This morning at Ethika Politika, I argue that “acting primarily for the sake of national interest in international affairs runs contrary to a nation’s highest ideals.” In particular, I draw on the thought of Vladimir Solovyov, who argued that, morally speaking, national interest alone cannot be the supreme standard of international action since the highest aspirations of each nation (e.g. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) are claimed to be universal goods. I would here like to explore his critique with reference to the subject of international trade. (more…)
I recently finished the advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. I posted a previous excerpt on the topic of virtue in a free republic a couple of weeks ago.
In recent writing and speaking about President Calvin Coolidge, it is encouraging to study a leader who saw himself as a civic educator rather than an imperial president. We need a cultural change before we can ever expect reasonable change in the direction of our government. And let’s be honest, we need American people ready to think deeply about the direction of this country.
Guinness makes the case in his forthcoming book that the stakes are very high and self-government and sustainable freedom are at a precipice. Below is an excerpt from a A Free People’s Suicide on separation of powers and spheres of influence:
In short, the founders’ commitment to a separation of powers is more vital than ever today, and its current applications must go beyond a worn-out litany of clichés such as “limited government” and “get the government off our backs.” The rampant imperialism of the spheres must be reined in, and the citizens’ responsibility for the wider common good must be reinforced. Each sphere—business, law, education, entertainment and so on—must be reordered to serve the wider public good, and principles such as individual self-reliance, local self-government and state government must once again be given their proper roles. Not only must the latter be able to balance the dominance of federal government and provide a bulwark against the encroachments of bureaucratic overregulation, they must must also carry the robust human and ethical values that can prevent humanity being turned into a global supermarket where even souls are up for sale and profit is the measure of all things.
Unless America succeeds in such a reordering of the spheres, the present imperial hubris of the spheres will continue their runaway inflation, the tutelary state will expand its paternalistic smothering of individual freedom and and a politically and economically bloated America will resemble in its star-spangled obesity the enemies of freedom it has resisted so long and so heroically.
Right now I am reading an advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. The book will be released by IVP on August 6. It’s an essential read and I pledge to publish a future review for our PowerBlog readers. Guinness was interviewed in Religion & Liberty in 1998.
In my recent talks around town I have been asking questions about our capacity and desire for self-government as a community and nation. I recently gave a local presentation on President Calvin Coolidge and he helped inspire a greater desire to ask the foundational questions. In my view, Coolidge saw public service as a chance to educate Americans in civics, elevating the greater truths from our revolutionary and founding period.
Below is a great excerpt from Guinness’s forthcoming book:
Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the self-government of a free republic had to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.
The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom – both to liberty itself and to the civic vitality and social harmony that go hand in hand with freedom.
Burke wrote in full agreement, “Manners [or moral standards] are of more importance than laws.” Rousseau had written similarly that mores, customs, and traditions, which are “engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens” form “the true Constitution of the State” and the “Keystone of the Republic.”
Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:
Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism
Should the President of the United States be seen as theologian-in-chief? That might be one way to understand Bryan Fischer’s claim that “we are in fact choosing a minister when we select a president.”
I explore some of the dimensions of understanding politicians as “ministers of God” in this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace.” It strikes me that those who seek salvation from politicians are making a significant category mistake. Politicians cannot save because politics cannot save. Politics cannot save because it is an arena of common or preserving rather than special or saving grace.
So it’s important to see politicians, as well as businesspersons, artists, scientists, teachers, and line workers as “ministers” in a broad sense: in their work they are means or channels of God’s common grace, his blessings on all people. This is an important insight into how God’s purpose for our lives finds expression in our daily lives. (A great source for exploring common grace in the areas of science and art is the recently-released Wisdom & Wonder by Abraham Kuyper.)
But it’s equally important to distinguish between common and special grace and see how the two relate. And this is one of the things that makes the institutional church and its ministers unique. The church is where we hear, see, touch, and taste Christ, proclaimed in the Word and sacraments. That’s why the Belgic Confession contends, for instance, that “every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake.”
A recent study by the Barna Group examines the generation gap within various Christian traditions in the United States. The Millennial Generation (roughly anyone currently 18-29 years old) has become increasingly dissatisfied with their Christian upbringing. According to the study,
… 84% of Christian 18- to 29-year-olds admit that they have no idea how the Bible applies to their field or professional interests. For example, young adults who are interested in creative or science-oriented careers often disconnect from their faith or from the church. On the creative side, this includes young musicians, artists, writers, designers, and actors. On the science-oriented side, young engineers, medical students, and science and math majors frequently struggle to see how the Bible relates to their life’s calling.
There is, it appears, an urgent need for Christian traditions to develop and employ a robust theology of vocation, especially with regards to arts and science related professions. Indeed, according to the article, “The Barna study showed that faith communities can become more effective in working with the next generation by linking vocation and faith.”
As a Millennial myself, I found the study especially fascinating. The approach when I was a teenager was that the bigger the sound system or video screen or the more “alternative” sounding the music, the more likely a church was to keep us around. Maybe I am not a good representative of my generation as a whole, but I remember finding this approach especially shallow and even a little insulting. I wanted a deeper faith, something that stands out from the world around me, not something nearly indistinguishable from it. Perhaps if more churches would take the time to show how the Gospel of Jesus Christ permeates all facets of life, especially our vocations, fewer of my peers would be leaving those churches behind.
The most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1) contained two contributions in our Symposium section specifically on the subject of vocation. Anyone interested may read them here:
It seems that the supercommittee (the US Congress Joint Select Committee on Defict Reduction) has failed to agree on $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. In lieu of this “failure,” automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will kick in. These cuts will be across the board, and will not result from the committee’s picking of winners and losers in the federal budget.
In the context about discussions of intergenerational justice earlier this year, Michael Gerson said that such across-the-board cuts are “really the lazy abdication of governing.” And with respect to the outcome of the supercommittee process, Gerson is laying the lion’s share of blame for this failure to govern with President Obama: “It is the executive, not the legislature, that gives the budget process energy and direction. The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.”
But I want to speak out in favor of across-the-board cuts, at least provisionally. I do not think they necessarily represent a failure to govern, or the “lazy abdication of governing.” It’s true as Gerson says that “To govern is to choose. And some choices are more justified than others.” In the case where there is no clear agreement about spending priorities, or even the basic views of the purpose of government, choosing to keep spending priorities as they currently exist might just be the most feasible political move. If everyone agrees that there needs to be cuts, but no one wants their pet programs cut, then it seems reasonable to, as Gerson puts it, “let everyone bear an equal burden.”
If we were to try to weigh the cuts and divide them proportionally between various areas of government spending, it seems to me that we’d need to come to grips with the various responsibilities of government: primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Things that are more central to the federal government’s purpose should be cut relatively less than those things that are more peripheral. That’s the view that appears in the Acton Institute’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” for instance.
But one thing that’s clear about today’s political climate is that there is very little consensus on what the central functions of government are. And in the absence of consensus, maintaining current spending priorities might be the best we can hope for.
Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.
With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.
This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.
Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.
The aggrandizement of the European Union’s powers, particularly of its regulation, has had a steady growth within Europe, and is now looking to move outside European borders. Namely in one American industry, the airline industry, passengers may soon be paying higher air fares, not because of factors within the American financial market, but because of a carbon emissions tax that the EU will be imposing on American airlines which service flights to EU member countries.
For example, if an American carrier flies from New York to London, only a small percentage of the flight would be in the EU, but the U.S. carrier would be held responsible for the emissions from the entire flight. Just a few weeks ago, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU is justified in levying fees on American flights than enter Europe. According to Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, “Starting next year, the EU will tote up all the miles a plane flies to or from any European city, factor in the fuel usage and charge a ‘”carbon levy”‘ for all emissions that are more than 85 percent of 2002 levels. No airline is going to eat that cost, so you’ll get the bill, perhaps listed as an ‘”environmental surcharge.”‘
Even though some analysts are predicting a steep decline in airline profits next year, American carriers expect that the EU’s carbon plan would cost them more than $3 billion over eight years. Up until this point, Europeans have been content to go it alone with their climate taxes, thinking this will somehow serve to save the world. But now, Europe is seeking to force this mentality on other corners of the globe. These taxes are indeed costly, and even within Europe, their implementation is not gratefully accepted by all. In the UK, the Financial Times reports that there are concerns that the government is “in retreat from its green agenda.”
Noting that the EU’s Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package will cost the UK economy an exorbitant £ 20.2 billion by 2020, Open Europe, an independent European think tank, argues that the EU could find a much more cost-effective way to address climate initiatives. It argues that a much more effective and righteous approach would be for the EU to set overall carbon emission targets and then allow for individual member states to decide how best to reach them. At least in this approach, the EU would not be imposing direct government regulation on its members.
Within the issue of climate taxes within the EU, and their proposed extension into the United States, it is important to note the role that the government should and should not play. The main role of government should be to promote the common good, that is, to maintain the rule of law, and to preserve basic duties and rights. Free actions should not be overtaken by the government. The principle of subsidiarity is violated when governments over reach, usurping the ability of perfectly capable human beings, by way of the market, to operate effectively. The EU’s climate regulations on member states are indeed dubious, but it is particularly egregious when these regulations are allowed to extend to other countries.
The American Life League has released an investigative report on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which, it turns out, has been funding dozens of thoroughly unchristian organizations in its fight against domestic poverty. Catholics in the pews who have given to the annual CCHD collection might not be happy to learn that the program’s efforts are frequently right out of line with its “fight poverty: defend human dignity” slogan.
At Acton, we believe that in the long run, the poor are harmed by patronizing aid schemes that, well intentioned though they may be, don’t account for the dignity of the human person whom they try to help. It’s certainly inconvenient that you can’t end poverty by giving lots of people lots of money, but we’ve tried just that for decades, and poverty is nowhere near eradicated.
People are pulled out of poverty by the creation of wealth through productive work, and that is the only way that is truly appreciative of the dignity of the poor. Marxism fails as an economic system and as a means of bettering the condition of the poor because it misunderstands human nature. It debases men and women.
It’s disheartening, then, to see that a quarter of the organizations funded by the CCHD for 2010 – 2011 are either directly involved in materialistic poverty alleviation campaigns based on false anthropologies, or else are proud partners of such organizations. They promote abortion and birth control as ways to keep the poor from reproducing, because, you know, the poor deserve dignified treatment, but we sure don’t want to deal with more of them. And then these organizations tell the poor that if only Lenin were in charge, they’d all be well-off.
In 2010, after public pressure from the American Life League and others, and an internal investigation, the CCHD promised to stop funding groups that trample on human dignity. Unfortunately, the ALL reports that “the number, and percentage, of offending organizations has actually INCREASED in the last year — from 51 to 54 groups and from 21% to 24%. ”
If the program can’t be rehabilitated, it needs to be ended, because the only kinds of poverty programs the USCCB should be supporting are those that cleave to the Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature. (See, for example, Acton’s partner PovertyCure.)