For the mysterious dynamic of history resides in man’s choice of gods. In the service of his god — or gods (they may be legion) — a man expends his energies, commits his sacrifices, devotes his life. And history is made. Understand Communism, then, as a religion; or miss the secret of its power! Grasp the nature of this new faith, and discern in contrast to it the God who alone can oppose its onward march; or misapprehend the character of the contest in which mankind is engaged, and misconceive our own historic task.
Excerpts from remarks delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2009:
Twenty years ago today, a growing tide of men and women in Eastern Europe and northern Asia were shaking off the miasma that had led so many to imagine that central economic planning could work. The socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe—accepted as ontological realities whose existence could not be questioned—were, well, being questioned.
On November 4th, 1989, a million anti-Communist demonstrators took to the street in East Berlin. Three days later the entire East German Politburo resigned. In short order — the sort of event that television journalists live for — a hole appeared in the Berlin Wall, a hole big enough for hope to pour through. The East German borders opened and by Christmas, thousands were dancing atop the dead body of the Leviathan wall, that hideous symbol, tearing at it with bare hands, champagne bottles, hammer and sickles—anything that was available.
How could we in the West have tolerated that Wall in Germany for so long? From our perspective today it is obvious that the wall would eventually fall, but remember that in 1987 when Ronald Reagan called upon Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the international media either ignored his words or criticized them as the simplistic bravado of a Hollywood cowboy. The President’s own advisors were divided, with his National Security Adviser, Colin Powell, objecting to what Reagan planned to say.
It was only after 1989 that President Reagan’s words became iconic. Reagan understood something that many of the Beltway experts had somehow forgotten or never learned — there is, in the human heart, an innate thirst for liberty. I suppose this is so because it is so closely tied to our very nature as creatures fashioned in the image of a free, rational and creative God: We thirst for freedom because we are created for, and called to, freedom and its complement, personal responsibility.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Communism, was a great triumph, but the danger has been and remains that this grand victory some 20 years ago will render complacent the free peoples of the West. The threat today is not a physical wall through the heart of Berlin but walls no mason ever dreamed about or touched.
The American founders understood this: They warned that freedom cannot long endure without virtue, without vigilance. Because our choices are those to be made by intelligent beings who were designed by Intelligence, these choices are not the result of mere instincts like those of animals. They are choices, furthermore, that should be appropriate to creatures whose beginning is purposeful and not random, oriented to the truth of all things.
And that is the scandal of the Berlin Wall — and every barrier like it against liberty. Some are great and others are small, some obvious and others discreet — yet all of them seek to wall us off from our own humanity, to alienate us from the very part of ourselves that cannot be slotted into some planner’s tidy equations, or reduced to the arithmetic of animal appetite.
We are blessed not to live behind walls that would force us to swim shark infested waters, or race through border guard crossings to the sound of bullets striking all around us. And yet the planners, those builders of walls, haven’t given up planning, haven’t given up laying brick upon brick upon brick.
I’m not talking about some secret conspiracy. I’m talking about more mundane things — mundane because they have so long been with us, mundane because—at least until recently — they grew so very gradually, the brick upon brick, the little and now not so little walls rising all around us, innocuously labeled “the mixed economy.”
These walls come in the guise of stimulus packages that distort our markets and our knowledge, that steal away a bit of your future and that of your children by inflationary polices and transgenerational tax liabilities; walls that discourage our charitable impulse and restrict entrepreneurial courage, that encourage fiscal irresponsibility and punish thrift; that encourage vice and envy, that sacrifice liberty for security and, in the devil’s bargain, lose them both.
Last year I noted the frustration and bewilderment that many were experiencing, especially those who believe in and have fought to build the free and virtuous society, a frustration and bewilderment at what we were seeing around us. That was a short time before a whole new political atmosphere took hold. Since then we have seen this breathtaking lurch toward greater centralized planning and redistribution turn into what to many of us feels like a runaway locomotive: Government banks, government mortgage companies, government automobile companies, government healthcare, government religious charities. And all of this is just a warm up for an appropriation of the entire energy sector—cap and trade. Cap and smother would come closer to the truth.
We are compelled to confront the danger of the political-economic scales tipping from productivity to dependency, from business to bureaucracy, from energy to envy, from trade to tariffs, and from creativity and courage to corporate-government collusion, collectivism and cowardice—where more people in society live, not off the noble work of their own hands, but out of the largess of the statist trough.
We might be weary of the struggle, fatigued and discouraged—amazed that people around us just don’t seem to “get it.”
And we would have cause for such pessimism.
Then I remember the years leading up to 1989. The people who brought that victory about were not defeatist or compliant.
A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reaching from the frozen tundra of the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England, Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a rough and crude Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a workers’ revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, John Paul II, who on his appearance on the world stage bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face to face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.
It is a remarkable testament to the human thirst for freedom under such hardship and against such odds—in the midst of deprivation and with guns pointed at them—all they were able to achieve, these mothers and fathers of freedom. Their example calls us not to acquiesce to the softer, more insidious and seductive tyranny of our own time, but to redouble our efforts.
Their example also calls us to remember what too many of us today have forgotten: We are beings with a destiny both in and beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Acton adjunct scholar and sometime PowerBlog contributor Eric Schansberg links to a bit of background to Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate provided by Anthony Dolan, Reagan’s head speechwriter, in today’s WSJ.
Peter Robinson is credited with the famous utterance, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In his remarks at this year’s Acton Institute Annual Dinner, Rev. Robert A. Sirico recalled that President Reagan’s challenge was derided by the world’s media at the time. As Dolan writes, in this speech it was thought that Reagan “would embarrass himself and the country by asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was going to be there for decades.” It wasn’t until the Wall fell a mere two years later that the prescience of Reagan’s challenge was validated.
For more on presidential speechwriters, check out the Podium Pundits blog, which “brings together former presidential speechwriters, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, to analyze and comment on major speeches, messaging strategy, and the business of communications.” Also be sure to check out Ray Nothstine’s reflections on this same anniversary from two years ago, in which he relates the views of another Acton Annual Dinner speaker, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar.
As we appear to be nearing a climax in the many-months-long health care reform debate (maybe), opinion is remarkably divided on what the end result will be. Outright victory for left-wing reformers? Passage of a watered down, lowest-common-denominator reform bill? Or clear victory for Republican opposition? All possibilities remain on the table.
The relative success of conservative candidates in major elections Tuesday led most commentators to reason that the environment has gotten more difficult for moderate Democrats and that, therefore, Pelosi and Reid were facing an uphill battle. Jim Geraghty offers a different perspective at NRO today: Maybe the perception of faltering support among moderates and independents for Democratic politicians will ironically push the latter to the left on health care reform. After all, Geraghty observes, Democrats as well as Republicans get nowhere electorally without firing up their base, and struggling Democrats need a signal victory to show off to their core liberal backers. The only serious candidate to be such a showpiece, at present, is health care reform, replete with a public option.
Another possibility is that pro-life Democrats such as Bart Stupak of Michigan, will set political calculations aside and, on principle alone, refuse to support the type of bill pushed by Democratic leadership. A weak possibility, to be sure, given that obsession with re-election is the most widespread and bipartisan character trait discernible in Congress.
Cardus’ Robert Joustra rightly pillories “fair trade” along with the logic of foreign aid in a challenging article, “Fair Trade and Dead Aid: ‘My Voice Can’t Compete with an Electric Guitar.'”
Joustra’s point of departure is sound: “The aid model is not working, and no large-scale cash infusion or debt forgiveness scheme is going to make it suddenly start working. The fair trade brand is too small-scale and ultimately regressive.”
Unfortunately, though, Joustra’s well-placed critique of the fair trade movement underestimates the scope of the movement’s vision. With regard to coffee, for instance, Global Exchange has called for “a total transformation of the coffee industry, so that all coffee sold in this country should be Fair Trade Certified.”
The logic of fair trade in fact requires such wholescale paradigm shifts. But Joustra critiques the movement in part because it does not, on his view, represent the needed “long-term substantive critiques of the global social and political architecture.”
Joustra conclude that “as long as our consciences are salved by feel-good coffee branding and knee-jerk check writing campaigns, we won’t take the hard look we need at the architecture of global capitalism and bring about the social innovation that is necessary for genuine architectonic reformation.”
The problem with fair trade is not that it is not a comprehensive alternative to so-called global capitalism. It is that undermines the proper functioning of the market by artificially manipulating the price mechanism, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences, some of which Joustra notes, promoting “unprofitable work, and subsidizing unprofitable and undiversified economies.”
The critical questions that remain for Joustra and others are these: Does the proposed architectonic alternative to the current system properly value the role of markets or not? Do the corporatist and governmental abuses of “global capitalism” (e.g. subsidies, price fixing, and so on) need to be addressed, or are the philosophies of fair trade and aid not sufficiently communitarian? Is the basic problem free trade and liberal economic globalization itself or the distortions thereof?
Update: Robert Joustra cogently addresses my questions. His answers, in part:
First, I believe capitalism, particularly coupled with the rule of law in a culture of virtue and long-term’ism, is a sound economic system. But our capitalism has degraded to an obsession with utilitarian short-term materialism. Some are apt to blame the system, but consumerism is nothing new – the scale which modernity enables us to practice it on is. That can entice us to be overly critical of the system which facilitates it, but I remain convinced that the deep “sites” of resistance to global consumerism are not our politics or our institutions, but our homes, churches and grocery stores. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture and our culture is saturated with short-term materialism.
I find very little with which to quibble in these answers. Read the whole thing.
This week’s Acton Commentary:
Does the market inspire people to greater practical virtue, or does it eviscerate what little virtue any of us have?
Far from draining moral goodness out of us—as many think—the free market serves as a “school of the practical virtues.” Rather than elevating greed and self-sufficiency, the market fosters interdependence and cooperation. Its rewards do not go to those who are the most isolated, self-absorbed, or cut off from society, but to those who sustain mutually prosperous relationships with others.
Adam Smith made a striking observation more than two hundred years ago in his treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a commercial society, he wrote, “every man becomes in some sense a merchant.” If Smith is right, what does that imply for the development of character in society? Is the market economy more likely to produce a Bernie Madoff or a Dave Ramsey? Does the market tend to erode character traits such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and the responsible stewardship of resources? (more…)
Machiavelli’s succinct and semi-diabolical advice to the prince is one of the most enduring works of political philosophy in the world. This man, writing in a time roughly contemporaneous with the Reformation, was less concerned with seeking the will of God than with winning at all costs. I wrote about him in my book The End of Secularism.
He is famous for advising the prince that it is important to appear honest, humane, religious, faithful, and charitable, but that it is equally important the prince be ready to abandon any of those attributes when opportunity presents itself. The prince should not worry about whether he will gain a bad reputation for deception, because, as Machiavelli suggests, there are always ordinary people willing to be deceived and the world is FULL of ordinary people.
The primary thrust of the book is advice about how to gain principalities and to maintain control of them. Many things work to a prince’s advantage, such as traditions of servitude and customs that reinforce the reign of a prince. But there is one thing that puts sand in the princely engine and grinds things to a halt. That thing is a tradition of liberty. If a people are accustomed to liberty, Machiavelli writes, then they will never stop trying to regain it. Even if they haven’t had it for a hundred years, the ancestral memory of liberty will be overpoweringly strong. It may be so strong that no manipulative device of the prince will be able to defeat it and he may have no other option than to destroy such a city.
Might I suggest to you that on Tuesday night we saw Americans in New Jersey and Virginia issue notice that they are not prepared to trade their liberty for hyper-statism and that they are not ready to become Europeans, always more subservient to the state than we have been, instead of free citizens of a great republic? The tradition of liberty is one of the greatest weapons we have in this struggle.
When William F. Buckley thought about the possible triumph of the United States in the Cold War, he imagined that American children would someday be thankful that “the blood of their fathers ran strong.” Let our blood, too, run strong with the cherished memory of our past and present liberty.
In last Thursday’s episode (at about the 18:00 mark), a Twitter follower of @ramseyshow asked, “I want to start giving. How do I find the right charity for me and how do I find out if the charity is legit?”
Dave’s short answer: “You have to spend time on it.” He expands a bit, but that’s a great starting point. You need to develop a personal relationship of accountability with charities that you support. Dave goes on to describe his personal giving patterns, which include giving to only a few charities, but doing so “lavishly.”
There are some tools available to help you find the right charity. The standard places to go to get financial information about charities are GuideStar and Charity Navigator. You can get some basic data at these sites, including access to 990 financial forms, for free. The Acton Institute has worked to develop a complementary tool focusing on faith-based nonprofits that rely on private dollars called The Samaritan Guide.
WORLD Magazine recently announced the winner of its own inaugural Hope Award for Effective Compassion, Forgiven Ministry of Taylorsville, N.C., “through which volunteers from local churches create days of reconciliation and forgiveness for more than 1,000 inmates, children, and families.” Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky, WORLD’s editor-in-chief, discussed the three finalists for the award in the latest WORLD Forum podcast (Nov. 3).
In an appearance last month on Huckabee, Olasky described the idea of compassionate conservatism: “The concept of compassionate conservatism is that the people in their neighborhoods know best what their neighborhoods need,” Olasky said. “If you had $500 that you could decide how to spend to fight poverty in some way, rather than sending it to Washington, would you know of a group in your own neighborhood that could use the money more effectively than Washington could? So, why do we keep sending the money to Washington in the hope that a little bit of it will trickle back in?”
In connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.
“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.
And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.
Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.
The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).
David Bahnsen reflects on last night’s annual dinner:
(Acton’s) co-founder, Father Sirico, is a friend and patriot. He is a scholar in Catholic social thought, and perhaps as good of an orator as I have ever heard. He and I shared the podium at an event I did in Newport Beach earlier in the year. Fortunately for me, I spoke before him that evening! The talk tonight was challenging and inspiring. He reminded us that the greatest victim in this present environment is entrepreneurial courage. We do not have the option to wallow in our pessimism. Defeatism will not protect us from the walls of socialism and redistributionism being built right around us. As Hayek said decades ago, moral courage is needed to tow the line for the cause of freedom and markets. I feel grateful this evening to have an ally in this battle in Father Sirico and the Acton Institute.
The keynote speaker tonight was Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute. His talk forms the basis for my catchy blog title. He carefully walked us through the overwhelming evidence that it is “earned success” that makes people happy. Society is over-loaded with people who have received money via inheritance or the lottery, and sociological and psychological studies have repeatedly affirmed this rather fascinating tenet: People with money who did not earn it are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they are unhappy than people who earned it. Obviously, regardless of the source of one’s prosperity, happiness can not be bought. As people of faith, we know that the human condition is such that mere material comfort can not bring about resolution in what tries men’s souls. But “earned success” – the stimulation of human dignity that achievement and accomplishment represent – does bring about happiness (at least in a statistically significant way).