Last Saturday’s New York Times contains an entertaining, edifying but ultimately sad tale on what ails the Italian economy.

Entitled “Is Italy Too Italian?“, the Global Business article seeks to explain why Italy often tops “the informal list of Nations That Worry Europe” economically. Part of the problem may be the reluctance to use modern industrial techniques that can reduce costs of production – can you afford to pay $4,000 for a suit??? – or the large public debt run up by its profligate government, but the more important issue is the utter lack of growth and hence opportunity in the Italian economy.

Our friends at Istituto Bruno Leoni have documented the excruciating details of the situation. I’ll save you the trouble and let you know that both the New York Times and IBL make it clear that the Italians are being done in by the impediments to the free-market economy, deriving in many cases from a fear of open, honest competition in the marketplace.

Nowhere is this fear more evident than in the system of guilds that still dominates many sectors of the Italian economy. Guilds, in effect, are associations meant protect certain industries from competition in the name of cooperation/collusion among the suppliers of a good or service. And the recovery of guilds is often at the heart of a school of thought known as distributism that seeks a “third way” between capitalism and socialism.

(Thomas Woods explained the problem in his Acton monograph Beyond Distributism and I summarized the case in my recent Acton University lecture on the same subject.)

It is most unfortunate that some conservative religious-minded people have fallen for the “charms” of distributism, many of which are romantic longings for a more self-sufficient, localized economy made up of many (“well-distributed”) small-property owners, as opposed to large monopolistic, corporate holders of property.

Of course no one with any religious sensibilities really wants to (or can for that matter) defend capitalism, let alone the status quo, unconditionally. At its best, distributism can remind us that we are not economic automatons, that we shouldn’t become “wage-slaves”, and that as free, morally-responsible persons, we can and must choose how we ought to live. But it should also be obvious that a return to the guilds, with its limitations on free competition, is no way to correct the excesses of 21st-century capitalism. Just ask the Italians….

Here is the new trailer for the 7-part Birth of Freedom DVD Curriculum, created by Acton Media and released next month by Zondervan.

You can pre-order the curriculum at the Acton Book Shoppe.

Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is the host of the radio program Speaking of Faith, broadcast weekly on NPR since 2003. In her conversations with people of all faiths and occupations, Christian and Hindu, novelist and physicist, Tippett aims to better understand the way that belief and spirituality affect our society, worldview, and personal well-being.

In the two books she has published in the last few years, certain themes stand out that define her own view of religion and its place in human life. In particular, Tippett understands that the positive impact that spiritual traditions have on the world rests on their ability to transform the heart and the way we live in relation to one another:

The context of most religious virtue is relationship–practical love in families and communities… These qualities of religion should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation about all of the important issues before us. They should reframe it. (Speaking of Faith, 3)

Throughout her two books, Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God, Tippett discusses faith from a perspective shared by the Acton Institute: Human suffering cannot be eliminated through government programs or by reforming political or economic structure. But our spiritual traditions can address complex problems on their deepest level. The religious sensibility inspires virtue, and, even in the midst of great suffering, it can instill hope through an insistence on human dignity and potential. (more…)

I mentioned Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in the context of the Lutheran World Federation’s General Assembly and the theme, “Give us today our daily bread.”

In this book, DeKoster makes a pointed connection between work and food:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”

The Lord is saying that where humans are hungry, there he too chooses to hunger. He waits in the hungry man or woman or child, longing to be served. Served how? By the work of those who knit the garment of civilization through the production and distribution of food!

God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …

  • agriculture,
  • wholesale or retail foods,
  • kitchens or restaurants,
  • food transportation or the mass production of food items,
  • manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
  • innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.

God transforms plantings into harvests. Then he waits to be fed by those whose work turns harvests into one of the basic elements of civilization. The gift of ourselves to others through work is the gift of ourselves to God—and this is why work gives both temporal and eternal meaning to life!

WorkMany commentators on this passage in Matthew focus on the “giving” literally as the charitable act of giving, and this is as appropriate. But some others go on to identify the “giver” with the government, rather than charities, individual Christians, or the church itself.

But as DeKoster challenges us, we ought also to think of the “giver” as the person who works in the fields to harvest the food, who gives the sweat of their brow to bring food to the table of those of us who hunger, each and every day.

This shift in perspective, that sees our work as a form of service to others, a way of giving of ourselves to others, changes things completely. And I think it more accurately reflects the nature of market interactions and the value of human work.

Compared to the Republican Party, the Democrats’ embrace of politicized religion came late. And because Democrats have only in the last 5-6 years learned how to do the God talk (thanks in large part to the efforts of Jim “The Prophet” Wallis) they can be excused as greenhorns when they whine about not getting the Church folk more mobilized for blatantly partisan efforts.

But it is really annoying when those in the pews don’t go the extra mile, isn’t it?

In a media gabfest with religion reporters this week on Capitol Hill, Democratic senators “acknowledged the involvement of faith communities in debating moral and social issues such as health care reform and economic recovery,” according to a report by PBS.org. But the senators also questioned “whether there are limits to the role religious groups can play when it comes to what Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar called ‘dealing with the nitty gritty’ of partisan politics.” She’s frustrated.

Klobuchar said in conference calls with Minnesota faith leaders about Senate slowness on immigration issues she has been told that when it comes to pure political strategy, religious groups are “not involved” and “don’t deal with that stuff.” How, then, can faith communities “play a larger and louder role” and “push back,” she asked, at a time when the politics of immigration reform are most at issue? Can they serve as a force and a voice for getting past political differences to common ground?

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein fleshed out the complaint in “How Influential is the Progressive Left?”:

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar addressed, perhaps unintentionally, a question many Democrats ask privately: How influential, really, are faith groups on the left? How vast are their e-mail networks? How organized are their members? How deep are their pockets? How aggressive are they willing to get?

Klobuchar was relaying conversations she had with some faith activists pushing her on immigration reform, and how she explained to them the challenges posed by a lack of GOP support. The activists, she said, didn’t seem especially interested in the politics, being primarily focused on what they saw as the moral imperative of reform. “The question for me is, where does the faith community’s role begin and end?” she said.

But Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow was there to reassure Klobuchar that “some religious groups do, in fact, have ‘comfort in the partisan arena’ and are willing to ‘get into strategy and partisan differences.’”

Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, and a person who feels the effects of global warming on bumpy plane rides, observed that a government budget is “a moral document.” Where have we heard that before? Oh yes, the Prophet.

In the last election cycle, when Jim Wallis was panting after Democrat candidates with his talking points, he was fond of referring to government budgets as moral documents. Yes, and by that debased yardstick, what government action doesn’t have a moral dimension? Zoning appeals? Water bills? Parking tickets?

In 2005, Newsweek wrote about Jim Wallis schooling Howard Dean on the God talk:

Politics is about connecting. It’s no accident that the two Democrats elected president in recent years have been Southern Baptists. Jimmy Carter is a born-again evangelical, and Bill Clinton has a deep appreciation and knowledge of religion. Voters want to know about the moral compass of their leaders, and religious expression is one of the guideposts. Dean understands the challenge, and it doesn’t mean that he has to take a press pool with him to church on Sundays. But he has to begin to define Democratic ideas and policies in moral terms. For starters, Wallis says budgets are moral documents. They reflect the values of a family, city or nation. Democrats should do a “values audit” of President Bush’s budget—who wins, who loses, who suffers, who benefits.

The problem with this of course is that when you offer up religious faith to partisan political ends — to either the left or the right — you offer up a counterfeit, a faith that is oriented toward toadying favor with too-often-corrupt power structures, not toward the glory of God. “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1-10). This counterfeit faith, so cheaply offered, lacks the Truth that is in real faith and because the counterfeit so disappoints those for whom it promised political ends, there is no gratitude but plenty of scorn. Like the sentiments you get from the likes of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

And what of the “faith friendly” GOP, where the altar fires are tended by the Religious Right? Recall the New York Daily News story that described how the Republican National Committee “spent almost $2,000 [in February] at an erotic, bondage-themed West Hollywood club, where nearly naked women – and men – simulate sex in nets hung from above.” Now there’s some family values for you!

Asked at the Capitol Hill media event about a reported decline in Democratic Party outreach to faith communities, PBS said that Stabenow characterized Senate Democratic outreach as “aggressive” and “not diminishing.” And, she added, “Every issue is about values.”

Yes, Senator, indeed it is.

This week I’m attending Mises University, one of the largest and most rigorous summer courses in the Austrian School of economics (or “reality economics,” as my friend Michael McKay likes to call it).

Among the various lectures, there was one in particular that struck me as particularly relevant to the work of the Acton Institute. Peter Klein, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, delivered a presentation on entrepreneurship, a large part of the focus of his academic work.

Dr. Klein approaches the subject of entrepreneurship from the more realistic Austrian perspective. Rather than viewing people as examples of the homo economicus, as almost robotic, quantitatively-driven machines, Dr. Klein views human beings as unique and free actors. When we act, we do so under conditions of time and uncertainty. Though every human action presupposes cause and effect, there is no guarantee that our instincts are correct or that our efforts will pay off. In this way, every one of us, whenever we choose some action, is a kind of entrepreneur. In the face of uncertainty, we have an intended – but not guaranteed – result of action.

Combine that with the Austrians’ very realist take on production: production is not some kind of abstract graphical function, but the concrete act of taking a natural resource (e.g. some wood, a stone,  some metal ore), and using one’s labor – almost investing a part of oneself – to physically transform it.

In a very broad sense, we all participate in this two-sided entrepreneurial action: actively and consciously transforming the world around us, and doing so in the face of uncertainty and imperfect knowledge.

In a much more specific sense, this activity applies to the people we would usually call entrepreneurs (Ludwig von Mises called them, “entrepreneur-promoters”). These are the businessmen we all know: the small-business owner, the investment banker, the risk-taker. These are individuals whose entrepreneurial spirit in a special way exceeds those of everyone around them. They are the ones willing to take on greater risk, confront greater uncertainty, and make more difficult decisions.

In any case, I find that this realistic description of the role of entrepreneurship fits extremely well with the theology in The Call of the Entrepreneur. In the film, we learn that the entrepreneur is a “co-creator”: He  participates in the act of transforming raw materials and natural resources into products for consumers; but the entrepreneur does so by investing time and energy into the production process. And creativity and imagination play an indispensable role in this process of co-creation.

I remember a kind of feeling of awe when this thought dawned on me during Dr. Klein’s lecture. Here we find yet another example of how the market process, when understood and employed correctly, is not simply a morally indifferent result of choice, but a morally positive thing. Society and its consumers are made better off, and both the laborer and the entrepreneur are reminded of their human dignity as they participate in God’s work of fashioning the world.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth,” I reflect on the recently concluded general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Stuttgart. The theme of the meeting was “Give us today our daily bread,” but as I note, the assembly’s discussion of hunger, poverty, and economics lacked the proper integration of the value, dignity, and importance of work.

As I contend, work is the regular means God has provided for the maintenance of our physical needs. And work that is connected to the larger human community becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of others and productive of civilization. Lester DeKoster defines civilization in just this way, as

goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves—including ourselves—whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

These words come from DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly available in an updated second edition.

The omission of considering work in relationship to the development of wealth, globalization, and civilization is endemic to the larger mainline ecumenical movement, which I examine in greater length in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In that book I look especially at the outcome of the previous LWF gathering in 2004.

The trend observable in LWF recent history looks to continue unabated. The newly appointed LWF general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge of Chile, has the pursuit of “economic justice,” conceived largely of opposition to globalization, as a high priority. (Full story after the break).
(more…)

Mark Tooley follows the Prophet Wallis as he descends from the heavens in a fiery chariot, with trumpets and shouts, and goes among our youth at Wisconsin’s Lifest in The Pearly Gatecrasher.

Physicists close in on the “God particle” (how small they make Him) but worry about sensitivities surrounding the name. Says one of the particle chasers: “It embarrasses me. Although I am not a believer myself, it’s a misuse of terminology that might offend some people.”

Reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie interviews Arthur C. Brooks of AEI about his new book, The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future. Free enterprise is “bedrock” American culture, Brooks argues.

In Ukraine to bridge a rift in the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill is insulted with epithets such as “the Moscow pope.” But the country, which is 80 percent Orthodox Christian, needs to avoid nationalism while building a Christian culture, he says. All must build a society whose members live according to the “divine law of love,” preaches Kirill. Metropolitan Hilarion discusses the Russian-Ukrainian schism in greater depth.

Back home, there’s a bull market for “USSR-style cafes, patriotic songs, and even a themed TV channel for those missing the good old times.” Soviet symbols have become a goldmine for many Russian moneymakers, says Russia Today.

The World Court ruled that Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia was not illegal. OK, so why are Spain, Cyprus, Russia, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola and even Tanzania not so overjoyed? Unintended consequences anyone?

Dennis Prager explains on NRO why “The Left Hates Conservatives.” And it’s personal.

In “The Conservative Ascent” on The Daily Caller, the Liberty Fund’s Richard M. Reinsch II argues that we should all be reading more of Whittaker Chambers. Agreed. Reinsch recalls Chamber’s words in the “epic memoir” Witness: “ … political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.”

Tax increases have the effect of “highly” contracting economic ouput, says Christina and David Romer in a new research paper. She is, by the by, the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Wait till they hear about this back at the White House.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
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Acton Institute has an eBook initiative underway and today we launch the first title on Amazon Kindle: Lester DeKoster’s “Work: The Meaning of Your Life.” Get yourself to the Kindle store to purchase this Christian’s Library Press work for $3.99 or to download a free sample.

Soon to be added to the Kindle store is Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel, now available in hardcover from the Acton Book Shoppe and Amazon.

Excerpt from “Work: The Meaning of Your Life” by Lester DeKoster (read his new Religion & Liberty profile here):

THE POWER

We know, as soon as reminded, that work spins the wheels of the world.

No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen, and to keep happening — by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the stores’ shelves, gas dries up at the pumps, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end, utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in caves, clothed in raw animal hides.

The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain peoples do create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever that explanation, the power lies in work.

An interesting thing, too: if all workers did quit, it would not make too much difference which quit first — front office, board room, assembly line, custodial staff…. Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give home-making mothers leave, and a lot of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, we all swing separately.

Incidentally, let’s not make the mistake, if ever we are tempted, of estimating the importance of our work, or of any kind of work, by the public esteem it enjoys. Up front types make news, but only workers create civilized life. The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 26, 2010
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Bill Easterly has a brief reflection on the role of religion in global societies, a role that must be taken into account by development ‘experts.’ Speaking of his experience at an Anglican worship service in Ghana:

I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.)

Development efforts must take into account broader cultural, non-material concerns, and religion plays an enormous constitutive role in the formation of cultural worldviews. More important than how those in developed nations see those in the developing world is how those in the developing world see themselves. And as Easterly notes, most often they see themselves primarily as “Christian” or “Muslim” rather than “rich” or “poor.”