Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Monday, December 7, 2009

I think the country IS discovering its inner Dave Ramsey. The savings rate keeps going up.

People are self-consciously trying to protect themselves from uncertainty. At first, it was to protect against a private sector meltdown. Now, it is an attempt to protect against public sector profligacy.

In both cases, this new found habit of saving keeps the economic motor running slow and low. Government attempts to overcome that instinct are bound to fail. The only thing that will loosen up wallets will be if citizens sense that economic growth has a real basis rather than a “the government commands it so” one.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Monday, December 7, 2009

My essay in today’s American Spectator Online looks at why Ben Bernanke should not be confirmed to a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve:

Two planks in Bernanke’s recovery strategy: Expand the money supply like a banana republic dictator and throw sackfuls of cash at failed companies with a proven track record of mismanaging their assets. The justification? According to the late John Maynard Keynes, this is supposed to restore the “animal spirits” of the cowed consumer, the benighted creature who foolishly imagines that after a period of prodigality and mismanagement, maybe a country should rediscover its inner Dave Ramsey.

The full essay is here.

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, December 4, 2009

I recently gave an interview to the Georgia Family Council (where I worked as a younger fellow) about my book for their website. Here is an excerpt I think might interest readers:

What made you decide to write your book The End of Secularism?

I wrote this book for a few reasons. I detected that the moment might be right for someone to lay out a very rigorous critique of secularism. While it was once plausible to people that secularism might be a good, neutral solution to the “problem” of religious difference, it is more difficult to believe the same today. Secularists embrace a competing orthodoxy and they pursue the fulfillment of it. They like to think of themselves as referees, but they are actually just another team on the field.

In addition, I felt the need to help secularists and Christians to get a better handle on what secularism is and why it is an inferior solution to the separation of church and state rightly understood. We don’t need to evict religion from the public square. We do need to keep the church financially independent of the state — primarily for the good of the church, which I demonstrate through the example of Sweden — but we don’t need to politely excuse our religious beliefs and thoughts when it comes to public debate over values. Religion matters in politics. You can’t get away from it and bad things happen when you try. The Christian faith has been and continues to be hugely influential in encouraging many of the best things about our culture. Christianity is part of why we care about things like liberty, equality, mercy, and the sanctity of life.

Explain what you mean by “secularism” and how has it affected our culture?

The word secular once had a perfectly good meaning. It meant “in the world.” So, by that understanding, the Catholic Church even had secular clergy. But we have transformed the old meaning of “secular” to a new conception which requires that religion retire from the public square. In essence, the idea is that we will all be better off if religion is private, like a hobby. The problem, especially for Christians, is that we believe the resurrection of Christ is a real event in time and space and that if that is true, then it has the potential to affect the way we look at almost everything. And I would argue that influence has been dramatically for the good.

To the extent we embrace secularism, and almost all of us do to some degree, we focus more on material things because that represents reality to us. In America, our materialism mostly manifests as consumeristic and hedonistic pursuits.

Does secularism have an effect on how society views marriage and family?

Unquestionably. If you buy into a purely secular view, marriage is nothing special. It is merely a contract (and not a particularly strong one) that people undergo when they decide to pursue life together for a while. While it can be inconvenient and messy to dissolve that contract, nothing tragic has happened. There has been no violation of any larger law. God’s conception of marriage doesn’t enter in. In fact, maybe marriage is just a cultural artifact that an enlightened, secular government merely needs to tolerate until it can be transitioned away.

Of course, we have seen this kind of change in the way we view marriage. It’s not just the effort to expand the meaning of marriage. The larger problem is that the state no longer values marriage as it once did. There is no bias toward keeping the family together. We no longer have the same concern for how divorce will affect the well-being of children, this despite the wealth of social science evidence chronicling the negative impact.

On the other hand, if you believe marriage represents a special relationship, one ordained by God, then you have a real reason, both as an individual and as a citizen in a political community, to seek to preserve it. This view, long the dominant one in western civilization, reinforces our best instincts about the family. It also happens to be much more humane to children and promotes human flourishing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 4, 2009

Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Policy Institute examines the usefulness of Ayn Rand for political engagement by friends of the market economy in a WSJ op-ed, “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?” She concludes,

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

Wilhelm’s picture of Rand underscores the distinction I’ve made between libertarianism as a world-and-life view and as a political philosophy. Rand is clearly of the former type: a Weltanschauunglich libertarian par excellence.

As Wilhelm writes, “For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life.” But this is also her greatest weakness, in that it opposes her to collaboration with those who might share inclinations toward limited government, but do not buy into the comprehensive “blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism.”

This is a more thorough-going critique of Rand’s viability as a model than simply noting the vigor of her polemic. As Acton Institute president Rev. Robert A. Sirico says, “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”

Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter juxtaposes Frank Capra’s George Bailey (of It’s a Wonderful Life) with Rand’s Harold Roark (of Fountainhead). Carter concludes that the two figures represent sharply different visions. Indeed, “Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.”

This is something that Rand and her disciples would find odious. Thus “those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark.”

Update: Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward passes along the words of Rand’s “one-time intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, as a kind of addendum to Rev. Sirico’s comment:

The luckiest beneficiaries of [Ayn Rand’s] work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal with her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With Afghanistan, health care, and economic distress devouring the attention of media, politicians, and the electorate, school choice may seem like yesterday’s public policy headline. Yet the problems in America’s education system remain. In fact, plummeting tax revenue highlights the necessity of increasing public school efficiency, while unemployment and falling household incomes heighten the recruitment challenges facing tuition-funded private schools.

And quietly, the movement for school choice—improving education by returning power to parents—continues to make progress. This week, news from Los Angeles, demonstrating the bipartisan, non-sectarian potential of competition in education: More schools will be handed over to Green Dot, a charter school operator with documented success in improving outcomes for the district’s struggling students.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I offer a peek at my forthcoming monograph, Catholic Education and the Promise of School Choice, number 15 in the Christian Social Thought Series:

The United States justifiably celebrates its pluralism. The mandate to find unity in diversity—e pluribus unum—is predicated not on the premise that all peculiarities of creed or color must be washed away; instead, it insists that all such cultural and social differences must be respected. Part and parcel of this freedom is the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Like all rights, this one carries with it a duty: to prepare the child adequately for participation in society by being attentive to technical and life skills as well as moral formation.

Yet, this right has been imperfectly recognized for some time. Pursuing the goal of universal education, a worthy end in itself, nineteenth-century reformers gradually concentrated in city, state, and national governments the funding and control of what had been a predominantly non-governmental, disparate, and radically local regime of education. Immediately, the move toward unitary systems fueled conflict over a neuralgic point of America’s pluralist experiment: Protestant-Catholic relations. Controversy over schooling was one of the combustible ingredients leading to explosions of violence in cities such as Philadelphia and New York during the 1830s and 1840s.

A modus vivendi was reached when Catholics determined to build their own parochial system. The Supreme Court guaranteed the legality of the Catholic parochial system in its 1925 Pierce decision, and soon Catholics in the United States would build the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels.

Meanwhile, battles over public school curricula continued, as constituencies of many varieties perceived that what they viewed as an appropriate education for their children was not served by a public system that inexorably drifted toward a lowest-common-denominator form of education. Some religious groups such as Lutherans and Dutch Reformed began or maintained their own schools, and parents seeking social status or demanding rigorous standards enrolled their children in private academies.

A Hybrid System

Thus, the pluralist ideal survived but in a deformed shape. The right of parents to direct their children’s education was recognized in theory, but in practice every citizen was compelled to pay for the government school system. The result was an arrangement unjust at its core. Parents devoted to a particular form of education for religious or other reasons might choose to sacrifice other goods to fund their children’s education outside of the government system. For wealthy families, the choice might come easily; for most, the decision was difficult. The incentive to participate in the government system was strong, and genuine freedom in education remained an elusive ideal.

We have thus come to the present, a hybrid system of private schools increasingly off-limits to the working and even middle classes and state schools plagued by inefficiencies, inequities, and in some cases, abject failure. By no means does this generalization denigrate the good work that thousands of educators in both private and public systems do every day. Some religious schools strive ardently to keep open the prospect of a first-rate education for students of poor parents and challenging backgrounds. Some public schools provide outstanding academic and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Yet, too many students are, despite political rhetoric and flawed legislation, “left behind.”

Conscientious parents naturally assert their freedom whenever given the opportunity. School district choice among public systems is extremely popular. Private school spots available through vouchers in locales such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have been grasped as quickly as they appear. Charter schools have exhibited some widely publicized hazards, but on the whole they have been successful, an affordable alternative to traditional public schools. Finally, an increasing number of parents have opted out of conventional educational models altogether: Some two million students were homeschooled in 2008.

Positive developments in the political and legal culture of education have permitted these exercises of liberty, resulting in tremendous gains in parent satisfaction, cost efficiency, and most importantly, student achievement. Still, old ways of thinking, archaic prejudices, and special interests remain formidable obstacles on the path to further progress. To encourage continued improvements in education—in whichever setting that may occur—parents must be granted greater control over and responsibility for their schooling choices. At its root, this means breaking the stranglehold on education dollars that government systems currently enjoy. It means returning control of that money to parents.

Parents In Control

Obviously Catholic and other private schools stand to gain from such reform, but proposing it is far from special pleading. The appeal and urgency of school choice lies precisely in its implications for the common good of all children—regardless of religious persuasion or socio-economic status. Indeed, the exact outcome of extending educational freedom is hard to predict: that is the nature of freedom. What is certain is that the worst elements of the current state-run systems would not be tolerated, for no parent wants her child to fail.

Returning financial control to parents sets in motion a series of favorable developments: Parents demand excellence of the schools; administrators demand excellence of the teachers; students and teachers alike thrive on the fertilizer of high expectations. The potential of parental responsibility and educational choice has already been demonstrated; it remains to enshrine these concepts in the nation’s culture and law.

Some skeptical observers may suspect that school choice is but a stalking horse for public funding of religious institutions. They may guess that tax breaks for tuition, for example, are intended primarily or even exclusively to enhance the bottom line of private schools. In a climate of public schooling challenges, when large numbers of students are failing to achieve basic competency, they wonder, should we not focus our resources on public schools?

Public education is, indeed, facing its own crisis, one differing in some ways from that confronting Catholic education. More than 25 percent of public school students fail to graduate high school, but this figure masks a dramatic socio-economic divergence: The dropout rate for poor students is ten times that of wealthier students. Public schooling in the United States is thus highly stratified. Good districts enjoy healthy levels of funding through property taxes, while the tax base of poor districts leads to lower levels for the most challenging student populations. Yet, funding has become the focus of accusations of inequity to the detriment of the debate over improving public education. The per capita spending per student, even in poor districts, far exceeds the per capita spending at Catholic schools, yet Catholic schools enjoy better outcomes on a range of indicators.

Spurring Reform

There are a number of factors contributing to this relative inefficiency in the public system. State and federal regulations on everything from classroom safety to teacher qualifications, while well intended, are excessive and do not adequately permit for local variation or administrative judgment. Teacher unions secure pay scales higher than a market rate (and significantly higher than most private schools). Lacking a rational system of incentives for cutting costs, waste is endemic in many public schools.

Like Catholic schools, public education has been a highly successful means of enabling Americans of every socio-economic and ethnic background to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to be productive citizens. Yet, if American education is to succeed for future generations of its students, reform and improvement are necessary. In too many cases, public schools have too little to show for the resources that they absorb.

In this context, school choice represents a promising method for spurring improvement. Most parents desire solid education for their children in a safe and supportive environment. Too many public schools do not provide such an environment. Available evidence suggests that competition among individual schools and among districts encourages academic improvement. Despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, it is not true that school choice measures drain public schools of resources. Implementation of choice, because of the positive incentives it frames, results in a more efficient allocation of available educational resources, benefiting all students.

Competition has in some circles accumulated negative connotations. It is associated with a cutthroat or winner-takes-all mentality. Yet, there is a more benign understanding of competition that recognizes it as a useful motivation in human endeavor. Countless teachers and institutions throughout the history of schooling have recognized its potential, staging various kinds of contests ranging from quiz bowls to science fairs to academic honor rolls. Conducted in the proper spirit, these contests are not harmful, elevating those who perform well at the expense of those who do not. Instead, they encourage all students to strive for excellence, recognizing that while not all will attain it, all will benefit from the exercise. Our educational systems would do well to restore this sense of competition to the educational enterprise as a whole. School choice is one reform that can contribute to this end.

Genuine Diversity

A final mark in favor of school choice is that it respects the pluralism inherent in contemporary culture. Diversity raises understandable concerns about assimilation and the creation of a common culture adequate to restrain the potentially damaging centrifugal forces of ethnic and religious tensions. Yet, fear of difference goes too far when it demands uniformity, and nowhere is enforcement of such uniformity as tempting or as easily accomplished as in government-managed primary and secondary education.

In light of this, the proliferation of genuine diversity in education that would almost certainly result from a vigorous implementation of school choice would better honor the rightful autonomy of individuals and families. Devoutly religious parents would not be forced to choose between an education that integrates their theological views but at the cost of painful financial sacrifice and a free school that undermines or at least fails to buttress the principles that they hold dear. Even with respect to purely academic pursuits, diversity could be honored. While a genuine education must cover certain basic fields, students might legitimately choose schools with particular strength in various areas such as science, visual arts, or literature.

The benefits of school choice are many, which should not be surprising. When parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s education, both parents and students begin to view education in a different light. Shifting parents and children from a position of dependency on government to a position of empowerment promotes a vision of persons as participants in society, rather than observers or dependents.

There will, of course, be parents who neglect their responsibilities. There will always be roles for charitable institutions and governments to ensure that everything possible is done to given children of negligent parents the opportunity to excel. This is hardly a strike against school choice: Even now the parental background of students plays a major if not decisive role in the potential for successful completion of students’ educational regimen. Policy should be formulated to support good parents and encourage mediocre ones; it should not be designed under the assumption that all parents are deficient.

School choice, then, far from being a concession to special interests, is a plan for reforming troubled schools, rewarding excellent schools, and empowering parents and students to take responsibility for seeking and attaining the education they deem necessary and appropriate for participation in a contemporary world. It is good for individuals, and it is good for society.

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It’s the end of the semester. A degree of giddiness creeps in.

My students and I have been working through the political systems of a variety of nations. Yesterday, we talked about China.

China is a wonderful subject because any professor not completely sold out to Marxist fantasy gains the license to speak judgmentally about Mao’s ridiculous policies of The Great Leap Forward (in which the nation stopped producing food and tried to manufacture steel in backyards) and The Cultural Revolution (in which Mao deputized snotty teenagers to force their elders into self-criticism for improper revolutionary thinking).

But the fun begins to subside as you approach the present day. I was explaining to the students that although the Chinese still have the Communist Party — and it is the only party permitted to operate — the nation has rejected communism. Instead, they engage in a form of state-sponsored capitalism.

I began to say that the U.S. embraces private capitalism versus this state-sponsored capitalism of the Chinese, but then I realized that would be inaccurate. The truth, I realized and said to the students, is that both nations engage in state-sponsored capitalism.

But there is a key difference.

The Chinese government owns companies that make a profit. The United States government only owns companies that lose money.

And that is why they are loaning us money instead of the other way around.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In advance of the Acton Institute’s conference, “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis,” which will be held Thursday, Dec. 3, in Rome, the Zenit news agency interviews Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research.

Recipe for Ending Poverty: Think, Then Act
Scholar Laments Lack of Reflection in Tackling Issue

ROME, NOV. 30, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The recipe for alleviating poverty is not a secret, and yet much of the work being done to help the world’s poor is misdirected, according to one expert on the matter.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, said this to ZENIT when he was discussing a conference on “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis.” The conference will be hosted Thursday by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

Gregg observed there is plenty of talk about global poverty and yet, he said, it is “striking how much of the conversation is very unreflective.” (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, November 30, 2009

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site, reviews Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new book, The Modern Papacy, in the Nov. 28 issue of the Weekly Standard. Anderson says the book is “a significant contribution to the study of John Paul and Benedict’s thought.” Excerpt of “The Holy Seers” follows (for the complete article, a Weekly Standard subscription is required):

Gregg presents John Paul and Benedict as more or less united in the main trajectory of their dialogue with modernity. For ease in classification, this can be grouped in four domains: science, reason, faith, and revelation. While the scientific method has provided mankind with many indisputably helpful discoveries, the modern papacy argues that to embrace the instrumental, technocratic rationality at the heart of the scientific process as if it were the entirety of rationality is to narrow the range of realities accessible to rational inquiry. While the scientific approach can discover truths about empirical physical realities, it can provide little help in discussions of justice, love, and beauty–whether they be about earthly domains or transcendent ones. Only by broadening the conception of rationality beyond the empirically verifiable realm of the scientific, John Paul and Benedict argue, can man arrive at the truths necessary to secure his full flourishing. In other words, man needs to embrace science without embracing scientism.

Recovering the sapiential dimension of reason that considers the big questions regarding the meaning and destiny of human existence and the significance of human action is a key part of recapturing a more robust conception of human rationality. As Gregg presents John Paul and Benedict, a major aspect of their engagement with modernity has been to show that reason can discern objective standards of right and wrong, good and evil, as well as ascertain the existence of God and certain key aspects of his nature.

Most important of all is to see, with Benedict, that “at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason.” Gregg explains that, in Benedict’s view, “agnosticism and atheism ultimately rely upon a rational affirmation that all is ultimately based upon irrationality.” But even while defending reason’s lofty vocation, John Paul and Benedict stress that being rational isn’t enough, for rationality itself points to the existence of truths that reason alone cannot grasp, truths that can only be known through God’s revelation, accepted by faith. In other words, man needs to embrace reason without embracing rationalism.

When reason concludes that there are truths about God and the universe that reason itself cannot ascertain, that man’s finite reason cannot exhaust the infinite, this could open the door to legitimizing faith in anything–and everything. Gregg is careful to point out that the modern papacy’s engagement with modernity is just as critical of theistic thinkers who attempt to ground faith’s legitimacy in what amounts to little more than blind leaps.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 30, 2009

A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.

Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”

But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.

DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”

The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”

But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”

In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:

Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.

In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.

Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.

This much remains true:

What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.

Check out an excerpt from the original edition of The Deacons Handbook containing the essay, “The Church and the Welfare State.” And sign up over at Christian’s Library Press to keep informed about upcoming releases in 2010, including new editions of The Deacons Handbook, The Elders Handbook, and more.

Deacons Handbook Excerpt

Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome office, was asked by Vatican Radio to comment on the debt crisis in Dubai that has been causing concern in world financial markets over the last week. To listen, use the audio player below.

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