This week’s Acton Commentary:

Healthcare reform – it’s one of those causes almost everyone favors, but which almost automatically produces sharp arguments when we ask what it means and how it might be realized. You would have had to be living in a cave for the past eight months to be unaware that Americans are deeply divided on this matter, and that the division runs clean through the middle of many communities. That includes Catholic America.

Of course, there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics, whatever their politics, when it comes to healthcare reform. These principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life, or which diminish existing conscience exemptions.

Without question, these are the primary issues for Catholics who take their Church’s teaching seriously when it comes to healthcare legislation. They dwarf everything else.

No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in, for example, widening access to affordable healthcare, it is a stable principle of Catholic faith – and natural law – that you cannot do evil in order that good may come from it. St Paul insisted upon this almost 2000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and centuries of magisterial teaching. Try as they may, no amount of rationalization by the usual suspects can get around this point.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the healthcare debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. We’ve yet to see what impact this might have on whatever eventually arrives on the floor of Congress.

But let’s hypothesize. Imagine the healthcare legislation submitted to Congress involved a massive expansion of government involvement in healthcare. Let’s also suppose that the same legislation was stripped of any provisions that violated non-negotiables for Catholics. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation? (more…)

In a new essay at The American, Jay Richards explains why capitalism isn’t based on greed.

In Acton’s first documentary, The Call of the Entrepreneur, Richards along Rev. Robert Sirico, Sam Gregg, Michael Novak and others touch on this matter in making the moral case for the free economy.

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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My response to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson was published on National Review Online:

Unlike a certain other Nobel Prize, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel actually requires evidence of substantial achievement. Mere aspirations and lofty rhetoric count for nothing. This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics has been given to two economists, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who have deepened our understanding of economic governance. More specifically, Ostrom and Williamson have shown how it is possible for firms and other communities to facilitate economic efficiency from “within.” In this sense, they follow in the footsteps of another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, whose groundbreaking 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm,” did so much to establish the idea that businesses reduce transaction costs.

We live in an age when many are (rightly) questioning the obsession of mainstream economics with mathematics and econometrics, and also blaming mainstream economists for aspects of the 2008 meltdown. The Nobel committee awarded two scholars whose research doesn’t fit entirely within that mainstream mold — two scholars whose focus has been on the development of rules within groups and communities (including large corporations) that allow for conflict resolution and efficiency gains in ways that are often far more sophisticated than externally imposed state regulation.

Also see David R. Henderson’s fine “A Nobel for Practical Economics” in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Based on her work, Ms. Ostrom proposed several rules for managing common-pool resources, which the Nobel committee highlights. Among them are that rules should clearly define who gets what, good conflict resolution methods should be in place, people’s duty to maintain the resource should be proportional to their benefits, monitoring and punishing is done by the users or someone accountable to the users, and users are allowed to participate in setting and modifying the rules. Notice the absence of top-down government solutions. In her work on development economics, Ms. Ostrom concludes that top-down solutions don’t help poor countries. Are you listening, World Bank?

Finally, here’s a lecture hall video of Ostrom on sustainable development and the tragedy of the commons:

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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The Detroit News published my commentary on Catholics and health care reform in today’s newspaper. A slightly longer version of the article will appear in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary:

Catholic America is about as divided about health care reform as the rest of the country. But there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics that principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life or diminish existing conscience exemptions.

These issues dwarf everything else for Catholics who take their church’s teaching seriously when applied to the health care legislation. No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in widening access to affordable health care, it is a principle of Catholic faith and natural law that you cannot do evil so good may come from it. St. Paul insisted upon this almost 2,000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, tradition and centuries of magisterial teaching.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the health care debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. But imagine the health care legislation involved a massive expansion of government involvement that didn’t promote abortion or other non-negotiables. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation?

The answer is no. Catholic moral teaching has held that the realization of good ends (such as making health care more affordable and accessible) mostly falls into the realm of prudential judgment. The church has always recognized that faithful Catholics can disagree about such matters.

Read the entire article here.

Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.

Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.

Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”

A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”

Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.

There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.

Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.

For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.

For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.

As Lord Acton said,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.

Kirk proceeds to point out some of the specific differences between the two worldviews, including the attitudes toward the existence of the State as well as moral duties and positive rights.

It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”

In his book Elements of Justice (reviewed in the Journal of Markets & Morality here), University of Arizona philosophy and economics professor David Schmidtz introduces the idea of desert not simply as a compensatory notion, but also as including a promissory aspect. That is, what we deserve isn’t always about only what we have done. There might be a real sense in which what we do after an opportunity provides a kind of retroactive justification for having been given a chance.

There has been a flurry of negative reaction to the naming of President Obama as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Even those in the mainstream media, considered by many to be rabidly pro-Obama, have noted that the committee must have been attempting to reward intentions rather than results.

Speaking of the concept of desert, Schmidtz writes that “what it needs to be in human affairs” is “a message of hope that is at the same time life’s greatest moral challenge.” It seems patently obvious that Obama does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize according to any kind of compensatory calculus. The only even apparently viable justification, even if inadequate in the case of a prize like this, is promissory.

Others have noted what it might look like if potential starts becoming a valuable part of award formula. While the committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics this year to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, Greg Mankiw made the case for the potential and promise present in a first-year econ grad student.

More seriously, Francis Beckwith points out how the concept of “potential” fails to be applied where it is most deserved: in the case of the unborn.

We’re happy to announce that the latest print issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is available online.

The Spring 2009 issue includes a noteworthy study by Alan T. Y. Chan and Shu-kam Lee. In “Christ and Business Culture: Another Classification of Christians in Workplaces According to an Empirical Study in Hong Kong,” Chan and Lee outline four types of Christians at work: Christian soldiers, panic followers, strugglers, and Sunday Christians. Following the classification, Chan and Lee “develop a model of potential, evolutionary processes that these Christian types may follow using game-theory analysis” and conclude with “an empirical data set, which was conducted in Hong Kong, to illustrate our classifications and suggest potential strategies to efficiently allocate resources within Christian churches.”

Also included in this issue:

  • Andrew Abela: “Subsidiarity and the Just Wage: Implications of Catholic Social Teaching for the Minimum-Wage Debate”
  • Kim Hawtrey & Stuart Dullard: “Corporate Virtue and the Joint-Stock Company”
  • Steven Loomis & Jacob Rodriguez: “The Violence of Aggregation: Amartya Sen’s Possibility of Social Choice”
  • Stefano Solari & Daniele Corrado: “Social Justice and Economic Order According to Natural Law”
  • Jennifer Dirmeyer & Paola Revelo & Walter E. Block: “Poverty, Dignity, Economic Development, and the Catholic Church”
  • Maurizio Ragazzi: “Concordats Today: From the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II”
  • Keith Aaron Boozer: “Magnanimity: Aquinas’ Examination of the Aristocratic Virtue”

Keith Aaron Boozer is a doctoral student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the journal encourages submissions from graduate students.

This issue also contains a wealth of helpful and incisive reviews of the latest books in Christian social thought, ethics and economics, and the philosophy, history, and methodology of economics. The timely editorial by executive editor Stephen Grabill, “Protestant Social Thought,” and article abstracts of current issues are freely available to nonsubscribers. And as per our “moving wall” policy of two issues, the most recent publicly-available archived issue is volume 11, number 1 (Spring 2008).

Access to the electronic versions of two latest “current” issues is available for individuals on a subscription basis. An electronic-only subscription is available for $10, and there are a number of other options for those wishing to receive the journal in hard copy form. We also encourage you to recommend the journal to friends, schools, and institutions.

Journal of Markets & Morality

shales-rl1The new issue of Religion & Liberty features an interview titled “Debating the Depression” with noted columnist and author Amity Shlaes. Shlaes does a superb job at reminding us about some of the consequences associated with massive government spending and regulation. First and foremost among these consequences is the burden of debt and taxes we are heaping upon future generations. This kind of expansion, without the means to pay for it, will sadly have a negative impact upon the quality of life of future Americans.

Another tremendous contribution comes from Grand Rapids orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald P. Condit. Religion & Liberty has published an excerpt from his Acton monograph, A Christian Prescription for Health Care Reform. As we have seen, health care is an issue that inspires passion, activism, and tremendous debate, and it’s impossible to have a holistic understanding of this topic outside of a moral framework. The Acton Institute has been at the forefront when it comes to examining the moral implications related to our health care issues.

If you missed the book reviews that have already been previewed on the PowerBlog, we have a review of two books on Byzantium from Religion & Liberty’s Executive Editor John Couretas. I reviewed Dr. Jay Richard’s book Money, Greed, and God. I stated in the review some thoughts, which are essential for defending and expanding the influence of free markets:

Richards understands that for capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is, however, not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis.

There is more content in the issue, including commentary on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Lester DeKoster was profiled for the “In the Liberal Tradition” this issue. DeKoster was first and foremost a Christian man of faith, who while serving our Lord, defended the Church against Marxist liberation theologies. Which was just one of his many accomplishments.

My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome. (more…)

I still haven’t quite gotten to a thorough fisking of “Exhibit B,” yet, and will have to be satisfied with arguing the following thesis in the meantime:

It is impossible to increase insurance coverage in America without increasing medical spending.

We cannot save enough on bureaucratic reform and government-induced “competition” to offset the new costs associated with an influx of 40+ million new participants. Certainly the newly mandated premiums, paid by those who have determined for themselves that it is not worth it to pay in to health insurance, will also offset some of the new costs. But how many of those 40+ million uninsured have voluntarily opted out?

If even a large minority, say 1/3 of the uninsured, is made up of those that have been denied coverage outright or cannot afford it because of various health factors (many estimates place that number far higher), then guaranteeing coverage to 15 million new patients will certainly surpass any of the potential gains seen in those other revenue sources. The very reason that so many of these folks do not have insurance coverage is because private firms have determined them to be too risky (that is, too expensive) to cover.

How can we mandate coverage of this group and not increase health care spending? It seems like an impossible promise.

The contention really cannot be that we can spend just as much as we are right now and extend the same qualitative and accessible health coverage to everyone. The honest situation is that we would have to spend more to guarantee coverage, and as a nation we need to decide whether that public good requires governmental mandates, regulations, and administration or if it doesn’t.

There will be new costs. We need to determine whether and how they ought to be borne.