This week, Acton’s research director Samuel Gregg appeared on EWTN’s The Abundant Life for an interview titled, “Socialism: Threat to Freedom.” In the course of an hour, he discusses the philosophical origins of socialism, its various manifestations, and the manner in which its modern expressions are slowly eroding our liberties in America and Western Europe. The interview, conducted by Johnnette Benkovic, may be found at The Abundant Life’s Web site.
First Principles, the excellent Web-based resource from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has posted another “classic” from its extensive archive of journal articles, this one by Wilhelm Roepke. I’m snipping a kernel from “The Economic Necessity of Freedom” (Modern Age, Summer 1959) because it so succinctly and powerfully sums up why a moral framework — and our “highest values” — are necessary for a market economy that is not only efficient, but humane. These values flow out of the “classic-Christian heritage of Europe” and are rooted, for Roepke, in an orthodox Christian anthropology.
… I came to see that socialism did not have the cure for our social ills, that indeed socialism was a heresy which aggravated these ills the more men acted on it. The economic “orthodoxy” according to which I adjudged socialism a heresy was historical liberalism, and with this liberalism I am quite willing to take my stand. What such liberalism advocates in the economic realm can be very simply stated. It holds that economic activities are not the proper sphere of any planning, enforcing, and penalizing authority; these activities are better left to the spontaneous co-operation of all individuals through a free market, unregulated prices, and open competition.
But there is more to the matter than the advocacy of a certain economic technique. As an economist, I am supposed to know something about prices, capital interests, costs, and rates of exchange, and all of them supply arguments for free enterprise; but my adherence to free enterprise goes to something deeper than mere technical grounds, and the reason for it lies in those regions where each man’s social philosophy is ultimately decided. Socialists and nonsocialists are divided by fundamentally different conceptions of life and life’s meaning. What we judge man’s position in the universe to be will in the end decide whether our highest values are realized in man or in society, and our decision for either the former or the latter will also be the watershed of our political thinking.
Thus my fundamental opposition to socialism is to an ideology that, in spite of all its “liberal” phraseology, gives too little to man, his freedom, and his personality; and too much to society. And my opposition on technical grounds is that socialism, in its enthusiasm for organization, centralization, and efficiency, is committed to means that simply are not compatible with human freedom. Because I have a very definite concept of man derived from the classic-Christian heritage of Europe in which alone the idea of liberty has anywhere appeared, because that concept makes man the image of God whom it is sinful to use as a means, and because I am convinced that each man is of unique value owning to his relationship to God but is not the god declared by the hybris of an atheistic humanism — because of these things, I look on any kind of collectivism with the utmost distrust.
And, following from these convictions along the lines of reason, experience, and the testimony of history, I arrive at the conclusion that only a free economy is in accordance with man’s freedom and with the political and social structure and the rule of law that safeguard it. Aside from such an economic system (for which I make no claims of automatically perfect functioning), I see no chance of the continued existence of man as he is envisaged in the religious and philosophical traditions of the West. For this reason, I would stand for a free economic order even if it implied material sacrifice and if socialism gave the certain prospect of material increase. It is our undeserved luck that the exact opposite is true.
Popes in Rome have attempted to steer the Catholic flock away from the “seductive” forces of socialist ideologies threatening human liberty, which since the late 1800s have relentlessly plucked away at “the delicate fruit of mature civilizations” as Lord Acton once said.
From Pius IX to Benedict XVI, socialism has been viewed with great caution and even as major threat to the demise of all God-loving free civilizations, despite many of their past and present socio-political and economic “sins.”
In their various official publications and social encyclicals, at least since the advent of the latter with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Roman pontiffs have given socialism a bad rap: It has never been positively perceived as a good political order, east or west of the Tiber River.
Why so? We do not have to look further than the popes’ own teachings regarding their vision of human work, anthropology, happiness and basic dignity.
First of all, socialism ultimately allows political authority to direct the ends of human happiness; that is to say, its supports the secular state’s programs and its functionaries’ potential and power to resolve much of man’s social and economic needs. It, therefore, replaces and distrusts individuals, local communities and families acting in free alliance with their Creator to build a good and better society for all. In a nutshell, socialism treats ordinary citizens like children incapable of governing themselves. When replacing private charity with public welfare programs, socialism takes full advantage of the contemporary crisis of adulthood infecting free societies, whose dishonorable, capricious and selfish citizens are unwilling to make sacrifices gratuitously for their neighbor (see these two Acton videos one character by Lawrence Reed and Michael Miller).
Hence, socialism tends to defile human dignity and dehumanize the personal and local processes of free collaboration and personal responsibility. And as socialism advances closer its pure form in political practice, it ultimately attempts to dictate and bureaucratize all of human socio-economic well being, a concept of social justice built on the dangerous quicksand of modern materialism, which ultimately drags human freedom down to a slow, merciless death.
As the current pope, Benedict XVI, writes:
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person − every person − needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.… In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) − a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (Deus Caritas Est, n. 28)
In order to give you a smattering of just how other popes have tended to view socialism, I recommend reading Gustavo Solimeo‘s “What the Popes Have to Say About Socialism” published for The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
In Mr. Solimeo’s article we read that various popes believe that socialism is part of an “iniquitous plot…to drive people to overthrow the entire order of human affairs” (Pius IX); that “communism, socialism, nihilism (are) hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin (and part of) a wicked confederacy” (Leo XIII); socialism is “contradictory (in) nature to the Christian religion (…) No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Pius XI); socialism has “no account of any objective other than that of material well-being” (John XXIII); and finally that the “fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature…. (It) considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” (John Paul II)
In this book, Novak aims to understand and analyze the theological assumptions of democratic capitalism, its spirit, it values, and its intentions.
Revive is a word commonly associated with the efforts that paramedics and other medical personnel make when someone has stopped breathing. Whether that’s due to slipping beneath the pond ice or being pulled under by a nasty California rip tide, the consequences of inaction will be fatal.
So it’s an appropriate word for Hillsdale College to use in titling their townhall last Saturday – “Reviving The Constitution” – that was broadcast online from the Michigan college’s Washington D.C. annex, The Kirby Center.
A hat tip for their extraordinary effort.
“Through teaching the principles and practices of American constitutionalism,” Hillsdale’s Kirby Center “seeks to inspire all Americans to act worthy of the blessings of liberty.” And that’s a needed ingredient these days if our body politic is to avoid what can seem like its last gasps amid the Obama presidency.
The online presentation coincided with so many parallel themes that The ACTON Institute supports that I will not recite them here. But as a student who lived during the years following WWII and graduated from the kind of schools most Americans attend I will tell you that some of the information presented on Saturday shocked me. Nothing more so than the history of The Progressive Movement in America and the extent to which their heresy has permeated our civic life since the early parts of the last century.
Whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Thomas Jefferson’s words in The Declaration of Independence, “and of Nature’s God” was an afterthought; or Wilson’s plea that “All progressives ask or desire… is … to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; [and the] recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine,” and “accountable,” according to Wilson, “to Darwin, not to Newton” – there is no denying that the 28th President was a man other than what’s advertised in the tomes of Houghton-Mifflin that sit in the classrooms of almost all the public schools in this nation. The “reader” that Hillsdale supplies participants to the townhall made that most clear.
It’s not hard to see how Wilson’s contortion, blended with a rejection of Newton’s “laws” became for theologians what we have experienced as the “living” Bible; and the Relativism that has taken places like Wilson’s Princeton University, originally founded as a divinity training ground for the country, and mainline Christian churches; and planted the seeds for our nation’s institutional collapse. The result: we’re currently living with a country on life support.
But there’s a plan at work. And like anything involving individual freedom, it will take our individual efforts. It’s like the verse from Luke 4:23 “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”
I strongly suggest you thoroughly review the five lectures and Q&A sessions. The message Hillsdale College is sending and our continued efforts at ACTON will save your civic soul.
In his essay, “Intellectuals and Socialism,” Friedrich Hayek asked how it was possible for a small group of people to have such influence on the ideas and politics that affected millions. He argued that it was because the socialists influenced the “influencers”–those “secondhand dealers in ideas” like the press, educators, and editors, who spread socialist thought into the mainstream.
A parallel can be seen in the cultural battles over religious symbols during the Christmas … I mean, the holiday season. One would think from media coverage that there exists an overwhelming consensus that religious symbols have no place on public property. But the reality is quite different. There may be a clear consensus among the secular intelligentsia, but it doesn’t hold for most Americans.
A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans are perfectly happy with displays of religious symbols and believe it is fine for schools to celebrate religious holidays.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 76% of adults believe religious symbols like Christmas Nativity scenes, Hanukkah menorahs and Muslim crescents should be allowed on public land. Just 13% disagree, and another 10% are undecided.
Eighty-three percent (83%) believe public schools should celebrate religious holidays. This figure includes 47% who think the schools should celebrate all religious holidays and another 36% who believe they should only celebrate some. The question did not single out which holidays should be celebrated and which should be excluded.
Only 14% think the public schools should not celebrate any religious holidays.
Additionally–news for retailers: “Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 72% of adults prefer “Merry Christmas,” while 22% like “Happy Holidays” instead.”
So why the widespread sense that Christmas is the holiday that must not be named? It’s another example of a small minority of Scrooge-like secularists spreading their gloom to the rest of us in the guise of enlightened tolerance, a secular Uniculturalism that strips America of our traditions and vitiates the human experience.
It’s not too late to order The Call of the Entrepreneur and The Birth of Freedom for stocking stuffers. An eye-opening report by Patrick Courrielche at Big Hollywood makes for a fine motivator. Some excerpts:
Enter Howard Zinn – an author, professor and American historian – who, with the help of Hollywood and the History Channel, intends to change the way our pre-K through high school children learn American history [beginning with “a new documentary, entitled The People Speak, to be aired December 13th at 8pm on the History Channel.”]. …
Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. …
Perhaps due to their one-sided perspective of America’s past, Zinn’s history books have largely been limited to colleges and universities, until now. In the press release announcing the broadcast, HISTORY introduced a partnership with VOICES Of A People’s History Of The United States, a nonprofit led by Zinn that bares the same name as his companion book, to help get his special brand of history into classrooms. …
Brian Jones, a New York teacher and actor, is a board member of VOICES and has also played the lead in Zinn’s play Marx in SoHo. … he extols the benefits of this one man play as a tool to introduce people to Marx’s ideas….
Jones is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, and speaks regularly on the beneficial principles of Marxism, including this year at the 2009 Socialism Conference. He recently gave a speech on the failure of capitalism, proclaiming that “Marx is back.”
Sarah Knopp, a Los Angeles high school teacher, is also on Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board. Like Jones, Knopp is also a regular contributor to International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, is an active member in The International Socialist Organization, and was also a speaker at the 2009 Socialist Conference. …
Then there is Jesse Sharkey, a schoolteacher in Chicago. Sharkey is another of Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board Members and … a contributor to— Socialist Worker.
This is the group that the History Channel is working with “to develop enhanced, co-branded curriculums for a countrywide educational initiative.” …
I am not advocating that we spare our kids the harsh truths of American history, but I am suggesting, given Zinn’s far-left political affiliation, this project is designed to breakdown our vulnerable children’s views of American principles so that they can be built back up in a socialist vision. …
It is not surprising to me that there are groups sympathetic to Marx’s ideas throughout our country. What is surprising is that the most powerful persuasion machine in the world (Hollywood) and the History Channel would provide Zinn such a prominent soapbox to stealthily build a case for a destructive ideology to our children, and as a result mainstream his ideas with the magic of cool music, graphics, and celebrity. Groups that push Marx’s philosophy are like a virtual organism that will not die off even when stung by the undeniable historical evidence showing human behavior makes such a system unsustainable. If we let this virtual organism into our grade schools, it will take decades for our kids to unlearn the ideology.
… When a reporter asked Zinn, “In writing A People’s History, what were you calling for? A quiet revolution?” Zinn responded: “A quiet revolution is a good way of putting it. From the bottom up. Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives. It would be a democratic socialism.”
Counter bad documentaries with good ones. And if you want to do more at this gift-giving time of the year, consider helping the Acton Institute in its ongoing struggle to promote the free and virtuous society.
Got the socialism blues? Worried that a friend or maybe a teenage son or daughter may contract a nasty case of it? Marvin Olasky at World magazine recommends former Acton research fellow Jay Richards’ 2009 HarperOne book, Money Greed and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and not the Problem:
Among the myths Richards demolishes: The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its real alternatives), the Piety Myth (focusing on good intentions rather than results), and the Materialist and Zero-Sum Game Myths (believing that wealth is not created but simply transferred).
Richards, one of that rare breed with a theology doctorate but an understanding of economics, also points out the errors of the Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed), the Usury Myth (that charging interest on money is immoral), and the Freeze-Frame Myth (that what’s happening now regarding population, income, natural resources, or so on, will always happen).
Want to administer some of the immunizations in delicious DVD form? Try a high-quality, narrative-driven Acton documentary that was irenic enough to air on scores of PBS stations around the country but with enough red meat to also air on Fox Business: The Call of the Entrepreneur shows why entrepreneurs and capitalism are part of the solution, and why socialism delivers the opposite of what it promises. The story of Jimmy Lai–the boy who escaped Communist China, founded a media empire, and confronted the Chinese leaders behind the Tiananmen Square Massacre–is alone worth the price of admission.
It’s ironic – and tragic – that as the world celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Communism’s defeat in Europe, the comic-opera that is Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialist” Venezuela is descending to new lows of absurdity. Beneath the buffoonery, however, there’s evidence that life in Venezuela is about to take a turn for the worse.
By buffoonery, I mean President Chavez’s decidedly weird statements of late. These include threatening war against Columbia, advising Venezuelans that it is “more socialist” to shower for only three minutes a day, telling his fellow citizens to eat less because “there are lots of fat people” in Venezuela, eulogizing convicted murderer Carlos the Jackal as “a revolutionary fighter”, defending Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a “brother”, and wondering whether Idi Amin was so bad after all.
It’s not unusual for Latin American caudillos to say things that suggest a growing detachment from reality. The truth, however, is that for all Chavez’s eccentricities, it would be a mistake to dismiss these comments as nothing more than egomaniacal ravings. (more…)
The Economist marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by observing that there was “so much gained, so much to lose.” As the world celebrates the collapse of communism, who would have imagined that in less than one generation we would witness a resurgence of socialism throughout Latin America and even hear the word socialist being used to describe policies of the United States?
We relegated socialism to the “dustbin of history,” but socialism never actually died and in many ways it has actually gained influence. This may sound reactionary, even McCarthyist—but only until we understand socialism the way socialists understand it.
Yes, socialist economic ideas went out of fashion, but socialism has always been more than just economics. We tend to equate socialism with communism, Marxist revolutionaries, and state ownership of industry. But socialism is a much broader vision of the person, society, equality, and what it means to be free.
Karl Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, saw three major obstacles to the socialist vision: private property, religion, and “this present form of marriage.” Also central to socialist thought is a secular and materialist vision of the world that espouses relativism, sees everything politically, and locates genuine community in the state and not in families, churches or voluntary organizations.
The fall of communism and two decades of globalization did not extinguish socialist hopes. The tactics changed, but the goals remained. Proponents of socialism traded in revolution for the gradualism of the Fabian socialists who encouraged use of democratic institutions to achieve socialist goals. They replaced political radicals like Lenin and Castro with the cultural Marxism of Theodor Adorno or Antonio Gramsci, who called for a “long march through the institutions” of Western culture.
This is the pedigree of Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers, and the various sixties revolutionaries who now inhabit positions of cultural influence throughout the West. We are seeing the fruit of their efforts: socialist visions of family, religion, art, community, commerce, and politics pervade the culture.
I am not suggesting that Americans or Europeans live in socialist states. That would trivialize the suffering of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Rather, I am suggesting that socialist ideas have transformed the way many of us think about a host of important things. Ideas considered radical only 75 years ago are now considered quite normal and even respectable.
Look, for instance, at co-habitation rates and the number of people who do not believe in marriage or view it as a “bourgeois” institution. Directly or indirectly, they got these ideas from people like Engels and Adorno, who argued that “the institution of marriage is raised… [on] barbaric sexual oppression, which tendentially compels the man to take lifelong responsibility for someone with whom he once took pleasure in sleeping with….” The same-sex marriage movement and hostility to the traditional family follow Engels goal to destroy “this present form of marriage.”
In other realms, we see increasing secularization, religion being equated with intolerance and decreasing religious practice. Look at the common acceptance of ethical and cultural relativism and the fear of making truth claims lest one be labeled an extremist. Look at the unquestioned supremacy of materialist and Darwinist thought that dominates the scientific community, or the political correctness that pervades language. Look at our public school system, increasingly focused on indoctrination rather than education. We joke that the universities are the last bastion of Marxism. But who do we think writes the textbooks that teach primary and high school students? The “long march through the institutions” has been more successful than its early advocates could have dreamed.
Of course it would be simplistic to blame socialism for all that ails the West. But socialism has been the principal vehicle of many of these ideas, carrying them into the mainstream.
So how is it that, after such dramatic failures, socialism continues to allure? Perhaps because, as future pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote, the Marxist dream of radical liberation still captures the modern imagination.
It’s a dream that will always betray, because sustained liberty requires a certain moral culture: one that respects truth and conforms to it; one that recognizes the inherent dignity and spiritual nature of the person; one that respects the role of the family and encourages a rich and varied civil society; one that acknowledges that culture and religion are more important than politics; one that respects rule of law over the arbitrary rule of men and rejects utopian delusions; one that recognizes that the difference between right and wrong is not determined by majority, consensus or fashion; and, finally, one that recognizes that the ultimate source of liberty is God and not the state.
The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was one of the great victories for human freedom. But while the East suffered untold misery, perhaps it was too easy a victory for us in the West. We were lulled into thinking that socialism had been discredited, had lost its allure—that capitalist economies and abundant goods were sufficient to satisfy human desires. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to those like John Paul II or Alexander Solzhenitsyn who warned us about an empty materialism, an insidious relativism, and a vitiated culture.
The challenges of socialist thought are real. But there is hope. There is hope in the resurgent resistance to the unprecedented growth of government. There is hope in the millions of families who work hard and in the thousands who make sacrifices for freedom every day. This week we celebrate the victory of freedom and the collapse of applied socialism. Let us not come to a point where we look back with regret that we forfeited such a precious gift.
[UPDATE BELOW] I discussed the creepy side of President Obama’s “science czar” here. But there are more creepy things in the cabinet. The Wall Street Journal reports that the president’s health policy adviser, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, wants to implement an Orwellian-sounding “complete lives system,” which “produces a priority curve on which individuals aged roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.”
The WSJ piece continues:
Dr. Emanuel says that health reform will not be pain free, and that the usual recommendations for cutting medical spending (often urged by the president) are mere window dressing. As he wrote in the Feb. 27, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): “Vague promises of savings from cutting waste, enhancing prevention and wellness, installing electronic medical records and improving quality of care are merely ‘lipstick’ cost control, more for show and public relations than for true change.”
True reform, he argues, must include redefining doctors’ ethical obligations. In the June 18, 2008, issue of JAMA, Dr. Emanuel blames the Hippocratic Oath for the “overuse” of medical care.
Now a freer healthcare market could take care of rationing much more simply, while providing increased incentives for healthcare providers to provide better value to choosey consumers. The problem is, a freer healthcare market wouldn’t route power through Washington.
And yes, it is more about power than about wanting to spread scarce healthcare services around more equally. Otherwise, the government would pursue something like healthcare tax credits for lower and middle income Americans. And they would pursue meaningful tort reform to curtail wasteful defensive medicine and the regressive transfer of wealth from consumers (who pay higher medical costs) to wealthy trial lawyers.
And no, I’m not proposing that these power-hungry politicians are monsters. Most are probably sincerely convinced that their increased power will help them pursue the greater good down the road. It’s just that others have been down this road before, and it isn’t pretty.
UPDATE: Longtime medical ethicist Wesley J. Smith has a nuanced look at Dr. Emanuel here. The post concludes:
[H]e explicitly advocates rationing based on what appears to be a quality of life measurement. From the piece [in the Hastings Center Report]:
This civic republican or deliberative democratic conception of the good provides both procedural and substantive insights for developing a just allocation of health care resources. Procedurally, it suggests the need for public forums to deliberate about which health services should be considered basic and should be socially guaranteed. Substantively, it suggests services that promote the continuation of the polity-those that ensure healthy future generations, ensure development of practical reasoning skills, and ensure full and active participation by citizens in public deliberations-are to be socially guaranteed as basic. Conversely, services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.
A lot of people are frightened that someone who thinks like Emanuel is at the center of an administration seeking to remake the entire health care system. Having read these two articles, I think there is very real cause for concern.