Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
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Over at Mere Comments I note the recent invective against gambling leveled by Al Mohler and Russell Moore. I contend that as opposed to casinos, lotteries are in fact the most troubling example of state-sponsored gambling. And I also worry a bit about the use of legal means to prohibit gambling, as it isn’t so clear to me that gambling is always and in every case a moral evil.

Thus, I write, that cultural rather than primarily political attempts to curb gambling are superior for a number of reasons, including “that if you are actually wrong about the moral status of the thing in question, you haven’t improperly used the coercive force of government to turn something that is, at least in some cases, morally permissible into something that is illegal.”

When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives* is how we view neutrality and bias. Because the differences are uncharted, I have no way of describing the variance without resorting to a grossly simplistic caricature—so with a grossly simplistic caricature we shall proceed:

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On Valentine’s Day, just one day before having to tender its application to the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, Italy’s pragmatic Prime Minister Mario Monti showed no romantic spirit by canceling his nation’s dream to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

In a last-minute decision made Feb. 14, Prime Minister Monti explained at a press conference that the already overburdened Italian taxpayers simply cannot afford to finance the estimated $12.5 billion to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Rome.  “I do not think it would be responsible, considering Italy’s current financial condition.”  (See video below.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTiq0oBT2cI]

The news sent shock waves through the national media and angered Rome’s Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who had aggressively put together the logistical plan and budget.

Yet Monti is no dupe and was honest enough not to hoodwink his nation into taking on financial responsibilities it is in absolutely no position to accept.  Finally, we are seeing an Italian politician demonstrating some degree of practical realism and sense of sacrifice. The Italian Premier, while spearheading historic fiscal reforms, wants the country to wake up and smell its caffe by finally shedding the need to fund unwarranted public expenditures.

While time will tell whether Monti and his government are making wise decisions, the heart-wrenching financial assessment was based on few simple black and white economic facts. Italy has an unbridled a national debt to GDP ratio, which has swelled from 115 percent  in 2010 to 120 percent in 2011 while experiencing stagnant growth and uncontrolled inflation over the last 10-15 years. Next you have the nation’s toxic dependency on massive public welfare programs, despite Monti’s drastic attempts to change Italy’s entrenched entitlement culture.  Then you add in widespread tax evasion, very little new entrepreneurship among young business persons, the Italian bond and spread crises, Standard and Poor’s further stripping of Italy’s credit rating (from A to BBB+) and downgrading 34 of the country’s top credit institutions at the start of 2012 and you got a country that is on the verge of insolvency.

It couldn’t get worse, but a day after Monti renounced any Olympics bid ANSA news service announced Italy had officially entered a recession with negative growth recorded for the last two quarters.

No Olympics, no gold. But whatever wealth seemed guaranteed at the end rainbow, it would be foolish to think the 2020 Games would bolster an entire national economy for more than a very limited period (and quite realistically, only the benefactors of Italy’s crony capitalism and the mafia-infested public works sectors). 

It is high time that Italians themselves start permanently growing their economy through new forms of entrepreneurship — just like it did in its economic boom era when Italy last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1960 –  and not count on riding on the tails of the government’s large-scale, short-lived public projects.

The HHS Mandate is troubling to so many simply because it’s a clear Constitutional violation. Any basic understanding of Constitutional rights and our religious freedom sees that this is primarily about religious liberty, and not solely an issue concerning contraceptives or Roman Catholics.

Last week we heard from James Madison on religious liberty in my post “Religious Liberty or Government Tolerance?”

In 1792, Madison wrote an essay titled “Property” in the National Gazette. This is a brilliant piece by Madison where he declares that government is instituted to protect the property of the person. “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights,” says Madison. There is all sorts of property according to Madison. As Madison understands, property is not just material property, but also a property of conscience or religious opinions. Madison notes that man “has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Furthermore, Madison declares this kind of property is “the most sacred.”

Madison said that those in government who violate that charge of protecting property “would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most complete despotism.”

Below is an excerpt from Madison’s essay:

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property, other property depending in part on positive law [but] the exercise of that being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience, which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection for which the public faith is pledged by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

The full essay is here.

[Note: This is the first in an occasional series on gleaner technology.]

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Blog author: jcarter
Monday, February 20, 2012
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Gleaning is the traditional Biblical practice of gathering crops that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot, or be plowed under after harvest. The biblical mandate  for the practice comes from Deuteronomy 24:19,

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Gleaning provided the poor with a way to use their own labor to provide for their needs. For us today, the practice provides a useful Biblical model for how we can help others to help themselves. “Those with wealth are to provide opportunities for the poor to rise out of poverty,” writes Marvin Olasky, in Renewing American Compassion, “the typical starting point in the Old Testament was gleaning.”

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In this week’s Acton Commentary I conclude, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued.”

I admit that I didn’t have this quote in mind (or I would have used it!), but Art Carden (follow him here and read him here) notes the following from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

And following up on the folly of political-driven homeownership for all, Reuters (HT: Drudge) reports that the “New American Dream is renting to get rich.”

The payoff? “So while home ownership may sound glamorous, you need a lot of money to make it work, without much guarantee of positive returns in a post-bubble era.”

I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, February 16, 2012
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At Public Discourse, Ryan T. Anderson reviews Lawrence Mead’s From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor:

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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.

Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.

In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,

The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.

The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,

I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.

The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.

As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).