paycheck to paycheck.
The only people who previously enjoyed sustain prosperity were the aristocratic landowners and royals especially of Europe and Asia. After the industrial revolution a few business men and bankers were added to that list but only if their wealth was handed down for more than two generations. No even we do.
Isn’t this the definition of the very rich? Yes, but what is new is that the entire group of people we call the ‘middle class’ has also become comfortable in the four generations since WWII.
How big is the middle class? Even though there are billions who do not enjoy this prosperity, fully 1.80b people are in the global middle class today (and another .15b people are rich). Of that 1.8b there are 18% who live in the U.S., another 36% live in Europe, and 20% are in the BRIC nations.
How did so many join the middle class? It was through the opportunities of new businesses, new inventions, a new high level education for the public, and new skill and knowledge based jobs. These are only possible where there is liberty and governments that allow businesses to prosper.
Why do Africa, the Mid-East, and Latin America have a very small middle class population? Because those regions still retain the old definitions of aristocratic and inherited wealth. That’s the polite way to say it. The reality is more that corrupt governments have plundered their own nations and their own people by corralling the wealth of the land including oil and minerals for themselves.
In his latest column, Ross Douthat contemplates what a world without work might look like:
Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.
If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late and take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures.” — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner …”
Yet a widespread decline in work is not just an imaginative possibility. As Douthat goes on to argue, such decline has become “a basic reality of 21st-century American life,“ but without following the typical Marxist trajectory. “Instead of spreading from the top down,” Douthat notes, “leisure time – wanted or unwanted – is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.” Despite our persistent longing for rest and relaxation, however, this trend is not viewed as a positive development for society, even for the folks at Mother Jones.
Further, as Charles Murray explains in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, our attitudes about work have also begun shifting, again, disproportionally among the lower classes. Pointing to a General Social Survey study that asked participants what they prefer in a job, Murray points out that the leading preference across all income groups during the 1970s was a job that “gives a feeling of accomplishment.” Soon thereafter, beginning in the 1990s, this preference began to shift significantly among the lower classes, who began to put higher preference on jobs with “no danger of being fired” or where “working hours are short.” (more…)
As I noted last week, my review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City, a fine publication produced by Houston Baptist University.
Eberstadt provides an important service in bringing home the fiscal realities of the spending crisis facing the American government. But Yuval Levin’s brief reply was, for me, the high point of the book, as it emphasized the indispensability of the so-called “third sector” in social analysis. Eberstadt’s case is helpful for drawing sharp lines, but it’s also worth taking a step back to appreciate the real complexity of the situation.
This is in part why I find any dichotomous breakdown of the situation, whether it pits “makers” against “takers” or the proletariat against the bourgeosie, to be insufficient.
When you have a fuller picture of society than is provided through merely political lenses, it becomes far more difficult to determine who is really a maker and who is really a taker. Or as Joseph Sunde puts it in his review,
The moment we disregard the value in varying social and institutional relationships—beginning with a holistic disregard of the distinct responsibilities of the government vs. the business vs. the school vs. the church vs. the father vs. the daughter vs. the grandmother—is the moment we should expect to see “dependency” become warped toward a one-sided “entitlement archipelago” that serves the self, and little else.
As for the complexity of modern society, Herman Bavinck describes things this way, in a manner that helpfully complicates any simple oppositional narrative:
Current society displays in every respect the greatest inequality and the richest diversity, far greater inequality and diversity than its opponents usually imagine. For they divide society actually into only two classes: the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the superpowerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, tyrants and slaves. But the real society, the society that lives and breathes, does not look at all like that; the diversity is far greater, so great that no one can form a complete picture of it. The filthy rich constitute a very small minority, and of these people, membership along a continuum proceeds down to the bottom not by a big leap but rather in terms of a gradual slope in various degrees and in various stages.
For more on these matters, I highlight Bavinck’s insight and the phenomenon of natural diversity, particularly in economic terms, in a recent paper, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”
Article: “The Ethics of Digital Preservation”
Peter Johan Lor and J.J. Britz. “An ethical perspective on political-economic issues in the long-term preservation of digital heritage.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61, no. 11 (November 2012): 2153-2164.
The article provides an overview of the main ethical and associated political-economic aspects of the preservation of born-digital content and the digitization of analogue content for purposes of preservation. The term “heritage” is used broadly to include scientific and scholarly publications and data. Although the preservation of heritage is generally seen as inherently “good,” this activity implies the exercise of difficult moral choices. The ethical complexity of the preservation of digital heritage is illustrated by means of two hypothetical cases. The first deals with the harvesting and preservation in a wealthy country of political websites originating in a less affluent country. The second deals with a project initiated by a wealthy country to digitize the cultural heritage of a less affluent country. The ethical reflection that follows is structured within the framework of social justice and a set of information rights that are identified as corollaries of generally recognized human rights. The main moral agents, that is, the parties that have an interest, and may be entitled to exercise rights, in relation to digital preservation, are identified. The responsibilities that those who preserve digital content have toward these parties, and the political-economic considerations that arise, are then analyzed.
Encyclopedia Entry: “Arts”
Tyler Cowen. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. 2d ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007.
General economic principles govern the arts. Most important, artists use scarce means to achieve ends—and therefore recognize trade-offs, the defining aspects of economic behavior. Also, many other economic aspects of the arts make the arts similar to the more typical goods and services that economists analyze.
Book Note: “As If God Existed”
Maurizio Viroli. As if God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Religion and liberty are often thought to be mutual enemies: if religion has a natural ally, it is authoritarianism–not republicanism or democracy. But in this book, Maurizio Viroli, a leading historian of republican political thought, challenges this conventional wisdom. He argues that political emancipation and the defense of political liberty have always required the self-sacrifice of people with religious sentiments and a religious devotion to liberty.
I belong to the Christian Reformed Church, and our synod this year decided to formally adopt a report and statements related to creation care and specifically to climate change. I noted this at the time, and that one of the delegates admitted, “I’m a skeptic on much of this.”
He continued to wonder, “But how will doing this hurt? What if we find out in 30 years that numbers (on climate change) don’t pan out? We will have lost nothing, and we’ll have a cleaner place to live. But if they are right, we could lose everything.”
Over at Think Christian today, I reflect on the delegate’s question and try to begin to answer it in “Climate change and the church.” I do so primarily by attempting to inject the idea of opportunity cost into the discussion about climate change and specifically ecclesial responses.
This recognition of opportunity cost is closely identified with a central insight of economics, and it is informative to see how natural scientists and social scientists, like economists, approach the question of climate change. It’s also intriguing to see whether and how these two different groups are given platforms to speak to (and sometimes for) the church. Robert Murphy has a lengthy and worthy entrance into this broader discussion, which includes this critical observation about the insights of economists on the climate question:
The general public has no idea that the “consensus” (if we wish to use such terminology) of economic studies shows net benefits from anthropogenic climate change for decades.
Are the conclusions of such economic studies relevant to the question of how churches, groups of Christians, and individuals address the question of climate change? I submit that they are. And I also submit that Murphy’s general conclusion should chasten the confidence with which non-experts (which includes nearly everyone involved in church leadership) engage these issues:
The scientific modeling of climate change, and its possible impacts on human welfare, are very technical areas requiring years of study to master. When experts try to summarize the fields for the layperson, they sometimes present matters in misleading ways, however inadvertent.