greed-2Yet another moral meltdown based on greed. This time the human vice reared its ugly head in Westminster. For the first time since 1650, a Speaker of the House of Commons has resigned under angry public protest of his controversial use of public funds.

Yesterday, the Labour party’s second most senior leader, Michael Martin of Glasgow, officially quit as House Speaker amid accusations that he abused his publically financed personal expense account, a perk enjoyed by Members of Parliament.

The British population is outraged: not only because of the exorbitant nature of Martin’s financial reimbursements (reimbursements for cat food, installation of chandeliers, manure, porn material, and repairs to his country estate moat) during the painful economic recession, but because morally rekindled Britons are fed up and ready to part ways with the country’s current leadership.

Adding fuel to the fire, government officials released deeper probes into the art of public deceit. Repayment claims were filed by other M.P.s for interest charged on fictional mortgages on second homes, at time when many banks are foreclosing on the homes of ordinary citizens.

According to a study on global corruption released by Dr. Richard Ebeling of the American Institute for Economic Research, the United Kingdom has fared well amongst its European peers, given the positive correlation found between the freer markets of the British Isles and lesser incentives to perform illicit acts to gain undue advantages in either the public and private sectors. Therefore, United Kingdom has traditionally looked good when compared to the corruption impairing the progress of freedom and prosperity among the many “transition nations” of Eastern Europe.

However, even British traditions of good behaviour will not last forever. Pope Benedict has warned the world time and again of the corrosive nature of greed, which “distorts the purpose of material goods and destroys the world,” as he said last April 22 during his weekly general audience in Rome.

In the wake of the scandals of Westminster, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rallied the British population to change. “Westminster cannot operate like some gentleman’s club,” where its members “make up the rules,” he said. Yet his oratory seems too little, too late. Under 10 years of center-left Labour leadership, the United Kingdom has slowly welcomed back bigger government – along with it invasive tax schemes, cushy welfare doles, and the slippery slope of greed and corruption among public servants.

Britain’s lawmakers are fortunate only to lose their prestigious government posts and reputations and face incarceration. Their prospects would have been far worse under the days under monarchical rule when greedy and corrupt political officials were quickly guillotined for accepting bribes and illegal financial contributions.

Update (5/21): The New York Daily News reports that “state lawmakers are trying to give the fat tax new life.”

Senate Democrats want to impose a penny excise tax on non-diet sodas to help fund a plan to provide property tax relief to homeowners. “It’s a small amount of money, as far as increasing the price of soda, and it would allow the governor and the state to have a new slogan for soda: ‘Have a coke, a rebate check and a smile,'” said state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) who unveiled the plan yesterday.

On the Atlantic Magazine blog, Derek Thompson links Rev. Sirico’s article and offers praise for sin taxes:

The idea that taxes have no right to reflect government values is crazy (why else would we give legal and financial bonuses to marriage?). Cigarettes already face steep state taxes precisely because those states value a smoke-free environment. Carbon taxes are advocated on the principle that companies aren’t properly valuing the negative externality of pollution.

sin taxOriginal Post: Writing on The American, published by the American Enterprise Institute, Rev. Robert A. Sirico looks at how the “sin tax” has been creatively revived by those currently “remaking America” in Washington. The sin tax is an excise tax on those goods that elected officials deem morally suspect: tobacco, liquor, junk food, among other things. But Rev. Sirico says that the temptation to impose sin taxes is one that should be resisted for economic and moral reasons. From the article:

The elite media, liberal think tanks, and academic researchers are already building a case against Big Food for its scarlet sins: sweetened drinks, fatty snacks, alcoholic beverages. You know what’s coming next: a wave of punitive government regulation and scores of lawsuits aiming to shake down the nation’s vast food and beverage industry. It’s the same strategy developed for the assault on the tobacco industry—tax the bad stuff out of existence. Today, in New York City, the price of a pack of cigarettes now tops $9 (each pack now carries $5.26 in taxes), which makes the city one of the most expensive places in the country to smoke.

Never mind if you have freely chosen to smoke a cigarette or drink a cold Coke on a hot summer’s day and, mirabile dictu, you take responsibility for your actions. The New Puritans who are ready to dramatically expand the welfare state and limit personal freedoms claim to know what’s best for you.

The sin tax seems like a convenient ploy when the state is searching for new sources of revenue in fiscally tight times. A sin tax also appeals to some voters who view it as a way of discouraging consumption of certain objectionable products. Yet the temptation to impose sin taxes is one that should be resisted for economic and moral reasons. The consequences of the sin tax are often the very opposite of those intended by its designers. Rather than increasing revenue, the sin tax can reduce it. Rather than discouraging what are regarded as morally questionable behaviors, the sin tax can make them more appealing. Rather than reducing what are perceived to be internal costs of the sin, the sin tax can increase them and expand them to society as a whole.

Read “Hate the Sin, Tax the Sinner?” on The American.

Economists and policy experts are forever coming up with new solutions for the seemingly intractable problem of African poverty. But Anthony Bradley points out that any reform program “must require certain moral values to truly flourish; in virtue’s absence the same system can serve to create new moral dilemmas.”

Read the commentary at the Acton website and share your response in the comment thread below.

First Things revisits Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s reflections on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its role in American religious and political life, past, present, and future.

It was originally published in 2005, but deserves renewed scrutiny because Dolan was recently installed as the leader the Archdiocese of New York, widely perceived as the preeminent American see.

And his observations happen to be relevant to the Notre Dame controversy (see Michael Miller’s post below); and to the ongoing question of interpreting Catholic social teaching in the context of American politics (see Fr. Sirico’s post below.)

Said Dolan:

Bishops seem to sense that a return to the John Carroll-John England style of leadership might be in order. Above all, these patriarchs were concerned with building the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishops today increasingly ask whether it is now necessary to rebuild the Church in America, through reform and renewal. They wonder if we need to start internally, concentrating first on pastoral issues such as widespread catechetical illiteracy, the collapse of marriage and family life, the restoration of a “culture of life,” genuine liturgical reform, a return to the sacrament of penance, a national commitment to obey the third commandment, and the promotion of authentic renewal in the lives of our priests and religious…

As a graduate of Notre Dame I have been asked many times what I think of Notre Dame inviting President Barack Obama to speak at commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Many have ably commented on this, including Fr. Sirico here at Acton, Dr. Donald Condit, and over 50 bishops. I think the ND Response video piece sums it up well. But I received a video appeal from Notre Dame the other day asking for money which prompted me to comment. (See my reply to the appeal below)

I think Fr. Jenkins made a serious mistake of judgment in inviting President Obama to the graduation. The controversy over President Obama coming to Notre Dame is not an argument about the value of open debate at a university; it is not about President Obama. It is about a Catholic institution honoring a public figure whose positions directly contradict those of the Catholic Church on the key non-negotiable issues of life.

Faithful Catholics are free to disagree about a host – in fact, the overwhelming majority – of political and economic issues, but some moral issues, like the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life, are not up for debate and never have been. See Cardinal Ratzinger’s Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles especially paragraph #3

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Jenkins, has tried to justify the invitation on many levels, but the attempts have been exercises in sophistry. If you have any doubts on this score see Fr. Raymond De’Souza’s fine piece on the matter.

Despite the outcry against Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins and his staff seem oblivious and continue business as usual. Just last week I received an e-mail from the Notre Dame development office with a video asking for money. The style was postmodern and adolescent, and the content of the appeal focused predominantly on race and environment–important concerns but tone deaf in the context of the current controversy.

Below is my (edited) response to the development appeal and my views on Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president. (more…)

Phil Lawler over at Catholic Culture has written a brief and insightful piece that addresses a question frequently asked, “Is Catholic Social Teaching Inherently Liberal?” It is worth a read. Excerpt:

The Church clearly teaches that the moral duty of all believers to help those in need, to exercise the “preferential option for the poor.” But is it self-evident that the effort to fight poverty should be waged through impersonal government programs, supported by mandatory taxation, rather than by the freewill offerings of charitable donors? Is it self-evident that the federal government should supervise these anti-poverty programs, although the principle of subsidiarity would seem to militate in favor of local solutions to local problems and individual approaches to needy individuals? Is there a prima facie case for allowing the Church’s own charitable efforts to be subsumed into the tax-subsidized programs, so that “Catholic Charities” is for all practical purposes a government agency?

These questions are rarely raised when parish “justice and peace” committees meet. The conservative Catholics who make make these arguments are generally not members of those committees; they are already too busy with their work on the pro-life committees! So liberal Catholics eventually come to take it for granted that what seems so obvious to them must be equally obvious to their fellow Catholics. They are genuinely surprised to learn that some faithful Catholics are not enthralled by the promise of an Obama presidency, even apart from issues involving the dignity of life.

anatomyentreperneur-1 Is moral enhancement of the entrepreneur possible? That’s the question Michael Severance, operations manager for Istituto Acton (the Acton Institute’s Rome office) recently posed to Dr. Adriana Gini, a neuroradiologist at San Camillo-Forlanini Medical Centre in Rome and an expert bioethicist at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. Dr. Gini recently led Istituto Acton’s monthly Campus Martius seminar “Moral Enhancement: Back to the Future” and offers some further insight on her topic. An audio recording of her seminar is available on the Istituto Acton home page.

Michael Severance: Dr. Gini, thank you for taking time to explain your views on the fascinating subject of moral enhancement. Most of us have heard of various forms of “physical” enhancement, as with genetic splicing for disease prevention, pre-selection of human embryos to produce “savior siblings” and mixing chemical cocktails to improve the physical endurance of our organs…In what way are the two types of enhancement – physical and moral – related, if at all? Or is this just a play on words?

Adriana Gini: The association between the word “moral” to the type of life we live, the decisions we make, our efforts and struggles to improve society and ourselves is perfectly natural. In fact, morality depends on our acts and our acts are the expression of what we are as human beings. Our behavior, as moral agents, is quite complex and, no doubt, involves our physicality. Nonetheless, a pure physical/neuronal explanation of morality -with no reference to a more comprehensive knowledge of the human person- is rather hazardous. As such, the term “moral enhancement” does not have an immediate, direct connection to some forms of genetic, pharmacological or biotechnological enhancement, unlike the ones targeted at cognitive enhancement.

MS: From an Acton perspective, it is interesting to know if there is some type of “competition” or “economic” factor driving neurological science in the direction of improving the human moral condition. What is at the bottom of all this? For example, is the real inspiration to improve human action found in creating a competitive edge in intelligence within the marketplace? Some might find it hard to believe that secular science is really interested in fostering moral excellence for its own sake in its laboratories. Much less so in its lab rats and guinea pigs!

AG: According to some authors, as with Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Centre for Practical Ethics and head of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, contemporary research aimed at enhancing human cognition will result in an economic improvement (cf. Chap. 1.4 of Enhancing Human Capacities edited by Dr. Savulescu). In other words, better people make for better jobs, and in the end, better, more productive societies – in an economic sense. However, Savulescu’s claim is that such enhancement might also lead to a greater world of evil action. For example, we can use drugs or other biotechnological means to improve our mental abilities, but sometimes also to our detriment: smarter terrorists mean fiercer terrorist attacks with the mental enhancement to fabricate more powerful, more intelligent weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, in Savulescu’s opinion, any means to morally enhance the human species in terms of cognitive enhancement should only progress alongside research on moral enhancement. No one really knows, however, how to improve the human species morally by biotechnological means alone, since morality is not purely “biological”…, although there are certainly biological correlations to human moral behavior. (more…)

richards-book1The belief that the essence of capitalism is greed is perhaps the biggest myth Jay W. Richards tackles in his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem. One reason for confronting this challenge is that many free market advocates subscribe to the thought that capitalism produces greed, and for them that’s not necessarily a negative. But for those with a faith perspective, greed and covetousness are of course serious moral flaws.

It’s also the kind of myth that less articulate writers would rather not challenge, especially in this troubling economic climate. Richards does however have a skill for tightly honed logical arguments, and he not only is able to defend free markets but tear lethal holes into many of the economic ramblings of the religious left. He even takes on holy of holies like fair trade and Third World debt relief. Richards argues that the free market is moral, something that may come as a surprise to many people of faith. This book provides a crushing blow to those involved in the ministry of class warfare or those who wish to usher in the Kingdom of God through “nanny state” policies.

The book divides into eight chapters, with each chapter discussing a common held economic myth like the “piety myth” or “nirvana myth.” Richards says the piety myth pertains to “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.” The nirvana myth characterizes the act of “contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.” Richards himself states, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.”

The influence of libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder are evident through out this book. But the overarching strength of Richards work is how he places the free market message into the context of Christian discussions and debate. Unfortunately before this response, many of the economic arguments by the Christian left weren’t properly countered in popular mediums. Furthermore, the wanton excess of prosperity gospel advocates only fueled or provided ammunition for the religious left’s rebuke of the free market. (more…)

Much of the blame for the current financial crisis has been aimed at Wall Street and the bankers who, the story goes, created toxic debt instruments and then lined their own pockets with the proceeds. In “Verdict on the Crash: Causes and Policy Implications,” a new analysis from economists and scholars — including Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg — the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs comes to the opposite conclusion: It was governments and regulators who erred. Moreover, the IEA report says, the people most often berated for their part in the crisis – the hedge fund managers and those who run tax havens – are among the least guilty. The report also spells out the need for a “radical overhaul” of the financial system to guard against a repeat of the errors that led to the crisis.

The authors of “Verdict on the Crash” assert that “a revolution in financial regulation is needed. The proposals of the G20 governments and the EU are wholly misconceived. Specific and targeted laws and regulations could restore market discipline.”

Read a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph from the economists and scholars who wrote the “Verdict on the Crash” report for IEA. Read highlights and download the full report from the IEA blog. Acton’s Samuel Gregg authored the chapter titled, “Moral Failure: Borrowing, Lending and the Financial Crisis.”

Once again, sociologists and journalists are predicting the demise of Christianity as a major influence in the public life of America. Hunter Baker pokes holes in that theory, and observes that these persistent predictions are coming from “those anxious for it to occur.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and comment on it here.