Though Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was not as devastating as expected, it took several dozen lives and has cause billions of dollars of damage. Some economists have tried to argue that the storm is a net gain for the economy—think of all the jobs that will be created by the clean-up and rebuilding! But treatment of the storm by the mainstream media has been surprisingly honest and nonpartisan, and their unguarded coverage is instructive.
ABC News reports that economic losses due to slowed commerce over the next week to ten days could be as much as $20 billion, which is more than the direct damage done by the storm. (Amusing twist: one of the economists cited in the ABC story is the guy claiming the new trees and roofs needed along the eastern seaboard constitute an “economic renewal,” although ABC seems to have decided to spare him the mockery by excluding that nonsense from its story.)
The media’s frank admission that a hurricane-forced suspension of business cannot be declared economic growth invites comparison with what is said when, for example, a snowflake falls on Hilda Solis’s eyelash as she walks into work and the Department of Labor is sent home at noon. Why does no one talk about the economic losses then? Where are the stories of systematic collapse? When the Department of Labor is not on the job! Oh, wait…
Men and women—their ideas and their hard work—are the only producers of wealth, but an economics that isn’t correctly based on human nature can pretend otherwise. As Henry Hazlitt, author of Economics in One Lesson, said,
No man burns down his own house on the theory that the need to rebuild it will stimulate his energies.
Deep down, even the Washington press corps knows that natural disasters don’t create jobs, and regulation doesn’t drive growth. It takes an Act of God to get it out of them though.
The Acton Institute has released a mobile app for smart phones and tablets based on the Android operating system. The free app keeps users up to date with the latest PowerBlog posts, commentaries, events and other goings on at the institute. Point your desktop/laptop computer or smart phone to the Android Market.
In the pipeline — the Acton iPhone app for Apple mobile devices. Stay tuned!
Distributism is not a new idea—it wasn’t conceived by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. As Belloc explains in The Servile State, their idea was a return to certain economic principles of medieval Europe—a guild system, wider ownership of the means of production, etc.—in order to right the injustices of capitalism. But distributism goes back further than that, to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the second century B.C., and the theory’s proponents would do well to learn from the tragic failures of the Gracchi.
Plutarch tells us that the two brothers were among the most virtuous men of their day. Tiberius, ten years older than Gaius, served with great distinction in the army and showed himself not only an excellent tactician but, in his famous dealings with the Numantines, a peacemaker also. He then returned to civilian life and was elected a tribune—a representative of the interests of the common man and one of the highest offices in the Roman Republic.
As Rome grew the army was no longer made up of farmers who tilled their fields six or nine months out of the year, so that by the time of the Gracchi, the citizen farmer class upon which the Republic had been built was basically extinct. The rich could buy out the farms of whomever they wished, and more and more common families left their lands and moved to the capital, where they lived as dependents on the public.
In an attempt to save the Republic, Tiberius moved to redistribute the land and prevent the rich from buying it up in large tracts. Whatever Tiberius’s intentions—and they were certainly noble—this was revolution, and the Senate reacted. Tiberius, who had with such skill arranged peace between his army and a barbarian tribe, became swept up in the political repercussions of his attempt to return Rome to her former glory, and was assassinated.
Gaius tried to accomplish the leveling that his brother had not, but he too made an enemy of the Senate and died violently. Plutarch says of them in his account:
What could be more just and honorable than their first design, had not the power and the faction of the rich, by endeavoring to abrogate that law, engaged them both in those fatal quarrels?
In his defense of distributism for the journal Dappled Things, John C. Medaille argues that it is the only political-economic system capable of rendering distributive justice which is not a “cure worse than the disease.” Substantial government intervention or workforce unionization present dangers too “massive,” he says, to consider. But if there is anything to be learned from the failure of the Gracchi, it is that a distributist system is, if not totally impossible to implement, certainly a cure worse than the disease.
The August issue of Southern Living magazine offers a very good story on the faith of Smithville Baptist pastor Wes White and the community of Smithville, Miss. Smithville was devastated by a tornado that wreaked havoc across the South in late April.
Pastor White is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a hope beyond logic, beyond understanding. I believe our God is going to take our devastation and turn it into something beautiful.” The words from White echo Rev. Kelvin Croom’s message expressed in my article “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” from the Spring Issue of Religion & Liberty. Croom declared:
Even in the days we were living with segregation, we all had a hope for a better day. And right now, that’s what we’re doing in Tuscaloosa: We’re hoping for a better day, hoping we come from the ashes of destruction and into a beautiful, more livable American city.
The devastation is a reminder to pray for our fellow citizens who are in the path of Hurricane Irene, and pray that the hurricane has a dull bite. But as my piece in Religion & Liberty points out, if there is to be any destruction along the East Coast, it will largely be the Church and religious organizations that are the first on the scene. They are the ones who will be making a lasting impact in the recovery and restoration of affected communities.
While insensitive political commentators might be looking at the storm as a great opportunity for job creation, most of the effort will come from volunteers. An August 19 story from CNN on the Joplin tornado points out, what many of us already know, the faith community stays in the recovery effort for the duration. Anybody from the Gulf Coast or anybody who has been involved in Hurricane Katrina relief, is aware of the deep commitment and staying power of many charitable faith groups.
“More and more, I find Catholics dividing themselves into capitalist and distributist camps,” writes Bernardo Aparicio García, president of the Catholic journal Dappled Things. To help readers establish “a firm foundation” for thinking about economic questions, García opened up the pages of his journal to Robert T. Miller, for capitalism, and John C. Médaille, for distributism. The result is a lengthy exchange “On Truth and Trade: Economics and the Catholic Vision of the Good Life.”
Miller is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law and writes for First Things. Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He writes for the Distributist Review. Here are some snippets from the debate:
… I will defend a more modest proposition, namely, that, for people like us in a society like ours, capitalism is the most reasonable choice among the various economic systems we might adopt. To defend this more modest proposition, I start with some deep assumptions about human life.
Among these, the deepest is that human beings, being physical beings, have material needs and so must organize the world’s material resources to meet them. Another deep assumption is that even modestly complex manipulations of material resources—let alone sophisticated projects like building transcontinental railroads, designing computers and their software, or refining petroleum products—require the cooperation of very large numbers of human beings. This point is vastly under-appreciated. In 1958 Leonard Read famously estimated that the number of human beings involved in producing an ordinary wooden pencil from raw materials to final product exceeds one million; nowadays, in a more complex economy, that’s probably a gross underestimate. Yet another assumption is that information about the various possible uses of resources is difficult to obtain and analyze and, moreover, changes very rapidly.
From a moral point of view, what we want from an economic system is that it generate and distribute resources in a way that maximizes the long-run probability that all members of society have enough goods and services to lead decent lives. One way to do this would be to appoint a central body authorized to allocate resources and charged with responsibility to ensure that everyone receives a fair share. This is socialism, and it has proved a very poor solution to the economic problem. There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns information: the central authority cannot acquire enough reliable information, much less process it fast enough, to allocate resources efficiently. This results in tremendous waste. Thus, in the former Soviet Union, warehouses full of unneeded machine parts sat and rusted while consumers found no toilet paper on the store shelves.
Clearly, the standard model of economics has failed us. Not only has it failed to bring a stable economic order, but it has destabilized the family and the community as well, and grown the government past any reasonable bounds. Clearly, a different model is needed. Note that I said “different” rather than “new.” It is not a question of inventing new systems, but of examining existing systems to see what works and what doesn’t. Economics—or rather political economy—is preeminently a practical science. We need to find out what works, and adapt it to our own circumstances. Inventing models is easy; getting them to work is hard. And if a system has no existing implementations, we are permitted to assume that it can’t be implemented. So, can we find a system on the ground and working that will address our questions of political economy?
I believe we can, and that system is distributism. This system seeks to restore distributive justice to its proper place in the economic order; its main tenet is that without a proper distribution of the rewards of production, markets cannot be cleared, family life will be disturbed, and the markets will become more dependent on government and consumer finance to clear.
Now the major difference between distributism and conventional economics has to do with property and a just wage; that is, with the things the Catholic Church teaches as essential to economic order. Standard economics justifies the wage on the basis of “free contract,” that is, if there is no government coercion which forces someone to accept a given wage, then the wage must be considered “just.” Further, through free bargaining, both sides, capital and labor, will get what they actually produce and productivity will be properly rewarded.
Also see Beyond Distributism by Thomas E. Woods Jr., available in the Acton Bookshoppe.
Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.
A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):
Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”
On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.
Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.
The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.
“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”
Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:
The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.
Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.
While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.
Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”
Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.
In a 2008 interview with BeliefNet.com, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:
By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?
Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.
Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.
If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.
More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:
During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.
By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.
The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)
On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.
What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”
2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.
My friend Joe Knippenberg notes some of my musings on the field of “philosophical counseling,” and in fact articulates some of the concerns I share about the content of such practice. I certainly didn’t mean to uncritically praise the new field as it might be currently practiced (I did say, “The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable.”).