The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).

The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.

Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),

Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.

(Trueman also recommends two pieces on pastors and pornography, available here and here. And here’s a follow-up story to the latter piece.)

I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90’s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).

(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)

And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”

Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”

The mammoth Congressional expansion of SCHIP is such a bad idea, even the normally big spending President Bush vetoed the bill. I wrote a piece titled, “Abandon SCHIP: Big Government Returns,” which is now available on the Acton Website.

The political posturing concerning the program has reached a troubling level. Supporters are using using kids as props to usher in socialized medicine and government expansion. But one of the main problems with the bill is the regressive characteristic of the expanded version. Money will be transfered from poorer states and citizens to fund a permanent middle to upper-middle class entitlement. While the growing cost of health care is a serious problem, we need to find solutions that provide affordable private coverage outside of the impending bureaucratic and regulatory nightmare.

Another growing frustration is a lack of conservative leadership on explaining the consequences of expanding this program. In general it seems, in the last few years political and moral leadership on government expansion has been largely vacant. Conservatives use to fight the expansion of these programs and point out the unintended consequences of such measures. Do we really want a permanent entitlement for the well to do?

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 4, 2007
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The Free Exchange blog at Economist.com (HT) concludes a long and thoughtful post on fair trade, specifically in response to this recent NYT article, “Fair Trade in Bloom,” by wondering:

And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.

Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.

These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.

To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.

But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.

You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.

The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.

For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
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The new issue of Philanthropy Magazine features a cover story on Frank Hanna, vice chairman of the Acton Institute board of directors, and winner of the 2007 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. The story is titled “Call of the Philanthropist,” a play on Acton’s Call of the Entrepreneur documentary, which features Hanna prominently.

The lengthy profile by Christopher Levenick offers insights into Hanna’s philanthropic activities and his philosophy of giving. Rev. Robert Sirico is quoted extensively, as are executives of other nonprofits that Hanna supports. For those who are interested in how philanthropy can be thoughtfully applied — and effective — the article is well worth reading.

Here’s Hanna on “indispensable causes:”

According to Hanna, donors should direct their funds only to causes they deem truly essential. “I believe,” he writes, “that the charities to which we give significant help should themselves be indispensable. In other words, their success should bring to mankind physical, intellectual, moral, or spiritual benefits of the most important kind, benefits without which mankind (or particular individuals) would be fundamentally diminished.”

Once philanthropists have identified the indispensable causes, they should restrict their donations to charities for which their support is truly indispensable. A small contribution to a massive organization will have marginal influence, at best. A series of marginal contributions is hardly better. Funds are always best spent where they will be put to the most effective use. If the organization can succeed without this donation, the money would be better spent on an organization that absolutely needs the funds to attain its objectives.

The Principle of Indispensability is designed to help maximize the leverage of charitable contributions. “Archimedes is credited with discovering how to use a lever to get seemingly disproportionate results,” says Hanna. “But Archimedes didn’t just stick his lever anywhere. He had to find the point of maximal leverage.” So too with philanthropy: Charitable donations achieve seemingly disproportionate results when they are directed to the point of maximal leverage.

This issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality features a scholia translation of Cardinal Cajetan’s (1469-1534) influential treatise On Exchanging Money (1499). Cajetan is the author of the officially approved commentaries on the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, which are easily available in the magnificent Leonine edition of this magnum opus. He is even more famous as the papal legate whom Leo X (1513-1521) dispatched to Germany in a futile effort to bring Martin Luther back into the Roman fold. Economic historians have pointed out that Cajetan’s treatise holds a decisive place in the history of economics because it set forth the fullest and most unqualified defense of the foreign exchange market at its date of publication.

We are also pleased to publish Raymond de Roover’s essay, “Cardinal Cajetan on ‘Cambium’ or Exchange Dealings,” both as an introduction to the Cajetan scholia as well as “a testament to †Raymond de Roover’s original and enduring contribution to the field of economic historiography.” Likewise, this issue’s editorial by Stephen J. Grabill surveys “Raymond de Roover’s Enduring Contribution to Economic History.”

The editorial and article abstracts are freely available to nonsubscribers (you can sign up for a subscription here, including the very affordable electronic-only access option).

Other articles included in this issue:

  • “The Price of Freedom: Consumerism and Liberty in Secular Research and Catholic Teaching,” by Andrew V. Abela

  • “Ideas, Associations, and the Making of Good Cities,” by Robert Driscoll
  • “The Claim for Secularization as a Contemporary Utopia,” by Jan Klos
  • “The Fiscal and Tributary Philosophy of Antonio Rosmini,” by Carlos Hoevel
  • “A ‘Marketless World’? An Examination of Wealth and Exchange in the Gospels and First-Century Palestine,” by Edd S. Noell
  • “Intersubjectivity, Subjectivism, Social Sciences, and the Austrian School of Economics,” by Gabriel J. Zanotti
  • “Can Social Justice Be Achieved?” by José Manuel Moreira & Arnaud Pellissier Tanon

Also included is our usual outstanding fare of book reviews, courtesy the editorial oversight of Kevin Schmiesing.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
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You are probably aware by now that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has published a memoir. The interview-avoiding judge has lately been giving, as Kathryn Jean Lopez puts it, “a lifetime of interviews.”

Given the controversy surrounding his public life since his nomination to the Court, not much remains to be said about him, good or bad, that has not already been said. Suffice it to say that I draw attention to him now because: 1) My own view is that he is one the most interesting figures in 20th-century American history; 2) His record as a strict constructionist is a model of jurisprudence; 3) He once graced Acton’s annual dinner as the keynote speaker (you can still buy the CD); 4) He was spotted later at a D.C. area gym, wearing the Acton T-shirt that was presented to him at the dinner (or so goes the story much-repeated in the offices of the Institute).

Here’s a long interview with Thomas by Jan Crawford Greenburg of ABC. Here’s the Lopez interview on NRO.

A quote from T. H. Green, refuting the view that the law’s “only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual,” construed as doing what you like as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights to do what they want. Green writes:

The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and morality consisting in the disinterested performance of self-imposed duties, ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and for the play of disinterested motives.

From Green’s Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (PDF) [1883], quoted in Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society, p. 152.

See also, “Moral Duties and Positive Rights.”

Related to last week’s post about Reformed education and Pentecostalism, I point you to this post by Rod Dreher, who discusses his interview with Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of Kaduna state in Nigeria. Dreher relates the following:

Pentecostalism is growing like wildfire, but there’s less to it than you might think. He said that in many cases, people are drawn to the emotional experience, and can tell you exactly when they gave their life to Jesus — but can’t tell you a single thing about Christian doctrine. He said they’re finding in Nigeria that lots of the neo-charismatics have no discipline at all — that they’re living exactly as they had before, but now with a Christian gloss. The substance of the faith hasn’t penetrated and changed their behavior.

Additionally, the archbishop pointed to the connection between the prosperity gospel and poverty: “He also said that Pentecostalism is a response to the poverty of the Third World.” You can look forward to a more complete interview with the archbishop in a forthcoming edition of the Dallas Morning News.

An interesting article in the Los Angeles Times detailing how badly wrong Robert Mugabe’s supporters in the West have been from the very beginning (requires “free” registration; may I suggest BugMeNot?):

From the beginning of his political career, Mugabe was not just a Marxist but one who repeatedly made clear his intention to run Zimbabwe as an authoritarian, one-party state. Characteristic of this historical revisionism is former Newsweek southern Africa correspondent Joshua Hammer, writing recently in the liberal Washington Monthly that “more than a quarter-century after leading his guerrilla army to victory over the racist regime of Ian Smith in white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe has morphed into a caricature of the African Big Man.”

But Mugabe did not “morph” into “a caricature of the African Big Man.” He has been one since he took power in 1980 — and he displayed unmistakable authoritarian traits well before that. Those who were watching at the time should have known what kind of man Mugabe was, and the fact that so many today persist in the contention that Mugabe was a once-benign ruler speaks much about liberal illusions of African nationalism.

It turns out that useful idiots still exist, and sadly, probably always will.

Excerpts from Clifford Krauss’ article in the New York Times (cross-posted at SchansBlog.com)…

The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading.

Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records. But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace…

–> Of course, markets can suffer from gluts and bubbles, but such problems are much more likely in the face of government planning, regulation, and intervention. Central planning doesn’t work because central planners lack the knowledge and motives to do it effectively. This is not a correctable deficiency in central planners. Thus, better central planning is unlikely. (At least, that’s what the data say overwhelmingly.) Nonetheless, faith in central planning– or interest by interest groups in using it to promote their own ends– continues apace…

While generous government support is expected to keep the output of ethanol fuel growing, the poorly planned over-expansion of the industry raises questions about its ability to fulfill the hopes of President Bush and other policy makers to serve as a serious antidote to the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign oil.

–> Uhhh…and that’s not to mention the limits of ethanol (even at its peak, it could only provide a small fraction of the total demand) and its energy and economic inefficiencies.

“If Congress doesn’t substantially raise the renewable fuel standard,” Mr. Brady said, “then this is not just a short term problem but a long term issue, and there will be more of a shakeout in the industry.”

–> Right…What’s “the answer”? More regulation and subsidies. That’s a great answer if you’re in the business; it’s a bad answer if you’re anyone else.