“Intellectuals and Society,” by Thomas Sowell, (2009) Basic Books, New York, 398 pp.

Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.

Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.

Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.

Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment …” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 1, 2010
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Business Weekly, a production of BBC World Service, had an informative feature on Toby Sheta, a Zimbabwean mobile phone trader, who provided insights into the courage and tenacity required of entrepreneurs under Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship (you can download the original Business Daily story in MP3 format here).

During the worst times of the Mugabe regime, Sheta would illegally buy and sell fuel coupons, a profitable enterprise because of the chaos of governmental interference in international trade and domestic fuel markets. Sheta says in the context of survival the “black market actually became the formal market,” the place where products were available. “For us the black market was the real market.”

Sheta says that what he gained as an entrepreneur in the emergency economy translate into more normalized economic conditions: “The skills that were learned and some of the principles that we’re using apply in any situation.” Sheta says, “Zimbabweans overall have gone through a school, a very informal school that was first upon us, in some ways in a positive way for us, to actually think and work for ourselves, work with our hands and see where we can see opportunity.”

Risk is a constant feature of enterprise, and Sheta testifies to the survival of the human spirit of innovation: “What I’ve learned is, even as I think of Haiti right now, as long as you’re human, and you’ve got your two feet, your two hands and your brain is still functioning, you’ll survive.”

“As you go into the problems you also go in terms of our creativity and learn how to survive,” he says.

As put by dairy farmer Brad Morgan, featured in Acton’s The Call of the Entrepreneur, “You put your butt in the corner, you’d be surprised what you can achieve.”

In terms of Zimbabwe’s future, Sheta points to stabilization in 2010 and beyond, in part because of the dollarization of the economy, and he concludes that Zimbabweans have “graduated to another level” from the emergency school of economics under Mugabe, looking forward to “see opportunities where in the past we wouldn’t have seen those opportunities.”

Ralph McInerny

Ralph McInerny

The Church and the world has lost an immense soul in the passing into eternity yesterday of Dr. Ralph McInerny, long time professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University. He was the modern epitome of the Renaissance Man: a towering intellectual, a Latinist, raconteur sublime, a writer of doggerel, a mystery writer (the Father Dowling series) and the list could go on. Of all this, I suspect the role in which he took most pride was in being a husband and a father.

He was also a good, dear and abiding friend who could stick with you in hard times and throw wisdom on your befuddlement. The joy and sense of hope he indefatigably exuded was tested over the years by his own beloved Notre Dame, especially of late, as I would often remind him (as a Trojan to a Domer). But if he did not have confidence in the administration of the university, he never for a moment lost confidence in the Lady in whose honor it was named.

I recall, some years ago when Ralph spoke at a lecture I had sponsored. Someone stood to ask this erudite and learned man what I thought was a rather simple and base question. I cannot recall the details of the question now, only that I felt painfully embarrassed by the situation. Ralph received the question as though it were a rare gift and responded with the utmost respect to the questioner – thereby, and once again, teaching us not merely the propositions and abstractions of the Christian Faith, but their meaning and how to live them.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

(Attributed to St. Patrick)

Lithuanian scholar and Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas, is the winner of the Acton Institute’s 2010 Novak Award.

During the past nine years, Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas has initiated a new debate in Lithuania, introducing the topic of free market economics to religious believers, and presenting a new set of hitherto unknown questions to economists. Fr. Kevalas is a respected figure and well known expert on Christian social ethics, the free market, and human dignity to the people of his home country. In addition to his active work as a speaker and pastor at national events, he serves as a lecturer on moral theology at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas

Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas

After studies at the Kaunas Priest Seminary and St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Md., Fr. Kevalas was ordained to the priesthood in 2000. In 2001, he received his Licentiate Degree in Theology writing the thesis “Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Development: A Case Study of Lithuania.” He received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology with his thesis on “The Origins and Ends of the Free Economy as Portrayed in the Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus” in 2008.

Named after distinguished American theologian and social philosopher Michael Novak, the Novak Award rewards new outstanding research by scholars early in their academic careers who demonstrate outstanding intellectual merit in advancing the understanding of theology’s connection to human dignity, the importance of limited government, religious liberty, and economic freedom. Recipients of the Novak Award make a formal presentation on such questions at an annual public forum known as the Calihan Lecture. The Novak Award comes with a $10,000 prize.

The Novak Award forms part of a range of scholarships, travel grants, and awards available from the Acton Institute that support future religious and intellectual leaders who wish to study the essential relationship between theology, the free market, economic liberty, and the importance of the rule of law. Details of these scholarships may be found at www.acton.org/programs/students/

The AP reports that of the roughly $379 million spent by the US government on relief efforts in Haiti, less than 1% has been in the form of direct government to government aid.

This has raised complaints from the Haitian president, Rene Preval, who says his government isn’t getting its fair share. According to the report, Preval spoke at a news conference and complained, “There’s a perception of corruption, but I would like to tell the Haitian people that the Haitian government has not seen one penny of all the money that has been raised — millions are being made on the right, millions on the left, it’s all going to the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).”

But is that really so bad? If it is the citizens of Haiti who need direct assistance, why should more of the money be routed through the Haitian governmental bureaucracy?

Undoubtedly the government is struggling to provide any modicum of law and order in the chaos of the last two weeks. And whatever money the Haitian government receives should go firstly toward providing that kind of stability within which aid workers, food suppliers, and virtuoso entrepreneurs don’t have to be so concerned with theft and violence.

And in any case, the amount spent by the US government thus far is a small percentage of the nearly $2 billion in aid that has been sent in to the disaster zone. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, private aid from America is running at about $470 million, topping the government’s contributions by nearly $100 million. Preval’s claims to a greater share of that aid money seem to not have much merit.

It isn’t the Haitian government that is the object of charitable aid; it’s the Haitian people, and that’s where the vast bulk of the money ought to be (and seemingly is) going. That’s also why calls for forgiveness of the Haitian government’s debts are so misguided, at least in the short term as the dead are still being pulled from the rubble.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama commented that “even though banks on Wall Street are lending again, they’re mostly lending to bigger companies. Financing remains difficult for small-business owners across the country, even though they’re making a profit.”

He then offered some of our tax dollars to help: “So tonight, I’m proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”

The irony is that our government helped create this problem in the first place, both Republicans and Democrats. By repeatedly bailing out big corporations, Washington signaled the markets that it will protect “too-big-to-fail” companies if they should falter. So is it any surprise that big companies are attracting the lion’s share of the available credit?

What else has the government done to help? Well, it’s gobbling up an obscene portion of the world’s available credit by borrowing unheard of amounts of money. And by holding interest rates artificially low, it’s preventing the price function from coordinating the supply and demand of credit.

With help like this from the federal government, it’s a wonder there’s any credit left over for small businesses.

Occasional Acton Institute collaborator and theologian Eduardo Echeverria has a new book out: “Dialogue of Love”: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist.

I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but the buzz—from some pretty respectable folks—is good. To wit, Francis Beckwith of Baylor University:

This is an amazing book. Professor Echeverria, artfully and persuasively, shows how the Catholic and Reformed traditions can better understand, as well as learn from, each other. This book is a model on how Christians ought to think about the relationship between faith and reason and how that understanding informs ecumenical dialogue.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Thursday, January 28, 2010
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Children are not the property of the state:

A Christian family from Germany have been granted political asylum in the US after facing the threat of prison for home schooling their children.

Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, who are evangelical Christians, were forced to flee Germany as they wished to educate their five children at home.

Home schooling is still illegal in Germany under laws introduced during the Nazi era.

The German law means that parents who choose to home school their children can face fines or even imprisonment.

Mr Romeike said: “I think it’s important for parents to have the freedom to choose the way their children can be taught”.

Mr Romeike and his wife withdrew their three oldest children from school in 2006 after they encountered problems with violence, bullying and peer pressure.

However, the decision to educate their children at home brought the family into conflict with the German authorities.

Blog author: sgregg
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
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This week’s Acton commentary:

The left is in trouble in Latin America. Sebastián Piñera’s recent election as Chile’s first elected center-right president in decades owes much to the inability of the center-left coalition that governed Chile after 1990 to rejuvenate itself. Yet across Latin America there is, as the Washington Post’s Jackson Diel perceptively observes, a sense that the left’s decade of dominance is unraveling.

Future historians may trace the beginning of this decline to the refusal of Honduras’s Congress, Supreme Court, Administrative Law Tribunal, independent Human Rights Ombudsman, Supreme Electoral Tribunal, two main political parties, and Catholic bishops to allow ex-President Manuel Zelaya to subvert Honduras’s constitutional order “from within” Chávista-style in 2009.

In truth, however, the populist-left is wilting because their economic policies are collapsing. The most prominent example is Venezuela. Hugo Chávez’s regime was recently forced to devalue the currency, thereby undermining the purchasing power of ordinary Venezuelans’ bolivars in an already recessionary inflation-riddled economy. He is also rationing basic commodities such as electricity. (more…)

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ex-president of Haiti who has lived lavishly in exile as a guest of the South African government for the past six years, recently announced he was ready to go back and help Haiti rebuild from its catastrophic earthquake. Allowing the former despot Aristide — a long time proponent of liberation theology — back into the country would be the worst thing we could do to Haiti right now. The American government must resist any move by Aristide to return.

In 2004, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which I reminded readers of Aristide’s violent past:

In sermons later published in his book “In the Parish of the Poor,” [Aristide] called for forming “battalions” to perform “acts of deliverance” and for overthrowing the regime by “any means necessary” and pined for a Haitian version of the Sandinista Revolution. He did not hide his sincere devotion to Christian communism, which preferred its humanitarianism soaked in blood.

Ultimately, this former priest’s flawed understanding of the human person and economic realities added great suffering and injustice to a Haitian people who have endured so much: (more…)