Posts tagged with: statism

We’ve developed a bit of a backlog of audio to release over the course of the summer and fall, so today we begin the process of shortening that list by sharing some recent lectures from the 2014 Acton Lecture Series with you.

On August 26, Acton was pleased to welcome Ron Blue to Grand Rapids for an address entitled “Persistent Generosity.” Ron has spent almost 50 years in the financial services world and the last 35 working almost exclusively with Christian couples. What he has observed is that those who are long term consistent in their generosity exhibit three characteristics that have nothing to do with money: they are content, confident, and able to communicate with each other, their children, and advisors if they use them. In this address, Ron shares his personal experience and impressions drawn from 50 years in the financial sector, gives unique financial advice from a faith-based perspective, and shares the two questions that must be answered and one decision that must be made in order to exhibit the characteristics of persistently generous people.

On October 2, we welcomed Gerard Lameiro to the Mark Murray Auditorium to address an audience on the topic of “Renewing America and Its Heritage of Freedom: What Freedom-Loving Americans Can Do to Help.” In his address, Lameiro commented on what freedom is and what it is not, and then walked through a substantial, solid, and moral case for freedom, acknowledging that God is the author of all liberty and that truth, human dignity, and morality are inextricably linked to freedom. You can find more information on Lameiro and pick up a copy of his latest book (which shares the title of his lecture) at his website, and you can listen to him on the Radio Free Acton podcast right here.

Sojourners’ Jim Wallis has been at the Davos gathering in Switzerland and is urging us to be guided by a new Davos “covenant.” If you’ve never heard of Davos, Michael Miller’s RealClear Politics piece “Davos Capitalism” describes the gathering and its unassailable hubris this way:

Davos capitalism, a managerial capitalism run by an enlightened elite–politicians, business leaders, technology gurus, bureaucrats, academics, and celebrities–all gathered together trying to make the economic world smarter or more humane…. And we looked up to Davos Man. Who wouldn’t be impressed by the gatherings at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, a Swiss ski resort? Sharply dressed, eloquent, rich, famous, Republican, Democrat, Tory, Labour, Conservative, Socialist, highly connected, powerful and ever so bright.

Then, when the whole managerial economy collapsed, the managers and technocrats lost faith in markets. But they did not lose faith in themselves, and now they want us to entrust even more of the economy to them.

As if on cue, Jim Wallis writes in a recent public letter:

This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we are looking to the future and asking “what now?” At a Saturday session — “The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant” — a document will kick off a year-long global conversation about a new “social covenant” between citizens, governments, and businesses.

Why dispense with the yeomen-like “contract” language in favor of a new “social covenant”? Wallis explains that “in the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a massive breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments…. Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made.” (more…)

Don’t blame the culture wars for the recent debates about contraception, says Phillip W. De Vous in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Apr. 4), the real culprit is statism. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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Al Mohler absolutely dismantles Nicholas Kristof in this new piece. The cause of this skewering? Kristof’s “Beyond Pelvic Politics” column in The New York Times.

Mohler notes,

After asking his most pressing question, “After all, do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith?,” he makes this amazing statement:

“The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can.”

That sentence caught the immediate attention of many. Could someone of Nicholas Kristof’s influence and stature really write and mean that?

Mohler highlights some of Kristof’s commendable work on human rights abuses (he’s the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes), but Mohler says “when it comes to human rights at home, Mr. Kristof reveals a horrifying blind spot.”

Our country is not a country that “accommodates” or “tolerates” religion. There is undoubtedly a growing disconnect of those who have no fundamental understanding of the meaning of religious liberty in the American framework. Now we are clearly seeing that the exponential growth of government is a grave threat to religious liberty. Some of the “enlightened” want to somehow “accommodate” religion, at least publicly.

Face it, many who no longer look to the Lord for their help, look to the state as their provider, caretaker, and the dispenser of whatever freedoms they are granted.

Concerning our fortress of religious liberty, look no further than a book I recently reviewed on James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Madison objected to the “fullest toleration” of religious freedom in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and his language found its way into the Bill of Rights. Brookhiser spells it out perfectly in his Madison biography and points to the uniqueness of America’s first freedom:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

Furthermore, take a look at “Birth Control Yes, Government Control No” in The Wall Street Journal for more on the threat to religious liberty.

Toleration or accommodation is of course flawed because it posits the notion that religious freedom or freedom of conscious is offered by the whims of the state. Many pundits rolled their eyes at the “war on religion” ad by Rick Perry during his presidential campaign. I admit, I think I rolled my eyes and thought it was quite the overreaction. I was too enlightened and nuanced for an ad like that. Given the actions of the executive branch, I don’t know if we can say it’s an overreaction anymore.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
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Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

At MercatorNet, Sheila Liaugminas looks at the bank regulation push — enshrined in another 2,000 page document that few of the legislators behind this effort will actually read. In “Social Order on the Surface” she recalls an Acton conference where she heard this from Rev. Robert A. Sirico:

Politicians are not our leaders in a rightly ordered society, they are our followers … Not all views of culture are equal. but we can’t engage socially on our disagreements because everything becomes political … There is no legislature that can govern the human heart … A correct understanding of who the human person is is important to social ordering. Man is prior to the state. You can’t have a ‘common good’ if the good of the individual is not taken into consideration first.

Liaugminas also links to Research Director Samuel Gregg’s recent journal article “Smith versus Keynes: Economics and Political Economy in the Post-Crisis Era” in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

“Statism is expanding in the U.S. right now under the guise of ‘the common good,'” Laugminas said. “Acton is only one institute engaging the debate about how Washington is handling the moral and ‘economic dimension of human reality,’ but we’d better pay attention.”

Advancing the “common good” behind the banner of statism has turned out to be an exercise in reckless selfishness and rapidly advancing insecurity. Where the gospel of redistribution of wealth was advertised as a way to ensure social equality, it now threatens to impoverish great masses of those who bought into the glittering promises. And promises are still being made. Recall President Obama telling Joe the Plumber that “spreading the wealth around” would be good for everybody (see video above).

Culture matters, much more so than politics. In “End of the European Siesta?,” Guy Sorman on City Journal explains why the financial fix for Europe’s debt problems are really superficial and temporary. Europe, he contends, needs to throw off the socialist ideologies — now embedded in cultural attitudes — that are at odds with its founding free market philosophy.

… the European Union is based on a free market. It was so conceived in political philosophy and in economics, and the only possible way to govern it is in accordance with such economic freedom. Yet all the national governments, even those of the right, have in fact created gigantic welfare states inspired by socialist ideology.

The fact is that, at the origins of Europe, Jean Monnet, a Cognac entrepreneur with strong American connections, concluded that European governments had never succeeded and would never succeed in making Europe a zone of peace and prosperity. He thus replaced the diplomatic engine with an economic engine: free trade and the spirit of enterprise, he envisioned, would generate “concrete areas of solidarity” that would eliminate war and poverty.

The “fatal drift” away from economic freedom, Sorman explains, inevitably led to the EU project going off the rails. Is America headed down the same path? Is the culture of free enterprise, for so long integral to what it means to be an American, now in permanent decline? More from Sorman on Europe:

Unfortunately, the national governments thought it possible to reap the economic benefits of a free Europe and the electoral delights of socialism. By “socialism,” I mean the unlimited growth of the welfare state—the accumulation of entitlements and jobs protected by the state. This de facto socialism, this sedimentation of electoral promises and acquired rights, grew in Europe at a much faster rate than did the economy or the population. It could thus only be financed by loans, which seemed risk-free, since the euro appeared “strong.” The euro’s strength drove its holders into a frenzy: suddenly, anything could be bought on credit. The result was a remarkably homogeneous indebtedness in all the countries of Europe, on the order of 100 percent of national wealth—ranging between Germany’s 91 percent and the Greeks’ 133 percent (a relatively modest difference), all reflecting a common socialist drift. Germany, Greece, Spain, and France differ less in their levels of debt or modes of administration, which are in fact quite similar, than in their debtors’ capacities to repay. All European states are run socialist-style, in contradiction with the European Union’s free-market principles. Some will be more able than others to deal with defaults, but all have drifted off course.

How shall we explain this fatal drift? The true cause lies in ideology. Socialism dominates minds across Europe, whereas liberalism—which has retained its original free-market meaning in Europe—is under attack in the academy, in the media, and among intellectuals generally. In Europe, to support the market against the state, to recommend modesty on the part of the state, is taken for an “American” perversion. And socialist ideology is sufficiently engrained that it’s almost impossible for a non-suicidal politician to win election without promising still more public “solidarity” and still less individual risk. These welfare states, through their financial cost and the erosion of ethical responsibility that they foster, have smothered economic growth in Europe. We are the continent of decline, albeit decline with solidarity.


Lee Edwards calls William F. Buckley Jr. “The St. Paul of the conservative movement.” No other 20th century figure made such a vast contribution to the intellectual force of political conservatism. He paved the way for the likes of Ronald Reagan and all of those political children of Reagan who credit the former president for bringing them into politics. He achieved what no other had done and that was his ability to bring traditional conservatives, libertarians, and anti-communists together under the same umbrella. Late in life, when asked why he continued working so hard despite fame and wealth, a surprised Buckley said, “My Father taught me that I owe it to my country. It’s how I pay my debt.”

Lee Edwards offers an excellent story of Buckley’s founding and overseeing of the modern conservative crusade in William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement. Edwards traces the roots of those who influenced Buckley, from libertarian author Albert Jay Nock, conservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall, the anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, and political theorist James Burnham. Buckley fused together these right of center factions that were often feuding with each other more than with their common foes, the statists. Kendall, Burnham, and Chambers were all closely associated with National Review, launched by Buckley in 1955. Russell Kirk was also an essential conservative voice in the mix who agreed to become a contributor to the magazine. Buckley purged Ayn Rand and her anti-Christian and morally bankrupt philosophy of Objectivism from mainstream conservatism. He dismissed anti-semitism from the movement by dismissing it from his publication. The conservative historian George Nash simply said, “Much of the history of American conservatism after 1955 is the history of the individuals associated with the magazine William F. Buckley Jr. founded.”

A significant aspect of this book, and one that has received more attention since the death of Buckley, was his magnanimous personality and financial generosity. It is estimated that since he was paid a nominal salary by National Review, he diverted $10 million to the magazine because he forwarded speaking fees, lecture fees and other fees to National Review’s coffers. He waived his speaking fee for the Acton Institute in 1992 because according to Edwards, “He was taken with the idea of an organization dedicated to explaining the relationship between-free market capitalism and Christian morality.” Edwards offers other points of generosity:

He once visited a young man in a Texas hospital recovering from wounds in Vietnam. The soldier’s doctors had told him he would never see again. Buckley paid for his flight to New York City, where after an eye examination by one of the world’s leading eye surgeons and three operations, the young veteran’s eyesight was restored.

Buckley’s wit, sunny personality, and charm was infectious. Edwards tells a story about how Buckley was wildly cheered by Harvard students at a debate because of his biting wit and intellectual prowess. It became apparent that Buckley was cut from a far different mold than the stereotypical angry or dour faced conservative.

The weight of his commitments to National Review, Firing Line, his column and book writing, lecture schedule, and assisting other conservative organizations was staggering. He even found time to run for mayor of New York City in 1965. Buckley wanted to raise national awareness of conservative and libertarian ideas and when asked what he would do if he won he famously quipped, “Demand a recount.” He called for welfare reform in the campaign, saying recipients should work for assistance, outlining the ideas future Republican lawmakers would embrace in their own calls for reform. He supported free enterprise zones in ethnic minority neighborhoods long before Jack Kemp would popularize the idea. Buckley shocked many pundits with a respectable showing in the race, garnering support from many ethnic, Catholic Democrats and middle class Republicans. These, of course, were the same groups Ronald Reagan would later tap into in his presidential campaigns.

Buckley’s Roman Catholic faith was intricately tied to his conservative views. He believed in human liberty but understood that liberty itself could not lead to an earthly utopia. He penned a meditative account of his Catholic faith in Nearer, My God. Edwards reminds us his anti-communist views stemmed “not just because it was tyranny but also because it was heresy.” When he was asked by Playboy Magazine what he wanted as an epitaph, he replied, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Buckley’s friendship with Ronald Reagan was deep and abiding, even among the occasional political disagreements. Both men shared a passion for not merely containing communism but defeating it. Buckley called Lech Walesa, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov the great heroes of the 1980s and they had earned their place in “freedom’s House of Lords.” But the political leader was Ronald Reagan, with his strategic vision. Reagan too praised Buckley saying at the 30th anniversary celebration of National Review:

You and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion in the critical battle of style and content. And then, suddenly riding up through the mists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.

No less praising is the truth Edwards articulates when he says Buckley, who was born into wealth, could have simply been a playboy of the Western world. But Buckley ferociously served and sacrificed in order to raise up the conservative cause and place it into the mainstream of American politics. He uplifted the intellectual debate of conservatives and the country, and always asked probing questions of the direction of the movement, most recently questioning the continued conflict in Iraq before his death. But never a quitter his last public comment on the war was “stick it out,” despite his skepticism of nation building in the Middle East, which he called “Wilsonian.”

William F. Buckley Jr. was a conservative icon. Generations of young conservatives grew up learning from him and tried to emulate his ideas and values. One of the greatest losses to conservatism with his death is the power of his ideas in times such as these. Many conservatives are reminded of this when we hear or read the anti-intellectualism and lack of critical thinking echoing from talk radio or the blogosphere. Buckley was the one who not only made conservatism respectable and mainstream, but reminded us too that it could tower over the liberals of the academy.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, May 24, 2010
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At the start of Washington’s unprecedented federal interventionism into the private sector and on the heels of a Newsweek cover heralding that “We Are All Socialists Now,” there was considerable angst that free market defenders had forever lost the public. Not so, says American Enterprise Institute President and author Arthur Brooks. Brooks says “America is a 70 – 30 percent nation in favor of free enterprise,” but the forces of statism have capitalized on the financial crisis and have an entire arsenal of federal power at their disposal to advance their agenda. This is one of the overarching themes in The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government will Shape America’s Future.

What Brooks has crafted is a spirited defense of the free market economy and a challenge to its defenders to think more holistically, to be aware of spiritual value in a free economy. To fail to do so, would only sustain the well worn narrative of defenders of markets as greedy misers and swindlers.

One of the strengths of Brooks’s new book is the ability to not only explain the financial crisis, but to offer a superb description of the government’s role in the crisis. The problems in the mortgage industry are clearly linked to the federal pressure exerted on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to issue high risk loans. And if the financial crisis and mortgage industry are explained well by Brooks, so too is his analysis of the new health care law. Brooks explains that the bill is about government control and redistribution saying, “Obama and many in Congress even oppose the small degree of control that would come from letting Americans shop for health care plans from out-of-state insurance companies.”

The 30 percent agenda is what Brooks is most adept at exposing. “What do they believe to be the greatest problem of poor people in America? Insufficient income. What would be evidence of a fairer society? Greater income equality,” says Brooks. He understands that money is not always the root problem but there are many deeper life issues when it comes to poverty. Brooks’s account is the kind of book that draws a line in the sand, explaining why the stakes for the future of this country are so great. He, like many Americans, laments the slide of the country towards a European style of democratic socialism.

Another strength Brooks offers is the ability to connect free market principles with the founding of this nation and our deeper culture. “Free enterprise is not simply an economic alternative. Free enterprise is about who we are as a people and who we want to be. It embodies our power as individuals and our independence from the government,” says Brooks.

Perhaps Brooks’s greatest skill is articulating the moral case for the free market. He doesn’t just offer generic platitudes but understands deeper principles of human flourishing. Brooks talks about the value of “earned success.” Earned success is the ability to create value honestly and it taps into the entrepreneurial spirit. He also defends the dignity of the human person when he talks about fairness, especially the importance of fairness of opportunity over fairness of income, which is preferred by the 30 percent coalition. The human person rather should have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, and creative space protected from the whims of the state.

At the closing of the book Brooks offers an inspirational defense of the greatness of this country. He contrasts the importance of principle over political parties, bailouts, and political power. Since this book is so aggressive in its denunciations of the agenda of the 30 percent coalition, it may not change many minds, but if 70 percent already side with Brooks, we should look forward to the mobilization of their voices.

[Here is a piece by Arthur Brooks in The Washington Post related to his book titled "America's new culture war: Free enterprise vs. government control."]

The Acton Institute’s film “The Birth of Freedom” is a treat to watch again and again. But there is a rather dramatic effect towards the end of the film when the relationship of The Cathedral at Notre Dame and the cubist Grand Arche, located in the Parisienne arrondissement La Defense but dedicated to humanitarian “ideals” rather than military victories, are contrasted with musical and cinematic styling that borders on being overdone. That is until you enter the world of National Public Radio et al as I did recently when listening to a broadcast of “Arts Alive” on KUSC, the station of The University of Southern California. (Some readers might want to think “Pete Carroll” to get their bearings.)

“Arts Alive” is a very nicely produced weekend program I listen to regularly prior to The Metropolitan Opera Broadcast and as you would discover if you tuned in, is mightily eclectic in the scope of its subject matter. The specific program I’m referring to here aired on December 26th. One of the guests was an alumnus of USC who had attained a degree in “planning and urban design” and a reputation as a star in the world of architecture. His name is Thom Mayne. The six minute interview starts 17 minutes into the program.

If you’re old enough and an architecture “groupie” you may have watched and remembered a PBS series in 1979 titled The Shock Of The New. Time Magazine’s then art critic Robert Hughes hosted the programs and a lasting impression of one of the episodes is the filming of the explosive destruction of some habitation à loyer modéré apartments in France that I recall had been the creation of a star from another era known as Le Corbusier. It seemed, according to the narrative, that no one liked living in an urbanist’s idea of habitat and so in order to make way for something else, the “creation” was deconstructed with the help of dynamite. We’ve seen that repeated with “public housing” in cities everywhere but it’s hard to stop urban planners when OPM (other people’s money–read taxes) is available.

Writer Eric Felton notes the passing of a Chicago building by skyline legend Mies van der Rohe in a recent Wall Street Journal essay in which he pleads that modern buildings need more ornamentation. But ornamentation needs to represent something. Gargoyles had a function you know; to spurt rain water off roofs and remind non believers of the hazards of the world outside the church.

In his article Felton quotes Steven Semes, academic director of the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program, where he teaches the classical language of architecture. “There’s a head-heart problem” in modern design, Semes says. “In their hearts, most architects love old buildings for the same reasons everyone else does—they are welcoming and have ornamentation that rewards the attention you give to them.” But their heads are stuffed with “all those lectures from architecture school telling them these things are bad.”

The local event that seems to have inspired KUSC’s interview of Mr. Mayne is the completion of his monumental building design for the 7th district regional headquarters (there are 13 other districts) of the state government agency responsible for building and maintaining the “freeways” and highways in California, affectionately known to residents as Cal-Trans. Mr. Mayne’s company website features this sample among other completed projects and you probably should take a glimpse in order to fully understand where I’m going with this commentary.

While you’re at it, you might want to get some sense of the manner in which Mayne’s Cal-Trans design relates to the neighborhood with this perspective. The Cal-Trans building beyond the local church in the foreground contains 2.1 million square feet under roof, including exhibition and retail space, warehousing, auto shops and garages; but also includes a wellness center, day care and play areas. All supposedly aimed at serving the city’s “public” who will be attracted in throngs to this urban wonder.

As he explains in the interview, Mr. Mayne’s interest in the “reconfiguration of densities” will surely fulfill the projected need for public spaces incorporated into the Cal-Trans box. Or maybe not. Mr. Mayne spends lots of time bemoaning the public’s tight purse and lack of seriousness, and their confused and ambivalent attitude toward their municipal buildings; at the same time chastising the public who pays his fees with comments that they–at least this crowd in Los Angeles–don’t admire “intellectual pursuits.” How do you suppose he spells arrogant?

Embedded in his dialogue is Mayne’s belief that architecture illustrates the culture of the time, and that’s not incorrect. But because he’s not getting big enough budgets due to society’s misallocation of resouces to stuff like missiles and munitions, Mayne contends that he’s been prevented from adding his version of the Pantheon to our cities. In this comment Mayne and his work becomes a cartoon of that which he criticizes and illustrates why those closing scenes in Acton’s movie “The Birth of Freedom” are so relevant to freedom’s story and substantiates why ornamentation has been striped from our civic structures and replaced by the disordered shapes and angles of the modern urbanists like Mayne and Frank Gehry.

Because with the absence of moral tradition in our culture, there’s no there there. A building celebrating a culture void of values and tradition inevitably will be a box, with or without the decoration. And the glass curtain walls, even with something “grotesque” at every corner, will serve nothing more than to reflect us and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become and that will include what too many of us have stuffed into our heads.

Rick Ritchie responds to this New Atlantis article by Peter Lawler, “Is the Body Property?” in a recent post on Daylight.

Lawler discusses the increasingly broad push to commodify the human body, especially in the context of organ sales. Lawler writes of “the creeping libertarianism that characterizes our society as a whole. As we understand ourselves with ever greater consistency as free individuals and nothing more, it becomes less clear why an individual’s kidneys aren’t his property to dispose of as he pleases.”

I myself have written elsewhere and on another related topic challenging the “ultimate right of an individual to his or her own life” and therefore to the body. I make the case that the right of possession over one’s body is not an ultimate or absolute right in any ontological sense, given the status of our relationship to God as creator.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some more relative, less absolute, “political” right of an individual over his or her body. It simply means that libertarian rhetoric needs to be toned down and appropriately tuned to the question of the prudence of political intervention in areas like physician-assisted suicide, kidney sales, and prostitution. This would include some rather less grandiose claims than an “ultimate right of an individual.”

Ritchie gets at this latter point very well in his analysis of the typical response to “creepy libertarianism,” that is, “creepy statism.”

“To try to make an inhuman state the tool for humanizing our world is to fail to see what the modern state is. If you believe in bodily integrity, use your own body to persuade your neighbors not to sell their kidneys. And then be prepared to listen to them as they explain why they wish to do what they plan to do,” he writes.