The philosophical demise of socialism has caused many on the economic left to change their complaint about free-market capitalism. While it may be effective, they now say, it comes at the cost of human goods like community and social solidarity. Such claims are now commonplace in policy debates. But are they true?
If you weren’t able to join us at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids last night for Acton On Tap, you missed a great discussion on the topic of Envy: Socialism’s Deadly Sin with Dr. Victor Claar of Henderson State University. Acton’s own Dr. Jordan Ballor opened the evening’s conversation with some theological reflections on the nature of envy, with Claar following up with his discussion of envy from an economic perspective.
Again, if you weren’t able to make it, you missed out. Plan on joining us for the next Acton On Tap on May 10th, featuring Ray Nothstine; rumor has it that the topic may be President Calvin Coolidge. You can listen to last night’s presentation using 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.
My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.
First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.
A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.
Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.
King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.
The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.
Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.
Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.
Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:
Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.
Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …
The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.
What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.
I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.
Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.
In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.
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.