Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception

By Samuel Gregg

It passed almost unnoticed, but in late July the Obama Administration raised the Federal Government’s budget deficit forecast for fiscal year 2011 to $1.4 trillion. That’s up from February’s forecast of $1.267 trillion. In July alone, the Federal Government’s deficit was $165 billion, of which $20 billion was for interest-payments on debt.

The long-term outlook is even worse. The U.S. Government is now borrowing approximately 41 cents of every dollar it spends. It’s also predicting additional borrowing of $8.5 trillion until 2020. If that eventuates, America’s national debt would exceed 77 percent of its annual economic output.

At some point, most of us become dazed by all these numbers that track America’s upward spiral of debt. This numbness is only exacerbated by the fact that government debt-excesses in most developed countries have been matched and even surpassed by household and financial-sector debt.

In Spain, for instance, household debt rose from 69 percent of disposable income in 2000 to 130 percent in 2008. Britain was worse, with the ratio rising from 105 percent to 160 percent over the same period. Average American household debt increased from $27,000 in 2001 to $44,000 today.

The economic effects of servicing all this debt (let alone paying down the principle) are not hard to grasp. For many households, it means either bankruptcy or severe curtailing of lifestyles so that expectations match people’s actual incomes. For others, it translates into less access to credit, even for those with good credit records or well-conceived business plans that need only sufficient capitalization to succeed. The cost of servicing government debt also reduces the amount of private sector capital available for investment. This means slower growth which further impedes our ability to shrink government deficits. (more…)

Blog author: jwitt
Thursday, August 19, 2010
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World magazine has an update on the Jim Wallis story that I blogged about earlier this week.

A Sojourners spokesman today reversed an earlier Wallis denial and confirmed the organization has received funding from Soros’ Open Society Institute. Sojourners is a leading organization on the religious left founded by Wallis, who is a spiritual adviser to President Obama. Soros is the billionaire financier of Moveon.org, a Democrat-leaning organization that pushes for abortion, atheism, bigger government, and other progressive causes.

The full update is here.

It’s always nice to hear from old friends, even when said old friends are unsettling you with tales of insane government spending. When last we heard from former Acton colleague Michelle McAdoo here on the PowerBlog, she was taking Washington by storm with her proposal for an “alternative stimulus.” In the interceding time, she’s gotten married (congratulations!) and now has returned with more tales from the dark and unsettling world of “stimulus.” Enjoy!

Update/Clarification: Michelle adds: “just so you know, not all of these gov’t spending programs are part of the stimulus. it is more of a video to show how reckless all parties are. the prostitutes example was a 2008 spending program, though the turtle tunnel was stimulus.”

A constant theme here at the Acton Institute is the idea that good intentions are not enough…they need to be connected to sound practice.

In a reflection on fair trade at WORLDmag.com, D. C. Innes commends Victor Claar’s monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Fair TradeInnes, an associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, writes,

It’s admirable that people wish to better the lives of coffee growing peasants. I also applaud their use of private initiatives and organizations. But before scorning their neighbors for not sharing their means, and before trying to turn the world inside out and upside down on the basis of an adolescent “why not?” they should make sure that the vehicle they have chosen for their dreams actually does what it’s supposed to do, and doesn’t do more harm than good.

Check out Claar’s book for more on the intentions, challenges, and realities facing the fair trade movement.

On his recently launched Ambiguorum Blogis site, Fr. Michael Butler is reviewing Elizabeth Theokritoff’s Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Fr. Michael, who joined us for Acton University 2010, examines the author’s exhausted earth meme, beginning with this quote from the book:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (Theokritoff, p. 21).

Fr. Michael comments:

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (Theokritoff, p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

Fr. Michael has been a priest in the Orthodox Church in America for more than 15 years in Michigan and Ohio. See his bio and scholarly interests here. And put him on your blog roll and newsreader today.

In a recent article in World magazine, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky urged evangelical minister Jim Wallis to drop the pretense of being post-partisan. Olasky, World magazine’s editor-in-chief, went on to assert that (1) Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, received money from the foundation of secular-leftist George Soros, and that (2) Wallis had lent the Sojourners mailing list to the Obama campaign.

In an interview here, Wallis appears to deny these charges. But now former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has followed up with some additional findings in a new piece at NRO. The findings strongly support Olasky’s claims, and make it all the more unclear why Wallis would respond to them by denying them and calling Olasky a professional liar.

Richards has been keeping tabs on Wallis for a while now. In an October 2005 review of God’s Politics, Richards shows how Wallis sits squarely on the left and has even capitulated to the secular left on key social issues. The book review also examines Wallis’s questionable biblical exegesis as well as some of the economic fallacies that drive much of Wallis’s political thinking.

Wallis may mean well, but the big-government policies he advocates have been a wrecking ball to the very communities he seeks to help. An Acton/Coldwater video short examines why the left’s approach to poverty alleviation has done so much harm. It’s called How not to Help the Poor.

The Detroit News published a new column today by Acton president and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico:

Faith and Policy: Free markets, not aid, will help poor nations best

Rev. Robert Sirico

At the recent G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto, a hue and cry was raised by nongovernmental organizations and other activists about the failure of industrialized countries to make good on promises to raise aid to the developing world.

Instead, the activists should have called for a summit of African and Asian leaders and others who are calling for expanded trade, not more dependency in the form of foreign aid.

It has not been aid, after all, that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China and India but the move to market-oriented reforms, freer competition and the unleashing of the creative, entrepreneurial spark in the human person. In a recent book, one of India’s former finance ministers put it this way: “We got more done for the poor by pursuing the competition agenda for a few years than we got done by pursuing a poverty agenda for decades.”

The poverty agenda ignores, for the most part, market mechanisms in favors of huge grants to government leaders, who often pocket large chunks of the aid. The market makes room for the free interactions of people pursuing their own limited economic goals, in an almost infinite number of daily interactions. The market economy, despite the superficial appearance of chaos, ends up creating a larger social or common good for the largest number of people.

When we speak of the idea of the common good, we need to also be mindful of the political and juridical institutions that are most likely to bring it about. The answer is not to be found in the “commonality of goods” but in the very institutions that the socialists worked so hard to discredit. Let me list them: private property in the means of production, stable money to serve as a means of exchange, the freedom of enterprise that allows people to start businesses, the free association of workers, the enforcement of contracts, and a vibrant trade within and among nations (with benefits that would ultimately flow to Michigan) to permit the fullest possible flowering of the division of labor.

In an interview with Der Spiegel published this month, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame was asked a question about Africans complaining of exploitation, he responded that it was the wrong question: “Why don’t we talk about how we can get on our feet on our own? We do not always want to be the victims and to serve as a battleground for foreign interests.”

The market economy moves Africa and other developing nations away from dependency and offers the hope of real growth, a growth that provides vastly improved conditions for all.

Our gifts are to be put to work for the common good, and as such our talents and our wealth need to be put into action — not reduced to a line item in some aid bureaucrat’s master plan.

In an audio commentary produced for Ave Maria Radio and Catholic Exchange, Paul Kengor says it is “incumbent among Catholics to learn more about this blessed concept of subsidiarity.” As part of this education, he recommends “The Principle of Subsidiarity” by David A. Bosnich in Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly.

Here’s some of what Kengor, a professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, had to say:

I’m convinced, from study after study, and years of observing public policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society, that addressing poverty in the narrow federal, collectivist way preached by modern progressives—in the language of “social justice”—is counter-productive, fostering rather than lessening dependency.

In fact, the long experience of economies shows that those titled toward collectivism—to a single central government—become so unproductive and lacking in prosperity that they can’t produce the very wealth that progressives want to redistribute in the first place. That’s the self-defeating danger that social-justice engineers face as they shift private charity to a federal collective.

Listen to Kengor’s audio commentary, “Subsidiarity Over Social Justice,” and access the transcript, at Catholic Exchange.

The Italian online daily Ilsussidiario.net recently turned to Rev. Robert A. Sirico with a a couple of key questions about the financial crisis: “So what went wrong with our culture that turned up so badly in our markets? Or were the cause and effect reversed: something went wrong in our markets that turned up badly in our culture?”

Here’s part of the exchange:

Have moral or cultural causes contributed to the financial crisis? If so, what are they?

One could point to a wide variety of moral and cultural failures that precipitated the current financial crisis. These would be the same kind of moral failure that we could find in all of social interactions. A late friend once wisely noted something to the effect that the market would always manifest every vice and virtue that men exhibit in free inter-action, because that is in fact what the market is.

What is different in this case is that through a series of political inducements, people have been tempted to act in ways that they might not have otherwise. In the economic literature this is called “the moral hazard”. Moral hazard takes place when people are unable to see the risks associated with their actions because of some obstruction or distortion by a third party which has introduced an information asymmetry.

This is what happened in the US, which quickly metastasized internationally, in the housing market. Intervention into this market through the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – both of which incidentally were and remain government-sponsored enterprises) essentially induced people to take out loans they could not afford and banks to offer loans to people who did not have a credit history indicating they could repay them. I might also add that a number of Congressmen and Senators saw Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as vehicles for using taxpayers’ money to build up reliable voting constituencies.

Read “The Cultural and Moral Failures that Precipitated the Crash” on Ilsussidiario.net.