Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:
Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.
Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.
If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.
Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.
The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.
Read the full text here.
The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”
Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.
It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.
Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.
What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.
The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),
I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.
“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”
(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)
The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.
Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs
By John Couretas
One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.
Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.
Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.
In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:
We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.
This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”
In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”
It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”
Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.
That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”
Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.
When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.
On RealClearMarkets, Mark Hunter dismantles “The End of Capitalism and the Wellsprings of Radical Hope,” by Eugene McCarraher in the Nation magazine. McCarraher’s article appears to be destined for the ash heap of Marxist utopian literature. But Hunter’s critique is valuable for his reminder that capitalism, free enterprise, the market economy — all the systems of mutually beneficial free exchange by whatever name — have actually been ingrained in human culture as far back as the ancient spice trade and probably earlier.
McCarraher’s denunciation of capitalism is in fact an attack on human nature disguised as political discourse. The “pernicious” traits he attributes to capitalism are, in fact, traits globally present in every political/social order — in many cases far worse in non-capitalistic societies — because they are traits of humanity itself.
His entire argument against capitalism consists of nothing more than an elaborate correlation-proves-causation fallacy (cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this”). He wants us to believe that since capitalism contains greed it causes greed. Furthermore, McCarraher seems content to overlook the fact that capitalism is an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.
Criticizing capitalism for its avarice is not unlike condemning representative democracy for its failure to elect the wisest of men — each may occur, but it is not relevant to their fundamental purpose. Both capitalism and representative democracy maximize freedom by diffusing power and responsibility across the broadest spectrum of society. Rigid control is antithetical to freedom and it is this that most vexes the liberal intellectual.
Hunter, a professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., exposes the empty spiritual promise of collectivist schemes. McCarraher’s “radical hope” is:
… in the end enslavement. The only way to deliver mankind from the demon Mammon will be by removing the greatest gift of the gods – freedom. In this Faustian exchange we are guaranteed the Marxist security of bread, authoritarian certainty of order and utopian unity of world government.
It’s not clear if Hunter’s definition of freedom as the “gift of the gods” is meant literally, in a pantheistic sense, or is merely employed as a rhetorical flourish. But he doesn’t make McCarraher’s mistake and propose capitalism as a path to salvation (For a deep going exposition of Christian anthropology, see Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk we posted on the PowerBlog yesterday).
Hunter defines capitalism as “an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.”
Read “To Attack Capitalism Is To Attack Human Nature” on RealClearMarkets.
In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:
“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.
This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.
And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)
Brooks and Wehner:
… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.
What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.
Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.
A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.
Read the full article on The American.
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.”
… 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.
A Tale of Two Europes
By Samuel Gregg
The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.
These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.
While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.
No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.
Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)