Posts tagged with: Sociology

DollarSignCapitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency — drooling only for money, caring nothing for beauty, and so on. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.

Yet while free economies certainly introduce a unique series of challenges for artists and consumers alike, and despite the wide array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots that demonstrate such obstacles, recent increases in economic empowerment have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.

Empowered to Create

The more obvious and overarching examples of this have to do with the simple ways in which widespread prosperity has freed up our time, energy, and resources. As collaboration and innovation accelerate, folks are continuing to discover new ways of doing more with less. As result, the tools and time needed to participate in a variety of artistic ventures, from hand-painting to stage acting to music production, are closer to common fingers than ever before.

Of course, market forces aren’t perfect. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, and that includes squalid appeals to the lowest common denominator. But neither are such forces limited to the hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves increasingly equipped to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portrait.

As a young boy, I dreamed of one day becoming a filmmaker. After working only two summers at minimum wage, I was able to save up enough cash to put that dream to the test, purchasing a-state of-the-art video camera and my very own digital editing equipment. Thanks to the innovations of others, and the basic freedoms that unleashed it all in the first place, at the age of 16, I was able to secure the tools needed to begin my work — tools that, only a decade prior, were confined to the hands of Hollywood bigwigs. (more…)

"Help me help you."

“Help me help you.”

Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”

When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:

Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”

Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”

This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.

Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:

A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!

The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.

It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”

As Michael Novak observes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “A successful corporation is frequently based upon the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, concrete decisions must be made on the level closest to the concrete reality. Managers and workers need to trust the skills of their colleagues. A corporate strategy which overlooks this principle–and many do–falls prey to all the vices of a command economy, in which all orders come from above.”

According to a study by Melba J. Duncan in the Harvard Business Review, such delegation makes economic sense: “Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”

A recent BusinessWeek article updates the case for executive assistants. Anyone who has had significant contact with corporate settings knows that the EAs are the ones who really get things done. But for such delegation to be effective and efficient, it must be empowering. As Duncan writes, “The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant.”

Even the “lowest-cost employee” has a stewardship responsibility.

Of course, delegation can go too far, too.

Elsa Walsh and her daughter - Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

Elsa Walsh and her daughter – Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Elsa Walsh offers some healthy reflections on motherhood and career, hitting at some of the key themes I pointed to in my recent post on family and vocation.

She begins by discussing her own college-aged feminism, saying, “I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.” With marriage and children, however, her views on freedom, family, and success would eventually change. “I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear,” she writes. “The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.”

Tying things to the current discussion about women and career — driven largely by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — Walsh notes that, much like the revolutionary feminism of the 1970s, there’s something narrow and unsatisfying in the way that womanhood and career are currently being discussed:

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life. (more…)

If we assume that the institutions of civil society, like churches, recreation centers, fantasy football leagues, and book clubs are essential for a flourishing society, it becomes very important to determine how such institutions are developed, maintained, and promoted.

For thinkers as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, and Pope Paul VI, the realm of civil society provides an indispensable area of connection and protection between the individual person and the political order. In Quadragesimo anno, Paul VI writes of the need for “the reform of institutions,” necessary in part because of “the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.”

It is at this point that Paul VI invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is dependent upon and recognizes the rich variegation of human social life, which consists in human identity not only in terms of the individual citizen and the political order, but also in the human person as friend, co-worshiper, family member, co-worker, neighbor, and so on. One of the things most pressing for Paul VI was the idea that these institutions of civil society needed to be strengthened, not only for their own good but also for that of the political order itself and even more broadly for the common good: “for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

How do we reinvigorate civil society once it has declined? How do we help build up what has atrophied? These are questions that are vital for moving beyond a false dichotomy of market and state or individual and state, not only conceptually but practically. As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.” But if associations of civil society help lead to these outcomes, what helps lead to associations of civil society?

Melissa Steffan reports at Christianity Today this week on some research that bears on aspects of the necessary answers to these questions. Steffan writes, “Parents considering whether or not to send their children to private school can now weigh more than just tuition and curriculum. According to a new study from professors at Calvin College, the affiliation of a high school student’s school significantly impacts his or her sense of civic duty.”

She is referring to a new article from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, “Religion, Volunteering, and Educational Setting: The Effect of Youth Schooling Type on Civic Engagement,” which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)

JMM_15.2_WebThe newest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been published. The issue is available in digital format online and should be arriving in print in the next few weeks for subscribers. This issue continues to offer academic engagement with the morality of the marketplace and with faith and the free society, including articles on economic engagement with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, schools as social enterprises, the Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s economic theory, and much more.

As we have done in the past, Jordan Ballor’s editorial is open access, even to non-subscribers. In “Between Greedy Individualism Editorial and Benevolent Collectivism” he examines the enduring impact of Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, writing,

At the time of its publication, Novak’s work must have been like a window thrust wide open in a dank room, introducing a breath of fresh air and the sanitizing rays of sunlight. Against ideologies that posit state power as a neutral or even benevolent force arising of necessity against the rapaciousness of the market, Novak observed instead that it was democratic capitalism that arose first as a system designed to check the invasiveness of state tyranny. The “founders of democratic capitalism,” wrote Novak, “wished to build a center of power to rival the power of the state.” Indeed, “they did not fear unrestrained economic power as much as they feared political tyranny.” Still more would they fear the union of economic and political power that we find all too often today in corrupt and cronyist regimes.

You can read his full editorial here. (more…)

Over at Fieldnotes Magazine, Matthew Kaemingk offers a good reminder that in our social solutions-seeking we needn’t be limited to thinking only in terms of market and state. By boxing ourselves in as such, Kaemingk argues, Christians risk an overly simplistic, non-Biblical view of human needs and human destiny:

When presented with almost any social problem (education, health care, poverty, family life, and so on), today’s leaders typically point to one of two possible solutions—a freer market or a stronger state. But in opposition to these rather myopic solutions, I think there is a more complex and biblical lens through which leaders can consider the social eco-system and the people who move around in it.

Instead of simplistic descriptions of human beings as either clients of the state or competitors in the market, the Christian Scriptures present humanity in a refreshingly complex way. We find a complex creature with a wide variety of gifts, abilities, interests, aspects, loyalties, and solidarities. Created in the image of God, human beings in the Bible are anything but simple. They are musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny. The robust anthropology found in the Bible depicts a creature that could never be fully defined, controlled, content, or nourished by the market or the state alone—thank God.

This perspective ties in well with Rev. Robert Sirico’s final chapter in his book, Defending the Free Market, where he criticizes the popular notion of homo economicus, from which plenty of bad economic policy and market decision-making has been generated:

Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization. Familial love, voluntary dedication to philanthropy and faith, the creation of art and music would be at their most minimal level, and whole sectors of life would completely vanish. Focusing the whole of life on the acquisition of quantifiable goods does not bring true happiness or peace, as almost everyone knows. We all have material appetites, but we do not (pray God) always feed them…Human beings find ultimate fulfillment not in acquisition but in developing, sharing, and using their God-given creative capacities for good and giving themselves to others. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, December 13, 2012
By

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Sophia Institute annual conference at Union Theological Seminary. This year’s topic was “Marriage, Family, and Love in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.” My paper was titled, “What Makes a Society?” and focused, in the context of marriage and the family, on developing an Orthodox Christian answer to that question. The Roman Catholic and neo-Calvinist answers, subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, respectively (though not mutually exclusive), receive frequent attention on the PowerBlog, but, to my knowledge, no Orthodox answer has been clearly articulated, and so it can be difficult to know where to begin. To that end, it is my conviction—and a subject of my research—that a historically sensitive, Orthodox answer to this question can found be in the idea of asceticism, rightly understood.

While I will not reproduce my paper here, I wanted to briefly summarize two of its main points that might have broader interest. First of all, what is asceticism? Second, how can asceticism be viewed as an organizational principle of society? Lastly, I want to briefly explore—beyond the scope of my paper—the relevance of this principle for a free society. (more…)

G. K. Chesterton
(one of the founding fathers of distributism)

Today at Ethika Politika, in response to a few writers who have offered, in my estimate, less-than-charitable characterizations of capitalism, I ask the question, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article). I ask this in seriousness, because often the free economy that people bemoan bears little resemblance to the one that many Christians support. In particular, I ask, “Which Capitalism?” in reference to the following from Pope John Paul II, who outlines in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (no. 42) two different forms of capitalism as follows:

The first is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” that “is the victorious social system” since the fall of the Soviet Union and that “should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society.” The second is “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

All three of the authors I take issue with are Roman Catholic and two of them have voiced their support for distributism as an alternative to capitalism. However, I ask with all sincerity, “[S]hould not distributists be asking whether distributism is a form of capitalism, rather than setting it up as an alternative to capitalism?” Given the high praise given by Pope John Paul II to capitalism, rightly understood as the free economy, ought not distributists simply be arguing that they, perhaps, have some valuable insights for supporters of capitalism, rather than opposing distributism to capitalism, uncharitably understood? (more…)