Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Among the warnings sounded as the Democratic health care reform bill was being debated was that the federal insurance mandate included in the bill—even though not national health care per se—would essentially give the federal government control of the insurance industry. The reason: If everyone is forced to buy insurance, then the government must deem what sort of insurance qualifies as adequate to meet the mandate. This piece of Obamacare promises to turn every medical procedure into a major political fight, with special interest lobbying rather than objective medical expertise being more likely to determine what kind of health care gets covered and what kind doesn’t.

The problem goes beyond ugly politics, however, and into the realm of moral repugnance. The contention has already started, as the Catholic bishops have formally protested the pending inclusion of contraception and sterilization among items that must be covered in every American insurance plan.

Whether one agrees with Catholic morality is beside the point. The point is that this is no way to deal with a major economic sector in a free, pluralist society. Some medical doctors think chiropractors are quacks; some chiropractors think medical doctors are quacks. Some people think marijuana is an excellent pain killer; others think it is an immoral drug. The goods and services that the 300 million people in this country consider to be effective—or objectionable—instances of health care vary, sometimes dramatically, according to geography, culture, religion, and ethnicity. Now a single institution, the national government in the form of the Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with arbitrating which goods and services make the cut and which don’t. Those who lack the political clout to get their preferences included will pay coming and going: their insurance premiums will cover things that they don’t want and they’ll have to pay out of pocket for things that they do.

The variety offered by a medical market is a beautiful thing. Monolithic medicine mandated by a law that most Americans opposed is not.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Daily Show exposes some union hypocrisy (HT). In the words of the union local head, “It comes down to greed”:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Working Stiffed
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party


For more, check out last week’s commentary, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”

A new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, was published today in the Detroit News. This column will also be linked in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton newsletter here.

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Faith and policy: Respect others’ rights, but also their values

FATHER ROBERT SIRICO

If such an award were to be given for the Most Contentious Religious Story of 2010, the two main contenders would undoubtedly be two Islam-related stories: the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida and the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York.

These stories remind us of a valuable lesson at the core of America’s founding. I am not speaking here of tolerance, but of what makes tolerance possible: the right to private property, and of something even deeper — the freedom such property allows.

The pastor in Florida is by all accounts a marginal figure whose fame has been aided by the media, fueled by the technologies that amplify any opinion or action. Soon, the pastor will recede from the spotlight.

The plan to construct the Islamic center is supported by numerous personalities, costs a great deal of money and will be a rather permanent fixture once erected.

At the legal and political heart of each of these occurrences is a bedrock principle: the right to private property, which is to say: the right of a pastor to destroy a book he owns and the right of a group of Muslims to build in lower Manhattan on property they own.

We do well to remember that the right to property is never merely the right to the possession of some material object in itself. Beyond possession, it involves its production, creation and disposition as well. And while the right to private property is not absolute, it is nonetheless sacred and to be respected both in culture and in law for reasons relating to the very nature of human beings. The right to property is just a smart idea because it ensures numerous other liberties that make for a free society.

I find the idea of burning a text considered sacred by others to be both stupid and odious. Other than offending people, I am not sure what the purpose would be.

I can better understand the purpose of building an Islamic center, though I think it is a very bad idea and one that is generating as much consternation in its own context as had even the threat of burning Qurans has in another.

Do these people have the right to do these things, all things being even?

Yes.

Ought they to be doing this?

I’m afraid not.

And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensable and necessary if we are to have a free society.

Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than “just” but is also good.

That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how “society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The conversations over the last few weeks here on work have raised a couple of questions.

In the context of criticisms on the perspectives on work articulated by Lester DeKoster and defended by me, commenter John E. asks, “…what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?”

I want to change people’s view of their work. I want them to see how it has value not simply as a means to some other end, but in itself. I want to change how they view their relationship to their work.

To echo DeKoster and Berghoef again, many of us simply view work as “a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial.” It may well be that. There is work that is better and work that is worse (to anticipate one of Schumacher’s points below). But we should also know that “the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more your will to persevere schools the soul.”

I want to add a bit of mystery back to the concept of work as well as a bit of spirituality. Again, DeKoster and Berghoef:

The results of one’s work can never be fully known. What will become of the produce raised, of the machine built, of the person fed? No one can foretell what will be the final consequence of today’s effort. Nor does the pay check really measure the value, nor the effort, of the work for which it is given. Wages are set by the market, and the results of work are hidden in the mists of tomorrow. What endures is what happens to the worker who bravely makes it through the day.

An aspect of this perspective, I think, is similar to that articulated by E.F. Schumacher in the essay, “Buddhist Economics” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Grace Marie Boggs notes the importance of the essay, in which Schumacher writes,

The modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

By contrast, the view of work in Buddhist economics is that it gives man “a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

On this point, at least, there is some correspondence between the Christian and the Buddhist view of work as school for the soul. Joshua Snyder relates how Schumacher said of the essay, “I might have called it ‘Christian Economics’ but then no one would have read it.” The views of DeKoster and Berghoef on the one hand and Schumacher on the other are not identical. But what they share is, in Schumacher’s language, a criticism of “a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

In a related vein, David Michael Phelps wonders whether the perspective he articulates between work and art “is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support).”

The answers are affirmative, I believe: Yes, yes, and yes. Beyond the perspective on the schooling of the soul as written by DeKoster and Berghoef, the seventeenth-century theologian and pastor Richard Baxter has valuable things to say about the relationship between work and temporal goods and spiritual and eternal goods. But these are just a small sampling of the rich Reformed resources that can and ought to be brought to bear on these topics.

Phelps will be discussing “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment,” at tonight’s Acton on Tap, and he moderated our RFA podcasts on “The Stewardship of Art” (you can listen to part 1 and part 2 respectively).

You can also preorder Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective today at the Acton BookShoppe.

Last week, we posted part 1 of our podcast on the proper Christian stewardship of art; for those who have been waiting for the conclusion, we’re happy to present part 2.

David Michael Phelps continues to lead the discussion between Professors Nathan Jacobs and Calvin Seerveld, who previously debated this topic in the Controversy section of our Journal of Markets & Morality. The first portion of that exchange is available at the link for part 1; the remainder of the Controversy can be read by clicking here.

If you’re interested in some additional reading on this topic, Jordan Ballor was kind enough to pass along an article from Mere Orthodoxy that asks a provocative question:

…do enough theologians produce material that artists would find helpful? Do enough artists consider theologians indispensible sleuths for finding hidden metaphors?

(more…)

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Tuesday, September 21, 2010

“The new Democratic logo is so bad that the intellectual rot in the official announcement went largely unnoticed.”

The rest of my piece is here at The American Spectator.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 20, 2010

Last week’s Acton Commentary and blog post focused on my claims about “crony unionism” and how the intimate relationship between Big Labor and Big Government corrupt both.

Here’s another instance of the kinds of gross conflicts of interest produced by this relationship:


It’s hard to see this as anything but partisan pandering on the part of the largest public sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post asks, “Was politics behind the government’s decision to preserve the UAW’s pensions?” (HT: Instapundit).

Despite rumors to the contrary, the demise of the influence and legacy of Big Labor have been greatly exaggerated.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 20, 2010

Victor Claar, Acton University lecturer and professor of economics at Henderson State University, will give a talk tonight in Washington, D.C., hosted by AEI, “Grieving the Good of Others: Envy and Economics.”

If you are in the area, you are encouraged to attend and hear Dr. Claar as well as two respondents discuss the topic of envy and its moral and economic consequences.

Here’s a description of the event:

Critics of capitalism often argue that this economic system is irretrievably tainted by the sin of greed. They claim that by empowering government to “spread the wealth around” we can free ourselves from the tyranny of greed, purging the influence of sin. But are they right? At this event, Victor Claar, associate professor of economics at Henderson State University, will discuss the role of envy in collectivist and redistributive economic systems. Beginning with an explanation of the classic theological understanding of envy, Claar will argue that “grieving the good of others” is an unavoidable aspect of social democracy.

Update: The audio and video of the AEI event is now available. (There’s a nice plug for Acton University at the beginning.)

Tomorrow Dr. Claar will also be appearing as part of The King’s College Distinguished Visitor Series in NYC.

Dr. Claar is co-author of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices as well as author of the Acton Institute monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

As Dr. Claar will elaborate, the question that epitomizes envy, which is defined as “sorrow at another’s good,” is the self-centered concern, “What about me?” For fans of the hit TV series Lost, I can think of no better illustration of this than the turn from envy to malevolence in this climactic confrontation between Ben Linus and Jacob from the conclusion of season 5:

The latest issue of the newly launched Journal of Religion and Business Ethics is now available (vol. 1, no. 2).

Check out the contents at their website.

From the journal’s about page: “The Journal of Religion and Business Ethics is a peer-reviewed journal that examines the ethical and religious issues that arise in the modern business setting. While much attention has been given to the philosophical treatment of business ethics, this is the first journal to address the more inclusive scope of religious ethics and their understanding of right and just economic relationships.”

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the prospects of “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most about what I call “crony unionism” is the hand-in-glove relationship between the labor unions and big government. We have the same kind of special pleading and rent seeking in this system as we do in crony capitalism, but the labor unions enjoy such special protection that there isn’t even a hint of democratic competition.

The unions get windfalls from government subsidy and turn around and actively campaign for the expansion of government. The partisan character of some of the ad campaigns funded by labor unions are particularly egregious. I’ve recently seen a labor-funded ad running in Michigan that demonizes Republicans and lauds Democrats, and FactCheck.org ran a report earlier this month about attack ads from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

One of the noteworthy thing about unions in America is that the share of union members are increasingly coming from the public sector rather than the private sector. This adds an additional layer of concern to the larger problem of crony unionism. We in effect get government employees using government funds to campaign for the expansion of government.

Labor unions form a vital part of civil society, but when they are turned into arms of the government, their purpose is perverted and corrupted. Professor Charles W. Baird examines the merits of free labor in his Acton monograph, Liberating Labor: Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism.

Even the idea of debating whether unions should enjoy monopolistic privileges in a state like Michigan, dominated by organized labor interests for so long, is refreshing. And I think it might just be instructive about the kinds of alternative and innovative proposals that will have traction at the polls this November.