If you read this post about Claire Berlinski’s recent article in City Journal, and the follow-up post calling attention to Ron Radosh’s critique of the article, then you may be interested in Berlinski’s return volley here.

“Catholic scholars say those who thwart labor unions commit mortal sin,” says the headline from Catholic News Service.

It’s an accurate characterization of a statement released by a group called Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. (You can read the statement in full at the organization’s web site.) It’s certainly attention-grabbing, but is it sound moral analysis?

The answer is no. I’m not trained as a moral theologian, but I do know something about Catholic social teaching and I can apply elementary rules of logic, which is all I need to poke some holes in the statement in question.

Now the statement should not be dismissed as nonsense. It builds on material gleaned from genuine sources of CST such as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It rightly notes that the social teaching declares that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” It rightly notes that CST insists on the right of workers to organize, as a corollary of the right of voluntary association.

But the statement engages in some slippery reasoning and ambiguous language to get from there to its conclusions. “Union busting is a mortal sin,” it declares; and union busting “refers to the action of any person who seeks to prevent employees from forming a labor union, or who attempts to undermine or destroy an existing union.”

So, any person, anywhere, at anytime, who, for any reason, seeks to prevent the formation of a union or seeks to “undermine” an existing union is committing sin? (I’m leaving aside the issue of mortal vs. venial sin for the sake of simplicity.)

This is a pretty sloppy application of Catholic social teaching.

The documents of CST do not simply endorse unions, without qualification. Indeed, CST condemns unions under certain conditions: such as those that serve private interest rather than the common good or those that by their stated or implicit aims attack the Church or Church teaching. For a time, CST even discouraged Catholics from joining unions that did not have an explicitly Catholic character. The point is that CST leaves it as a matter of conscience as to whether any one, specific union ought to be joined/supported/endorsed. Blanket prohibitions and obligations are out of place on this issue.

Not only is it theoretically possible that individuals–whether employers, employees, or other parties–might have an obligation to oppose (or “undermine”) union activity, one might easily cite cases. During the Cold War era, many labor priests and Catholic trade unionists–who were stridently “pro-labor” as a general rule–in some instances worked actively to destroy unions that were under the control of Communists. In a more contemporary example, Catholics have joined with other people of good will to “undermine” various unions by withholding dues that would otherwise fund activity to which the individual workers are in conscience opposed (such as supporting pro-abortion political candidates).

I suspect–though I don’t know–that the CSWJ folks would want to permit these sorts of exceptions, but their statement as written does not. To push the point a little further, I would argue that a Catholic employer may well be permitted to oppose the formation of a union in his or her company, if the formation of that union is deemed to be detrimental to the common good (meaning the good of the workers, the company, and society). The employer must in all cases respect the right of the workers to organize, and must never use immoral or illegal means to oppose a union, but an absolute moral prohibition on employers engaging in information-provision or non-coercive forms of persuasion seems unjustified.

The CSWJ statement could have been a helpful document by thoughtfully addressing the question of what criteria should be used to determine when or when not to support labor organizing. Instead, it engages in simplistic moral analysis that will be useful primarily as a stick to beat anyone who might challenge the practices, utility, or character of any given union.

I recommended a Claire Berlinski article last Thursday. Ron Radosh forcefully calls into question several elements of the Berlinski piece, though her central claim seems to me to remain intact: While the Nazis are widely and duly vilified, far too many in the West continue to excuse, minimize or ignore the activities of the Soviet communists. At any rate, Radosh’s commentary has sparked a lively discussion in the comments section under his post.

I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”

I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.

Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.

In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”

Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.

Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.

And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.

On the Economix blog at the New York Times, Uwe E. Reinhardt wrote a post titled “How Businesses Create Wealth.” That elicited attention from a commenter who wondered where he was “trying to go with this essay.” Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, answers with “Companies: What Are They Good For?” He also cites an article from Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality: “A Communitarian Model of Business: A Natural-Law Perspective.” Reinhardt:

Actually, I was not trying to go anywhere with my analysis, other than to point out that businesses create value and wealth beyond the usually narrow slice that accrues strictly to the owners.

In most firms, the largest fraction of the gross value that businesses create with the goods and services they produce is channeled to employees. That allocation helps create household wealth, which may be held in the form of a home or other real estate, pensions or investments in mutual funds, or highly productive human capital — that is, highly educated offspring.

With their chronic suspicion of for-profit business, commentators on the left of the ideological spectrum insufficiently acknowledge that major contribution that business makes to social welfare.

Though the Greek Debt crisis may seem far away, here is a sobering article by Kevin Hassett at Bloomberg. Greece’s Bailout Heroes arrive in Leaking Boats

Those countries coordinating the $1Trillion bailout of Greece find themselves in similar trouble. Hassett writes:

The fatal flaw in the plan is that the European nations bailing out Greece — even Germany, where government debt has risen to about 80 percent of gross domestic product — have similar budget problems and even less political will to take similar medicine.
Their plan appears to rest on the hope that lenders won’t notice. Eventually they will, and when that happens, a worldwide loss of faith in government debt markets is a virtual certainty.
In other words, it is hardly good news for a creditor if a hopelessly bankrupt borrower offers to take on the debts of a hopelessly bankrupt borrower.
During the financial crisis, faith was restored in large financial institutions because toxic assets were essentially exchanged for government bonds. If government bonds become toxic, there will be no effective treatment options remaining. The collapse will have no bottom.

He also notes that the US is not immune to the problems that plague Greece. According to a study done by the IMF in 2003, the US finds itself an unsustainable debt situation that if not resolved could lead to even the possibility of default.

The paper, written by economists Paolo Manasse of the University of Bologna along with Nouriel Roubini of New York University and the IMF’s Axel Schimmelpfennig, studied historical sovereign-debt crises, exactly the situations that Western nations are hoping to avoid. They found that external debt levels — money owed to foreigners — exceeding 50 percent was a key indicator that debt default may occur.

Here is the chilling fact: the average external debt as a percent of GDP among countries in their sample the year before a sovereign debt crisis was 54.7 percent, and 71.4 percent in the crisis year. The U.S. external debt on Dec. 31, 2009, was $13.77 trillion, or almost 100 percent of GDP. For much of Europe, the story is worse.

It seems that the only way to solve these impending crises is to rethink the entire way we look at the roles and responsibilities of government in democratic societies, but that may take the political will that no one has.

Join us on Wednesday, May 19, for the next Acton on Tap and a fascinating discussion about conservatives and the arts. The discussion will be led by David Michael Phelps, a writer, producer and story consultant. The event takes place from 6-8 p.m. at the Derby Station in East Grand Rapids, Mich. (Map it here.) No advance registration is required. The only cost is your food and drink.

View event details on Facebook.

Background: Both Story and Syllogism. (Excerpted from “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story” by David Michael Phelps in the Spring 2007 Religion & Liberty.)

If anyone doubts that those who tell the better stories have the upper hand in the arena of ideas, let him consider the recent popularity of the ONE Campaign. Is it a flash of economic enlightenment that drives the masses to Bono like sinners to the Jordan? No. While his economic patron, Jeffrey Sachs, is by no measure a lightweight, Bono owes the success of his appeals to end poverty less to his economics and more to his formidable ability as an artist to highlight the human in humanitarianism, to appeal to the narrative and emotional sensibilities of young people, to take an idea from a scholar’s head to a citizen’s heart.

Imagine, then, if sound economic (or political or social) thinking were wedded not only with the intention to act, but with Beauty, the inspiration to act. This is what the Story artist can do, if he can be given the right ideas and the trust to manifest them in Art, not propaganda. Storytellers and Artists, whether they have right ideas or not, will create. But as Chesterton said, “poetry without philosophy has only inspiration, or, in vulgar language, only wind.” So it is best that the Beauty he creates also contain Truth.

So what must happen is that those with solid ideas, derived from Syllogistic Logic, must not only educate the Artists, but also allow them to translate Syllogisms into Stories, into unified presentations of the Truth in Beauty. It is this that will achieve long lasting change in the hearts of the finicky MTV generation. Unfortunately, this can be frightening for those committed to protect right ideas, because the “coherence of a narrative … has room for freedom and thus for surprise.” Communicating with Story means one has to allow for a dramatic tension, has to allow the audience the possibility of seeing the viability of the other side of the argument. And for some, this is too risky a venture.

But here we reach a very crucial point, the point where we see that handing ideas to the Artist is not the same as handing them to the Propagandist. For the Propagandist, the message is the focus, the party line is towed without falter, and as a result, the Propagandist seldom produces Art of lasting persuasive power. For the Artist, the vehicle of the message – that is, the Art itself – is the focus, and this is precisely why Artists are so much more convincing in their work than Propagandists: Propagandists so concentrate on the water that they attend less to the holes in the bucket.Artists concentrate on making great buckets, often concerning themselves less with the contents.

Likewise, conservatives may be more apt to produce propaganda when they attempt to create Art because their ideas are often more sound than the liberal (in the modern sense) alternative and they have less need for – and therefore less incentive to learn – Story. Liberals can indulge themselves in shoddy Syllogism, because they make up for the lack with good Storytelling. But this doesn’t excuse conservatives from falling off the other side of the horse.

There a popular saying that suggests “If you are a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you aren’t a conservative when you are old, you have no head.” But I see no reason why must we lack one to have the other. We should have, and must communicate with, both. We must add Story to our Syllogism, adding emotional punch to our reason. After all, Socrates taught with syllogisms, and Jesus with parables.

About the Lecturer

David Michael Phelps received his master’s degree from Central Michigan University where he studied narratology and wrote his thesis on narrative screenplay adaptation. He taught literature and writing for five years before working as a producer and writer for Acton Media. He then spent two years as the Director of Development for Compass Film Academy where he oversaw an institutional redesign of the school and mentored screenwriting students.

Currently, David works as a writer and producer under the moniker Mendicant Media where he develops and produces vision, feature, and documentary films. He is currently developing a film on the Soviet Gulag with Trikirion Film Collective and consults on screenplays for 10 West Studios.

In his spare time, David is working on a book on the philosophical underpinnings of art and creativity. He is also the author of the blog, The Artistic Vocation.

David lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

A while back, Bevan Sabo and Ariel Goldring at Free Market Mojo interviewed me on a wide range of subjects. They’ve kindly granted us permission to post some excerpts:

FMM: Capitalism requires a large degree of selfishness. Though there is certainly room for charity in a free-market system, individuals and firms must pursue their own selfish interests in order for an economy to thrive (or even succeed). How does a Christian love his neighbor as himself and still function as a capitalist?

Father Sirico: I do not share the use of the word selfishness in the way that it is employed in this question. A proper self regard is based on the belief in my own inherent dignity and this requires “self love” but not an inordinate self-love or self-preoccupation which is willing to subordinate others to my own ends, either coercively or in a manipulative manner which disregards the same dignity of others. The word selfishness as it is used in common parlance does not reference rational self-interest but rather a self preoccupation and disordered priority.

From a Christian anthropological point of view the human person (who is much more than “the individual”) is a combination of his individuality and his sociality, his autonomy and relationships. From the first moment of our existence we are simultaneously autonomous (in that we are genetically distinct from our mothers), yet in relation to her while in the womb. The whole of our existence following is a working out of this interplay of our autonomy and our social nature. A Christian’s love for his neighbor is rooted in solidarity which is the recognition of a profound connection between human beings. It is, in a sense, a recognition of myself in the other. Because all human beings share an intrinsic dignity we ‘love our neighbors as we love ourselves’. Capitalism, which is only the economic extension of this anthropological truth, can be lived out from this perspective, but in order to be secure, just, and enduring, it needs to rooted in the historical development of such an anthropology.

FMM: In July of last year, the Guardian reported on Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, entitled Charity in Truth. For me, the following is a particularly disturbing paragraph from the article:

The pope today called for a “profoundly new way” of organising global finance and business, calling for a new social and ethical dimension to capitalism and arguing the case for a new world political authority to help champion “the common good”.

The idea of the “common good” goes against the spirit of individualism that is an essential part of capitalism and any proper government. Can you discuss Charity in Truth, particularly, its ramifications for those who consider themselves both Christians and capitalists?

Father Sirico:
If one is going to really understand papal encyclicals one must understand the tradition and theological milieu from which they emerge and attend to the precise definitions that are given to various specific phrases or concepts. In the case of the latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate many have asked questions about what the pope was addressing when he called for a “New World political authority”. I very much doubt your readers want from me a full exegesis of this section of the encyclical, but let me summarize by saying that this phrase is used in context with the references to subsidiarity elsewhere in the encyclical (e.g., no. 57) which is therein described as “the most effective antidote to any form of all-encompassing welfare state.”

Thus it is explicitly NOT the pope’s intention to be calling for some kind if ‘super state’, but rather for a global solidarity and authority “which cannot be imposed by force” (cf., Mater et Magistra, no. 130). The encyclical also cites a number of other references it is drawing upon, all of which are noted in the critical apparatus of the encyclical itself and all of which repudiate any kind of ‘super global state’. (more…)

From the movie Fight Club (1999):

Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever met… see I have this thing: everything on a plane is single-serving…
Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it’s very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?
Narrator: What?
Tyler Durden: Being clever.

The Hill reports that Dems feel healthcare fatigue.

Blue Dog Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who voted for the health overhaul, said the debate has shifted to the Obama administration, which must now implement the bill. “The healthcare bill is done,” Pomeroy said. “The action on healthcare is now in the executive branch as they implement the bill. It’s critically important that they implement it in a sound way, and I believe the attention of Congress is best spent on overseeing the sound implementation of this bill.”

Clever. Vote to nationalize the U.S. health care system even though you didn’t bother to read the 2,400-page bill. Then walk away because you’re “tired” and want to leave the heavy lifting to the White House. Plus, more photo-ops and press releases about health care from Rep. Pomeroy’s office would only serve to keep this on the mind of North Dakota voters.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed with the premise that “members would be wary of major health legislation after we’ve spent so much time — we do have other priorities.” … “I could see that people would be exhausted if we were doing something major and controversial,” Waxman told The Hill. “So I think that we’ll probably limit ourselves right away in terms of what we’ll be pursuing.”

Paul Howard at City Journal looks at Obamacare’s Hidden Costs, a phenomenon certain to increase the fatigue factor among Obamacare supporters in the months and years ahead:

While the full cost of President Obama’s health-care legislation won’t be apparent until federal subsidies to the uninsured start flowing in 2014, Americans are getting an early glimpse of some of the unintended—but very costly—consequences of rushing through a 2,400-page bill affecting 17 percent of the economy. Since the president signed the bill into law on March 23, dozens of companies have reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission the losses that they expect to take as a result of the legislation. (Companies that offer drug benefits to their retirees will now be taxed for the partial federal subsidy that they receive for each retiree.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that as many as 40 major companies will take a hit, for a total of $3.4 billion; other cost estimates run even higher.

Greece, once again, provides a warning. Investor’s Business Daily asks, Guess What Greece Has To Jettison?:

Greece was told that if it wanted a bailout, it needed to consider privatizing its government health care system. So tell us again why the U.S. is following Europe’s welfare state model.

The requirement, part of a deal arranged by the IMF, the European Union and the European Central bank, is a tacit admission that national health care programs are unsustainable. Along with transportation and energy, the bailout group, according to the New York Times, wants the Greek government to remove “the state from the marketplace in crucial sectors.”

This is not some cranky or politically motivated demand. It is a condition based on the ugly reality of government medicine. The Times reports that economists – not right-wingers opposed to health care who want to blow up Times Square – say liberalizing “the health care industry would help bring down prices in these areas, which are among the highest in Europe.”

Of course most of the media have been largely silent about the health care privatization measure for Greece, as it conflicts with their universal, single-payer health care narrative.

In the Rapids City (S.D.) Journal, columnist Rick Kahler quotes an anecdote from an fellow financial planner:

“I have some good friends (dual Greek and U.S. citizens) who live in Athens. They tell me corruption is rampant and every tax increase is met by an exponential increase in the underground, noncompliant economy. There is no sense of duty to pay taxes. There is no sense of dishonor asking someone to transact business outside of the system.

“Greece’s health care system just about collapsed when it became socialized. First, long lines led to treatments being scheduled so far in the future that costs were reduced because patients routinely died before the treatment date. Citizens responded by taking paper bags filled with paper currency to doctors in exchange for prompt treatment.

“When this practice became common, the government eventually began arresting doctors.

Did this make the system function properly? Nope. The doctors simply used their nice European Union passports to leave the country and seek work elsewhere.

“Nurses were then expected to provide medical care they hadn’t been trained to do. This at least made costs go down—nurses started fleeing, too, so that salary expense declined. My friends in Athens report many Greek hospitals are ‘just walls—no doctors, no nurses, not even anyone worth bribing. When we need care, we buy a ticket to the U.S.”

Check out the Acton Institute resource page on Health Care.

I want to second Marc’s article recommendation from earlier today. The phrase “a must read” is badly overworked, but in this case I can’t help myself: Claire Berlinski’s A Hidden History of Evil in the latest City Journal is a must-read. A few excerpts:

Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.

For evidence of this indifference, consider the unread Soviet archives. Pavel Stroilov, a Russian exile in London, has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the close of the Cold War. He stole them in 2003 and fled Russia. Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet he can’t get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, he can’t get anyone to take much interest in them at all.

Then there’s Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once spent 12 years in the USSR’s prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas—political psychiatric hospitals—after being convicted of copying anti-Soviet literature. He, too, possesses a massive collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, “contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century.” These documents are available online at bukovsky-archives.net, but most are not translated. They are unorganized; there are no summaries; there is no search or index function. “I offer them free of charge to the most influential newspapers and journals in the world, but nobody wants to print them,” Bukovsky writes. “Editors shrug indifferently: So what? Who cares?”

Stroilov claims that his documents “tell a completely new story about the end of the Cold War.” … They suggest, for example, that the architects of the European integration project, as well as many of today’s senior leaders in the European Union, were far too close to the USSR for comfort. This raises important questions about the nature of contemporary Europe….

According to Zagladin’s reports, for example, Kenneth Coates, who from 1989 to 1998 was a British member of the European Parliament, approached Zagladin on January 9, 1990, to discuss what amounted to a gradual merger of the European Parliament and the Supreme Soviet.

Zagladin’s records also note that the former leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, approached Gorbachev—unauthorized, while Kinnock was leader of the opposition—through a secret envoy to discuss the possibility of halting the United Kingdom’s Trident nuclear-missile program.

“We now have the EU unelected socialist party running Europe,” Stroilov said to me. “Bet the KGB can’t believe it.”

Bukovsky’s book about the story that these documents tell, Jugement à Moscou, has been published in French, Russian, and a few other Slavic languages, but not in English. Random House bought the manuscript and, in Bukovsky’s words, tried “to force me to rewrite the whole book from the liberal left political perspective.” …

In France, news about the documents showing Mitterrand’s and Gorbachev’s plans to turn Germany into a dependent socialist state prompted a few murmurs of curiosity, nothing more. Bukovsky’s vast collection about Soviet sponsorship of terrorism, Palestinian and otherwise, remains largely unpublished.

No one talks much about the victims of Communism. No one erects memorials to the throngs of people murdered by the Soviet state….

Indeed, many still subscribe to the essential tenets of Communist ideology. Politicians, academics, students, even the occasional autodidact taxi driver still stand opposed to private property. Many remain enthralled by schemes for central economic planning. Stalin, according to polls, is one of Russia’s most popular historical figures. No small number of young people in Istanbul, where I live, proudly describe themselves as Communists; I have met such people around the world, from Seattle to Calcutta.

The full 3000-word essay is here. It’s well worth the time.