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Introduction to the ‘Principles Project’

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A young professor accompanies his mentor to a private meeting of economists from around the country. As they take their seats the host says, “To start us off, let’s have a few rounds of the best jokes.”

An elderly woman stands up and says “37,” and everyone laughs. Another yells “49,” and the crowd cackles hysterically. This goes on for a while, when the young man turns to his senior and says, “I don’t get it, numbers aren’t funny.” His mentor explains that since the same folks attend this meeting every year, they know all the jokes. Instead of wasting time by telling the same jokes everyone has heard, they just tell the punch lines, which they’ve numbered to save time.

The young man, wanting to fit in with his colleagues, jumps up and yells “44.” When absolutely no one laughs, he sits down, embarrassed and confused. The old economist leans over and says, “You told it wrong.”

I love that story because it highlights one of my biggest challenges as a writer and senior editor here at the Acton Institute. The mission of our think-tank is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. Part of my job in carrying out that mission is to demonstrate the compatibility of faith, liberty, and free economic activity to a broad audience.

There is a segment of Acton’s audience that is like the economists who have been attending the meeting for years—they understand the underlying principles and are interested in hearing more about how they can be applied in current contexts. But others who read this site aren’t as familiar with the principles and may not make the connections between our arguments and our Christian beliefs. The result is that I’m forced to either repeat the core principles in every post—thereby boring our familiar readers—or leave out that part—and risk confusing those who are less familiar with our work.

In an attempt to solve this problem I’ve decided to start a series I’m calling the “Principles Project.” Listed below are the main principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird the articles I write on the PowerBlog. Currently, they are merely listed but I to write a separate post for each that explains the principle in more detail. This will provide a shorthand that will allow me to cite these principles in some of my shorter articles—similar to yelling out “44”—in way that frees up space but still allows readers to get more background information.

I don’t expect everyone—even everyone associated with Acton—to agree with all of these principles (especially those that have yet to be explained and defended). While I’ve incorporated all of the Core Principles of the Acton Institute, I’ve added many more that merely reflect my own thinking. These should be seen merely as the background principles for the arguments I myself make on this blog. (For even more on what I believe, see here.)

Note: All links go to articles that explain the principle in more detail. Related principles are grouped alphanumerically (i.e., 2, 2A, 2B), otherwise there is no hierarchy within the list.

Here is my current list of Acton-related principles:

1 — Because everything in creation belongs to God, man is never more than a steward and must act accordingly (Psalm 24:1). [Explanatory article]

2 — God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge. [Explanatory article]

2A — God created certain laws and norms of reality that are interrelated but irreducible.

2B — Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying biblical principles to current situations.

2C — Scripture is not an encyclopedia of social science. [Explanatory article]

3 — The human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator. (Acton Core Principle: Dignity of the Person)

3A — Every human possesses intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons. Every person has inalienable rights given by the Creator that must be cherished and guarded by society and by the government itself, with the highest among them being the freedom of religion.

3B — We have a duty to protect the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human family, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., and they must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.

4 — Humans were created to be relational and social creatures. Although persons find ultimate fulfillment only in communion with God, one essential aspect of the development of persons is our social nature and capacity to act for disinterested ends. The person is fulfilled by interacting with other persons and by participating in moral goods.

4A — There are voluntary relations of exchange, such as market transactions that realize economic value. These transactions may give rise to moral value as well. (Acton Core Principle: Social Nature of the Person)

4B — There are voluntary relations of mutual dependence, such as promises, friendships, marriages, and the family, which are moral goods. These may have other sorts of value, such as religious, economic, aesthetic, and so on. (Acton Core Principle: Social Nature of the Person)

4C — Since persons are by nature social, various human persons develop social institutions. The institutions of civil society, especially the family, are the primary sources of a society’s moral culture. These social institutions are neither created by nor derive their legitimacy from the state. The state must respect their autonomy and provide the support necessary to ensure the free and orderly operation of all social institutions in their respective spheres. (Acton Core Principle: Importance of Social Institutions)

4D — The interaction between people in community has led naturally to the formation of various, distinct institutions and social structures. Families interact with other families to create distinct communities such as the neighborhood, the city and the state, and that the various tasks and requirements for living has led to the formation of churches, schools, businesses, civic unions and other associations. A key role of each of these institutions is to support and serve families.

4E — While many other social structures are equal in dignity and value, the family should nevertheless be considered “first among equals” and given special consideration in making decisions about public policy.

4F — Social institutions have religious liberty that must be protected. [Explanatory article]

5 — The family is the basic and most foundational unit of society. Defending the family from internal and external threats is therefore one of the crucial tasks of all other societal institutions.

5A — From birth we are initiated into the community structure of the family. We are not thrust into a state of radical individualism but rather into the most basic form of community. We are created to be both individuated persons and members of a community; neither can be reduced into the other.

5B — Economic liberty has proven essential to the material enrichment needed for families to flourish. Economic policies should therefore encourage and create conditions—such as social mobility, respect for private property, family-friendly taxation, freer access to labor markets—that both encourage self-sufficiency and strengthen the natural bonds of the family.

5C — Religious liberty starts in the home, and the right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal beliefs are not merely sacred individual rights but inalienable rights of the family. While no right is absolute, the right to religious freedom should not be infringed or denied unless it absolutely necessary for the protection of society.

5D — Parents should have the primary authority and influence over their own children. Parents bear responsibility for the upbringing of their children, and this role should not be usurped by other institutions unless necessary to prevent incontrovertible physical or emotional harm of the child.

5E — While parental authority is primary, other institutions have an interest and a duty in protecting the welfare of children and should do what they can to create and preserve a moral ecology that is conducive to creating virtuous citizens, even when it requires limitations of some expressions of their own liberty.

5F — Because protecting parental authority is an issue of social justice, society should promote policies that allow families the highest degree of freedom in making choices about the education of their children. [Explanatory article]

6 — Human persons are by nature acting persons. Through human action, the person can actualize his potentiality by freely choosing the moral goods that fulfill his nature. (Acton Core Principle: Human Action)

6A — Income inequality is a natural outcome of human action.

7 — Although human beings in their created nature are good, in their current state, they are fallen and corrupted by sin. (Acton Core Principle: Sin)

7A — The reality of sin makes the state necessary to restrain evil. The ubiquity of sin, however, requires that the state be limited in its power and jurisdiction. (Acton Core Principle: Sin)

7B — The persistent reality of sin requires that we be skeptical of all utopian “solutions” to social ills such as poverty and injustice. (Acton Core Principle: Sin)

7C — Market forces and outcomes are prone to injustice and inequitable distribution precisely because man is by nature a sinful creature.

7D — Sin is a social contagion. (Acton Core Principle: Sin) [Explanatory article]

8 — The government’s primary responsibility is to promote the common good, that is, to maintain the rule of law, and to preserve basic duties and rights.

8A — The government’s role is not to usurp free actions, but to minimize those conflicts that may arise when the free actions of persons and social institutions result in competing interests. (Acton Core Principle: Rule of Law and the Subsidiary Role of Government)

8B — The state should exercise this responsibility according to the principle of subsidiarity. This principle has two components. First, jurisdictionally broader institutions must refrain from usurping the proper functions that should be performed by the person and institutions more immediate to him. Second, jurisdictionally broader institutions should assist individual persons and institutions more immediate to the person only when the latter cannot fulfill their proper functions. (Acton Core Principle: Rule of Law and the Subsidiary Role of Government)

9 — Material impoverishment undermines the conditions that allow humans to flourish. (Acton Core Principle: Creation of Wealth)

9A — The best means of reducing poverty is to protect private property rights through the rule of law. This allows people to enter into voluntary exchange circles in which to express their creative nature. (Acton Core Principle: Creation of Wealth)

9B — Wealth is created when human beings creatively transform matter into resources. Because human beings can create wealth, economic exchange need not be a zero-sum game. (Acton Core Principle: Creation of Wealth) [Explanatory article]

9C — For wealth to be voluntarily distributed, it must be voluntarily created.

10 — Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought. Economic liberty is a species of liberty so-stated. (Acton Core Principle: Economic Liberty)

10A — The bearer of economic liberty not only has certain rights, but also duties. A primary duty to others is to participate in the market as a moral agent and in accordance with moral goods. (Acton Core Principle: Economic Liberty)

10B — Because it interferes with economic liberty, occupational licensing is almost always unjust and unnecessary. [Explanatory article]

10C — Because it promotes economic liberty, right to work laws almost always are necessary for the promotion of justice.

10D — Protecting the dignity and economic liberty of all people requires society to prioritize efforts to abolish all forms of labor and sexual slavery.

11 — Economic value is subjective because its existence depends on it being felt by a subject. Economic value is the significance that a subject attaches to a thing whenever he perceives a causal connection between this thing and the satisfaction of a present, urgent want. The subject may be wrong in his value judgment by attributing value to a thing that will not or cannot satisfy his present, urgent want. The truth of economic value judgments is settled just in case that thing can satisfy the expected want. While this does not imply the realization of any other sort of value, something can have both subjective economic value and objective moral value. (Acton Core Principle: Economic Value)

12 — Liberty flourishes in a society supported by a moral culture that embraces the truth about the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person. This moral culture leads to harmony and to the proper ordering of society. While the various institutions within the political, economic, and other spheres are important, the family is the primary inculcator of the moral culture in a society. (Acton Core Principle: Priority of Culture)

12A — Culture matters for social mobility.

13 — An objective moral law exists and is discernible primarily, though not exclusively or exhaustively, through reason.

14 — We have a moral obligation to use our liberty to alleviate and eliminate poverty and to protect the poor from exploitation.

14A — A primary duty we have to the poor is to provide them with access to markets.

14B — Interest should not be collected on a charitable loan. The foregone interest should be considered a charitable donation.

14C — A primary reason to oppose minimum wage laws is because they have a deleterious effect on the poor.

14D — Increasing social mobility is essential to reducing poverty.

14E — Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than of structural injustice.

14F — Our obligation to help the poor increases in relation to our moral proximity, i.e., how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space, or time.

14G — To alleviate and eliminate poverty, we need to identify and measure it correctly. [Explanatory article]

15 — Individuals have an obligation to assume personal responsibility for their own material support.

15B — As much as possible, debt should be avoided (Romans 13:8).

15C — Individuals should not take out debts in excess of their credit.

16 — The biblical standard of economic justice is that everyone has the resources needed for living.

17 – Secular neutrality is a myth, and that fact should be acknowledged within the public square.

17A – All politics is religious because it is ultimately rooted in religious beliefs and concepts.

17B – All law is religious because it is ultimately rooted in religious beliefs and concepts.

17C — Worship is a political activity.

19 – Allegiance to principles should always take precedence over allegiance to political affiliations or partisan factions.

20 — Responsibility should be stressed and advocated for as often as rights are.

20A – A primary collective responsibility is our moral obligations to future generations.

21A – National debt is almost always an unjust form of an intergenerational wealth transfer. [Explanatory article]

21B — Our obligation to future generations should lead us to encourage economic growth today.

22 — Free-market capitalism is the economic model that most closely fits with Christian anthropology.

22A — Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people. [Explanatory article]

22B — Free markets are the best way to serve free people.

23 — Religious liberty is a natural right and foundational to all freedom.

23A – Religious liberty should be the moral center for American diplomacy.

23B — Christian faith is foundational to protecting the freedom of all people and of all faiths.

23C — Protecting our freedom of conscience and religion requires protecting private property.

24 — Sound economics requires consideration of unintended consequences.

25 — The promotion of human flourishing requires us to promote certain economic goods. Likewise, we have an obligation to oppose actions and policies that hinder those same economic goods.

25A — We have a moral obligation to promote innovation. [Explanatory article]

25B — We have a moral obligation to oppose crony capitalism.

25C — We have a moral obligation to treat unemployment as a spiritual problem, and not merely as a material condition.

25D — We have a moral obligation to promote social justice, defined as a type of justice in which nonpolitical organizations promote every person getting what they deserve and help to facilitate their ability to contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.

25E — We have a moral obligation to oppose all forms of governmental corruption.

25F — We have a moral obligation to reduce or eliminate the unnecessary suffering and exploitation of animals.

25G — We have an obligation to undertake conservation measures to preserve and protect our natural environment.

26 — When used properly, a price is a signal wrapped in an incentive to be coordinated by God.

27 — Jobs that lead to human flourishing are the most important part of a moral economy.

28 — Christians should be cultural entrepreneurs and promote a biblical vision of culture that promotes human flourishing.

29 — Money is not an economic good to be sought and valued for itself, but is rather a tool for our use that makes voluntary exchanges more efficient.

30 — The most effective way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase order and individual freedom. [Explanatory article]

31 — Socialism, as historically defined and practiced, is incompatible with Christian anthropology and impedes human flourishing.

(Additional principles will likely be added in the future.)

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).