Gleaning is the traditional Biblical practice of gathering crops that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot, or be plowed under after harvest. The biblical mandate for the practice comes from Deuteronomy 24:19,
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
Gleaning provided the poor with a way to use their own labor to provide for their needs. For us today, the practice provides a useful Biblical model for how we can help others to help themselves. “Those with wealth are to provide opportunities for the poor to rise out of poverty,” writes Marvin Olasky, in Renewing American Compassion, “the typical starting point in the Old Testament was gleaning.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary I conclude, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued.”
What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
The payoff? “So while home ownership may sound glamorous, you need a lot of money to make it work, without much guarantee of positive returns in a post-bubble era.”
I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
New York pundit Al Sharpton and California Senator Barbara Boxer agree: The “right” to insurance paid for by an employer trumps freedom of conscience and religion.
The primary point of my first book, The End of Secularism, was to demonstrate that secularism doesn’t do what it claims to do, which is to solve the problem of religious difference. As I look at the administration’s attempt to mandate that religious employers pay for contraceptive products, I see that they have confirmed one of my charges in the book.
I wrote that secularists claim that they are occupying a neutral position in the public square, but in reality they are simply another group of contenders working to implement a vision of community life with which they are comfortable. And guess what? They are not comfortable with many of the fundamental beliefs of Christians. Regrettably, many secularists are also statists. Thus, their discomfort with Christian beliefs results in direct challenges to them in the form of mandatory public policy.
Collectivism is often very appealing to Christians who want to do good for their neighbors. Unfortunately, collectivism is frequently a fellow-traveler of aggressive secularism with little respect for religious liberty. The veil has slipped. I hope we do not too quickly forget what was revealed in that moment. Collectivism gives. But it also takes. And what it takes is very often precious and irreplaceable.
While the recent contraceptive mandate controversy has exposed the Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedoms, it has also reveled their natural disdain for subsidiarity. As George Weigel notes, this incident tells us “something very important, and very disturbing, about the cast of mind in the Executive Branch.”
When we launched the PowerBlog in 2005, we had little idea that it would grow into one of the Acton Institute’s most popular and powerful communications channels. Nearly 4,000 posts, and 8,000 comments later, the PowerBlog is still going strong. And for that, we heartily thank our many readers, contributors and commenters.
Now we have for the first time a dedicated editor to help sustain and grow the blog for the advancement of the “free and virtuous society.” Veteran journalist Joe Carter is joining Acton as Senior Editor beginning today.
Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, online editor for First Things, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A 15-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously worked as the managing editor for The East Texas Tribune and the online magazine Culture11. He has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign, as a director of communications for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, and as director of online communications for Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Crossway).
Please join me in welcoming Joe to the PowerBlog.