Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 14, 2010
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I have to admit that my first few reactions to the news of an earthquake in the Caribbean weren’t especially charitable. I thought first that the scale of the reports had to be exaggerated, that things couldn’t be as bad as the media was breathlessly reporting. Then I wondered how long it would take for the environmental movement to make use of the disaster to advance their agenda. Neither of these reactions are particularly noble on my part, obviously. Blame it on my dispositional skepticism, I suppose.

But by all accounts, the human toll in Haiti after the earthquake is vast. In a world of digital media and on-demand news reporting, we can oftentimes see instantaneous first-hand accounts of these kinds of events. Here’s a kind of informal poll for PowerBlog readers: are you planning on donating specifically to address the need resulting from the earthquake in Haiti? And if so, which agencies or charities are you specifically supporting?

One of my favorite charities of first resort, International Aid, closed up shop amidst the economic downturn last year (Update: A commenter notes that International Aid is still making international shipments and actively working in Haiti). My family and I support a child in the Dominican Republic through Compassion International, which is currently accepting donations aimed specifically for Haiti. (I haven’t heard much about the impact on that other nation sharing the island with Haiti, incidentally. Relative to Haiti, of course, the Dominican Republic is markedly more economically stable.)

Put some specific suggestions in the comments for other PowerBlog readers to consider. Do you use denominational ministries, stand-alone aid agencies, something else, or nothing at all? There are the typical guides to disaster giving, which often point to large groups like the Red Cross, to whom my fundamental skepticism also applies.

One curious response has been to send outdated sports apparel to devastated areas.

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

Over the past five years, many conservatives and religiously-inclined people have been turning to the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton as part of an effort to rethink the nature of economic life. Both these figures wrote about many other things than economics – and some would say that, for all their insights as Christian apologists, economics was never their strong point. Indeed many of their economic writings were heavily criticized when they were initially published in Britain and the United States. Here is an example of one such critique that appeared when Belloc’s The Servile State was first published under an American imprint in 1947. It repays close reading.

From Mises Daily: Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto by Garet Garrett.

Having proved by logic that capitalism, socialism and collectivism all tend inevitably to bring the servile state to pass, Belloc comes to speak of the solution and there his distributive state fails him. The way back to that state of society in which ownership of “the springs of life” shall be happily universal is a road of appalling difficulties. They are perhaps insurmountable. Suppose you think of doing it boldly, as to say, “all shall own,” instead of saying, as the collectivists would, “none shall own.” Very good. But by what scale of justice shall this new ownership be apportioned among the people? What will the people do with it? How would you keep the many from selling it back to the few?

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “From the Lead Frying Pan into the Toxic Fire,” I examine some of the fallout from the lead paint fiasco of 2007. Last month RC2 Corp. settled the civil penalty for violating a federal lead paint ban.

But in the wake of subsequent federal action, I examine two unintended consequences. First, new federal regulations are posing an unsustainable burden on some small businesses, forcing them to make very hard choices about whether to keep their operations domestically. Second, faced with concerns about lead, some manufacturers have turned to potentially more dangerous materials, such as cadmium.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been charged with a huge task in all this. My main hope is that there is time taken for more serious and sustained reflection about the consequences, both intended and unintended, from these kinds of regulatory moves. We need reflective action more than we need quick action. The market will take care of the latter on its own.

All of which brings to mind the holiday season, and this classic skit from SNL:

Thomas P.M. Barnett has written a good, concise, piece on the consolidation and deepening of globalization, specifically Wal-Mart’s tapping into local producers in developing countries. (HT: Real Clear World)

As far as I can tell, there are no Wal-Mart’s in Italy, but having spent the last three weeks at my parents’ home in Flint, Michigan and shopping at places like Wal-Mart and Target, I can clearly see how far behind the curve Italy is.

While family-run boutiques and the slow-food movement have many things to recommend for body and soul, they simply can’t operate at anywhere near the same level of efficiency. Religious leaders can help us understand and better cope with these changes if they regularly read pieces like Barnett’s.

For a fuller picture of the world today, however, the economic perspective does not suffice. I arrived in Michigan just before the failed attempt by a Nigerian trained in Yemen to blow up a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. This near-miss and Anne Applebaum’s piece on the growing international jihadist elite remind us the globalization also includes expanding networks of Islamist hatred and violence, which religious leaders must, indeed are most responsible for, addressing with the utmost seriousness and urgency, even though this is a battle that will be fought for generations.

What’s needed is not just understanding and empathy for “the other” as university intellectuals would have it, but argument and counterargument, as Applebaum says. There is too much going on in the world and too much at stake for well-intentioned believers to remain on the sidelines.

A friendly reminder that registration is currently open for the 2010 Acton University (AU), which will take place on June 15-18 in Grand Rapids, Mich. This year’s distinguished international faculty will once again guide participants through an expanded curriculum, offering even greater depth of exploration into the intellectual foundations of a free society.

For four days each June in Grand Rapids, the Acton Institute convenes an ecumenical conference of 400 pastors, seminarians, educators, non-profit managers, business people and philanthropists from more than 50 countries. Here, people of faith gather to integrate and better articulate faith and free enterprise, entrepreneurship, sound public policy, and effective leadership at the local church and community level. With this week of AU fellowship and discourse, participants build a theological and economic infrastructure for the work of restoring and defending hope and dignity to people around the world.

Space and scholarship funds are limited – so get a move on! Please visit www.acton.org/actonu where you will find the online registration form along with complete conference information. If you have any questions, please contact Kara Eagle, Acton’s Education Initiatives Manager, at keagle@acton.org or at 616.454.3080. We hope to see you in June!

In the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the ensuing controversy over the Obama Administration’s handling both of the pre-attack intelligence and the post-attack response, Neil Cavuto invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on his show to discuss how President Obama might go about exercising proper leadership and accountability in his address to the nation last night. The clip from Your World with Neil Cavuto follows:

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reflect on a decade of Wikipedia, a remarkable experiment in human interaction:

Ten years ago this month, Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales hired Larry Sanger to develop an online encyclopedia. You may have never heard of that project, titled “Nupedia,” but you’ve probably heard of the site that emerged from its ashes. Wikipedia is not only one of the most successful initiatives in the history of the Web but also a shining example of the potential of human cooperation.

Wikipedia sprouted in the fertile soil of freedom and possibility that characterized the early days of the Internet. Andrew Lih tells the story in The Wikipedia Revolution (2009). Wales, a principal of the technology company Bomis, perceived the potential demand for an online encyclopedia and launched his new venture to fill that need. Nupedia was soon abandoned because it was the result of conventional thinking—a traditional encyclopedia model applied to the Internet. When this dawned on Wales and Sanger, the resulting creative spark ignited the Wikipedia revolution. Putting an encyclopedia on the Web should mean not merely a change in the location of encyclopedia content, they realized: the new technology could instead transform the entire process of content production and publication. This was the insight that set Wikipedia apart and soon attracted millions of people across the world to its community.

The Wikipedia experiment was an exercise in entrepreneurship, and demonstrates that the impetus for life-enhancing innovation is not merely monetary success. Wales and Sanger were motivated by a desire to promote learning and empower people. In their view, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge should be democratic: let anyone with access to a computer participate in the process.

Traditionally, the collection and presentation of the world’s accumulated knowledge in the encyclopedia format was a jealously guarded prerogative of the gatekeepers of established publishing and academic institutions. This method had its advantages: consistency, careful review processes, and adherence to accepted standards of scholarship.

It also had its drawbacks. The updating and release of new material necessarily occurred at a glacial pace. Originality and dissent were frowned upon and non-mainstream perspectives could only find their way to print slowly, if at all. There were intrinsic limitations of scale and scope, put in place by the economics of the editorial and print process: only major topics deemed to be of interest to large numbers of people could justify the resources put into covering any given entry.

The philosophy of its founders shaped Wikipedia and supplied its unique sensibility, overturning the conventional constraints of established encyclopedias. Most critically, Wales and Sanger possessed a fundamental faith in humanity. Wikipedia is not about technology, Wales wrote in the foreword to Lih’s book, “it’s about people… it’s about trusting people, it’s about encouraging people to do good.” Detractors believed that permitting open editing of web content, or “crowdsourcing,” would result in chaos. Bias, error, and distortion would be rife. How could the anonymous interaction of the Web, they wondered, result in reliably accurate information on a wide range of topics?

But Wikipedia’s bet on the potential of free human interaction in an online community paid off. By 2008, it boasted more than 2 million articles in English, and millions more in some 250 other languages. By almost any measure it was a spectacular success.

The model pioneered by Wikipedia is not flawless. One might say that it is perfect only in its reflection of human nature. Without a formal review process and elite gatekeepers, there is the constant threat of interminable “edit wars,” which have in fact occurred from time to time. There is always the possibility that inaccurate content will be posted and will not be corrected in a timely fashion: Wikipedia entries cannot be assumed to be error-free. This last problem is most serious when contributors use content maliciously to defame the character of individuals or institutions. Finally, the vast scope and influence of Wikipedia is a temptation to the unscrupulous who have a pet agenda to push (witness the recently exposed exploits of a British scientist and Green Party activist who modified more than 5,000 articles in the cause of global warming alarmism).

Partly in response to these problems, Wikipedia has progressively imposed more elaborate publishing protocols which has, in turn, raised frustration levels and resulted in a decline in the number of editors who write for the site. There are also fewer subjects that haven’t already been covered after a decade of Wiki writing.

Yet Wikipedia is immensely useful and, all in all, remarkably reliable. Its success is a testament to the potential of human cooperation in a system of free exchange. It capitalizes on a vision of the person as flawed but capable of accomplishing good when given the opportunity and encouragement to do so. It recognizes that there is, in community, a power and capacity that exceeds that which is possible when people apply their talents individually and haphazardly. In brief, Wikipedia is a brilliant display of ordered freedom.

That there was no burdensome government regulation of technology in place to impede or prevent Wikipedia’s creation and expansion is then only the more superficial policy observation to be drawn from this episode. Wikipedia both recognized and benefited from a realistic appreciation of the human person as a creative, social, and moral being. Applying its lessons to the interaction of government with individuals and communities would transform political institutions as radically as Wikipedia transformed the meaning of the word encyclopedia.

Blog author: hunter.baker
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
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The Big Hollywood blogger and actor Adam Baldwin, recently of the television series Chuck and Firefly, has taken up his virtual pen to defend Brit Hume from those who have criticized him for suggesting that Tiger Woods should consider Christianity in his time of crisis. Hume made the statement on Fox News Sunday, thus prompting outrage from secularists who find such an offering offensive and irrelevant.

Baldwin scores several times in his blog piece. Here is the foundation:

As an avid golfer, Christian man, and therefore a witness to the historic fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mr. Hume clearly offered his message in good faith with honest concern for both Tiger’s future and for that of his family, friends, fans and business associates.

Look carefully at what Baldwin has written. Brit Hume believes Christianity is true and is based on an actual historical event. He is not adverting to some mystery religion (reach for the seventh level, Tiger), but is instead giving advice every bit as practical, or perhaps more so, than urging Mr. Woods to seek marital counseling or to find a good attorney.

This is what secularists simply do not understand. They think Christianity is “inaccessible” to others. It is not. You can accept it or reject it, but there is no reason for confusion. The basis of the faith is quite clear. Either you accept the evidence that the resurrection of Christ actually occurred in time and space or you do not. In no case should you accuse the Christian of hitting you with a bunch of magical mysteriousness that you cannot possibly understand.

You should really consider reading the entire post. Baldwin completely exposes the inappropriateness and unfairness of the comparisons of sincere Christianity to Jihad and deftly analyzes the pretensions of secularism. I could try to summarize, but would just end up reproducing his essay.

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
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The New York Times is not known to be the most reliable or informed commentator on matters religious, but a recent Times article (marred, unfortunately, by a couple of inaccuracies) highlighted that France’s claim to have separated religion from the state is only true in parts. French cities and the countryside are dotted with beautiful churches, but few realize that the state is responsible for the physical upkeep of many of them. This is a legacy of the famous (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) 1905 law – Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État – in which a militantly anti-Catholic French government unilaterally abrogated the Concordat of 1801 and ended state-funding of religious groups (which meant, in overwhelmingly Catholic France, the Catholic Church).

But it didn’t quite cut all the ties. As part of the 1905 law, the French government declared that all then-existing religious buildings were the property of the state (specifically, local government), thereby legalizing the greatest theft of private property owned by a religious organization since Henry VIII’s dissolution (or, more accurately, government-sanctioned sacking, pillaging, and destruction) of the monasteries. Unlike King Henry, however, the French state allowed Catholics to keep using these places of worship and even today maintains their upkeep – something that lends itself to all sorts of mischief-making on the part of politicians.

A good example of this was highlighted in the Times article which reports that a beautiful 19th century church in the town of Gesté in the province of Anjou is scheduled for demolition because the local council has decided that it is too costly to maintain and cheaper to build a new one. But many opposing the council’s decision say that it has nothing to do with government budgets and everything to do with trying to reduce local unemployment.

Given the state of much post-1960s church architecture, it’s likely that the new church will be just as hideously ugly as most other churches (of any confession) built since 1960. The wider point, however, is that it should surely be up to the local bishop and the parish itself as to whether to renovate the church or build a new one. Instead, the choice has been made by Gesté’s local council, of whom one can safely presume a good number (even in the still very Catholic province of Anjou) are not believers or haven’t darkened a church door in several decades. Christians presumably would not expect to have a say in the building or demolition of the local Communist party headquarters, feminist collective, or Masonic temple. Yet in France if the local village atheist gets elected to the local council, he is henceforth in a position to make decisions about the fate of many houses of worship.

Such are the perils of government funding for churches – or mosques or synagogues for that matter. Inevitably, one’s independence is unjustly circumscribed.

Camarin M. Porter of the Department of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison reviews a text edited by Stephen J. Grabill, Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory: The Contributions of Martin de Azpilcueta, Luis de Molina, and Juan de Mariana (Lexington, 2007). The review appears courtesy of H-Net, a unique and indispensable set of list-servs hosted by Michigan State University.

The Sourcebook includes translations into English of selected texts from the significant figures listed in the book’s subtitle, as well as a general introduction by Grabill and specialized introductions for each text: Azpilcueta’s Commentary on the Resolution of Money (1556), Molina’s Treatise on Money (1597), and Mariana’s Treatise on the Alteration of Money (1609).

In this extensive review, Porter writes, “For each of the three texts, the Sourcebook efficiently accomplishes its goal of setting each authors’ specific concerns in areas of moral theology and economics within full social and intellectual contexts.”