At last year’s Acton University, a few Austrian attendees made an interesting youtube video celebrating their rediscovery of the huge and obvious contributions Austria has made to free-market economics. But what about the countries that don’t have an entire school of economic thought named after them? My conversations with international participants at this year’s conference underscored two themes over and over again. First, that even the unlikeliest countries have some philosophical heritage undergirding capitalist thought. Second, that AU attracts the kind of people who want to recapture — not necessarily import — foundational principles to apply them within their own cultural context.
From Poland, a place where communism was much more than a nebulous ideology not so long ago, Jakob Baltroszewicz learned at AU how to frame capitalism in a more positive light for those in his country who are still “infected” with traces of the old regime’s tendencies. Despite Pope John Paul’s profound contributions to the capitalist legacy, “People still think in Poland that being a good Catholic and being a good capitalist are incompatible,” said Baltroszewicz. “We have a word for it — homo sovieticus. It means someone who is still sick with the Soviet way of thinking about the market and his role in it.” Baltroszewicz is currently studying Michael Novak’s moral theology at the Pontifical Academy in Krakow. He plans to stay connected to Acton as he works to revive Poland’s interest in the principles of its own free-market philosophers, especially as expressed in John Paul’s Centesimus Annus.
Edgar Ramirez, a lawyer from Lima, Peru, attended Stephen Grabill’s lectures on natural law in the Protestant tradition. During the Q&A session, Ramirez expressed frustration with Latin America’s seeming lack of attachment to the natural law tradition, asking how useful bridges can be built between the two where no organic heritage exists.
Ramirez said Grabill’s answer “surprised and encouraged” him: There are actually several Latin American scholars who have defended natural law principles, but their legacy has been clouded by a misappropriation of Catholic social teaching, infused with Marxism, over the past several decades. “Acton University is so beneficial because it educates church leaders in things like this, which they need to know but aren’t taught at all in their studies,” said Ramirez, who works with non-profit organizations in Lima. Ramirez will be returning home, he said, with “more to think about” and more ammunition for dialoging with Christians in his own country who stumble over capitalist principles as rooted in natural law.
Gustavo Santos, a Brazilian doctoral student studying natural law at Catholic University in Washington, also enjoyed Grabill’s lectures. “When I finish my studies, my hope is to engage with liberation theologians in my country, and natural law seems to be one very effective way to do this,” he said. While much of Latin American Catholicism has been derailed by Marxist thinking, Santos said he sees much in the Christian tradition — Protestant and Catholic — that can help to get it back on track. AU has sharpened his awareness on this point.
All in all, I was struck by how our international visitors disproved the myth that capitalism is a Western, American mindset that greedy businessmen pre-package and export to less-developed countries for their own profit. It was quite an education to talk with thinkers from incredibly diverse countries who find themselves drawn toward the common-sense principles that rule the free market.
Moreover, it is evident that AU attendees are drawn to these principles out of genuine concern for the good of their countries, not for personal gain. Even more remarkable is that so many of them are able to find philosophical roots for their beliefs without crossing a single national border — which is in itself a powerful argument for the existence of natural law.