If the Great Recession of 2008 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t detach economic prosperity from moral issues. Greed, imprudent spending by individuals and by government, debt, all of these things brought our economy to where we are today. As I’ve said many times on BreakPoint, our economic collapse is the result of our moral and ethical collapse.
We don’t teach our kids that there are such things as right or wrong, and we wonder why they grow up to cheat and steal.
And the social costs of disintegrating traditional families in terms of crime, divorce, juvenile delinquency, are truly staggering.
You don’t think supporting traditional families — and marriage — matters? Well, then you’ve never been inside a prison, like I have. You haven’t met the thousands of young men and women I have who have told you about their missing fathers or their drugged-out moms.
No society that rejects the moral good can possibly stay solvent. The price tag for moral corruption, as we have learned, is simply too high.
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.
If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).
More on St. John Chrysostom.
On Sept. 8, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg appeared live on the EWTN network to discuss “St. Thomas More: Saint, Scholar, Statesman, Martyr.” The show was hosted by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
On his website, David Bahnsen reviews The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur C. Brooks:
The strongest points of the book, and the reason Brooks has done such critically important work here (World magazine has already recognized the book as its Book of 2010, by the way) are found in these two areas:
(1) The moral nature of the battle that exists
(2) The fundamental materialism that underpins the left’s approach towards creating income equality.
I heard Dr. Brooks speak about the latter at the annual Acton Institute dinner in 2009 and wrote about it here. Brooks concept of “earned success” is indisputably true and of fundamental importance in how we approach the problems in today’s world. Understanding the idea that true happiness comes from “earned success”, and not simply receiving a bigger slice of society’s overall wealth pie via government-coerced redistribution, is not mere economics. This latter point makes his former point all the more compelling. For what could be more immoral than advocating a policy worldview that dooms millions of people to unhappiness by robbing them of their human dignity? The arguments against the coercive and progressive and inefficient portions of our tax code are important (and all valid), but they miss the most important point of all: They fail to do what they set out to do, and make life worse for those they set out to help.
Read “The Battle for our Hearts and Souls” by David Bahnsen.
We are extremely grateful then to the brilliant researcher and scholar, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, for a concise, penetrating, and thorough analysis of Röpke’s contribution to intellectual life. It breaks new ground, is highly readable, and adds considerably to the economic literature. It should become mandatory reading for every student of political economy.
As the intellectual author of Germany’s post-World War II economic resurrection, Röpke is an under-appreciated thinker who informed policymaking. Gregg rightly calls him a Smithian, as he was against the unlimited power of the state. Put positively, he was much more. Röpke was an “economic humanist” of the first order. He historically showed how the Great Depression came to limit economics as a science and how collectivism is incompatible with authentic human freedom.
The purpose of Gregg’s masterful book is to provide a descriptive and critical introduction to Röpke’s understanding of political economy. This is unquestioningly an exercise in historical recovery. The focus is on four subjects that concerned Röpke up until his early death in 1966. They are: the challenge of business cycles, the unending growth of the welfare state, full employment and inflation, and international economic relations.
Read Malloch’s “The Great Wilhelm Röpke” on the American Spectator website.
We’ll be posting excerpts from Sam’s new book in the days ahead.
On Aug. 28, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Acton president and co-founder, was interviewed by Freedom Watch host Judge Andrew Napolitano in a wide ranging discussion of natural rights, the moral law and politics. They were joined by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
Until recently, many thought that Europe had escaped the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Some even argued that the crisis has demonstrated the European social model’s superiority over “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. In 2010, however, we have seen an entire country bailed out, riots in Athens, governments slashing budgets, and several European nations staring sovereign debt default in the face. Some are even claiming that the euro is finished. So what went wrong for Europe? How adequate have been the responses of European governments? And what are the consequences for America? The video is from the Aug. 2 Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The first thing I’d like to point out about Lester DeKoster’s claims regarding work is that he has in mind, at least partially, the classical Greek philosophical distinction between the active and contemplative life, particularly its disdain of manual labor. You can get a hint of this from the video short, “How did Plato and Aristotle Justify Slavery?” Some people are simply born to work with their hands and be governed by those who are wiser and able to think, take responsibility for society, and so on.
It’s with this distinction in mind that DeKoster and Berghoef write,
The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.
In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, as some comments have noted, DeKoster explicitly takes on Pieper’s thesis that leisure is the basis of culture. DeKoster writes,
The writer who speaks of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper) is confused, even though he can quote some ancient Greek thinkers in his support. Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.
The disdain of manual labor, literal manufacturing, and the celebration of leisure, contemplation, rest, are in this way correlated.
We get a sense of why this is so in DeKoster’s distinction between work and play. He defines work as that which we do for others, but play as “that which is done to please or serve the self.” Thus he observes,
Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time. But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul which is thus occupied.
Play may be indulged as recreation, that is as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed.
This is, in many ways, a more helpful distinction than Pieper’s juxtaposition of work and leisure. For after all, work in DeKoster’s sense is really much more than what we do for a paycheck. It includes all of the things we do primarily for others. Service in its various forms is work, including that work done by mothers and fathers for their children inside the home.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views on work and culture complement DeKoster’s in that his social ethical structure makes no basic distinction between work and culture [Bildung]. Each term is used essentially synonymously to cover the estate of our interrelations along with the church, family and marriage, and government [Obrigkeit].
We’ve pointed to play as one of the concepts that limits work. But some of the discussion has also pointed to a kind of sacred/secular distinction, that between worship and work. And here the traditional pairing of prayer and work comes to the fore.
In his Life Together, Bonhoeffer has a helpful way of putting how prayer and work are distinct and yet relate intimately. He says,
The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of the work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in a real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.
Prayer is not conflated with work in this account, but rather provides work with its limits, its boundaries, and orients it towards its ultimate end in God.
For more on Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of work as an order of divine grace in the context of global Lutheranism, see “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth.”
And for the rest of this week you can pre-order the new paperback edition of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective at a special Labor Day discount. Just add the book to your cart to see the discounted price, or download it to your Kindle reader right now.
Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”
Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”
It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.
What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”
But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.
The Thomas Nelson company sent me AmSpec alumnus Jeremy Lott’s William F. Buckley. I will write a full review later, but I have just begun the book and can already tell that Lott is going to bring attention to some underappreciated territory.
His hook is that Bill Buckley was more or less a prophet. His aim is to show how Buckley’s faith influenced his life and his politics.
Only nine pages in I have been treated to the following quote by JFK in response to a Harvard speaker who crowed that the school had never graduated either an Alger Hiss or a McCarthy. JFK roared, “How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with the name of a traitor!” (Whatever happened to the Kennedy’s?)
Of course, the book is not about JFK, but about WFB, and I am sure from what I have read so far that the effort will be a worthy one.