Posts Tagged freedom

Cooperation, Competition, and Social Preservation

Busy MarketIn a continuation of my commentary on David Brooks’ analysis of modern conservatism, I offer a few more thoughts at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog. Channeling Richard Epstein’s views on the ways in which market cooperation and competition provide a fundamental basis for social order and preservation, I re-emphasize that a heavy emphasis on economic freedom is crucial for a renewed traditionalist conservatism. It’s less of a “tension” than Brooks thinks:

I agree [with Brooks] that conservatism needs a renewed intellectual foundation brought about by a return to these emphases [i.e. custom, social harmony, and moral preservation], yet I disagree that a lopsided devotion to “economic freedom” is what’s stalling us. If we hope to restore traditionalist conservatism, we’d do well to recognize that this means restoring economic conservatism along with it. Brooks is upset that dogmatic pro-market folks have seized the Republican Party, yet this is the same Republican Party that nominated the architect of Romneycare and can’t seem to get serious about the deficit.

Conservatism is faltering all around, and the reasons for each sect’s demise are more or less interrelated. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to restore a holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and economic strains together by grounding them both in Russell Kirk’s “enduring moral order.”

For David Brooks, restoration is all about “balance,” but for the true conservative, it needs to be about integration.

But Eptsein says all this much, much better, pointing specifically to the role that markets play in channeling voluntary action through competition and cooperation. The real threat to social preservation, for Epstein, lies elsewhere:

The sad truth here is that the government can suppress freedom and competition in economic markets, and can also wreak great destruction to the voluntary associations that operate in other areas. One recent vivid example of government overreaching is the determined effort of the Obama administration to insist that Roman Catholic institutions should provide insurance coverage for contraception.

The greatest threat to the intermediate institutions that social conservatives rightly extol is not markets. It is Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Being “Pro-Choice” on Abortion and “Anti-Choice” on Light Bulbs is a Consistent Position

Reason.tv recently interviewed some folks at the Democratic National Convention, aiming to draw out inconsistencies in the political left’s oft-pronounced “pro-choice” stance.

Watch it here:

Now, if one’s overarching philosophy and political ideology boils down to choice, choice, and more choice—as it certainly does for many of the folks at Reason.tv—being “pro-choice” on abortion and “anti-choice” on light bulbs is a glaring inconsistency. Yet I would hope that the the rest of us are working from different premises and aligning our beliefs to different ultimate standards. Life is, as they say, about so much more.

So what gives?

Why do many progressives believe women should have the “freedom” to kill their own children and homosexuals should have the power to redefine natural institutions, but they don’t believe Plump Little Jimmy should be able to choose between a 16 oz. or 32 oz. soft drink, or Catholic Lucy should be able to choose between a private school and a public one?

Why do many conservatives believe in free choice in education and healthcare, but they’re not so loosey-goosey on opening the flood-gates on infanticide, “family” redefinition, or drug legalization?

There are plenty of ways to explain the disconnect, but one fundamental conflict, as Thomas Sowell thoroughly illuminates in his book, A Conflict of Visions: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, boils down to how we view the nature of man—“not simply his existing practices,” Sowell writes, “but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.” Here, we find that as a matter of discerning worldviews, it’s far less helpful to talk about “choice” than it is to talk about our underlying philosophies of life. Here, we find the beginnings of the premises from which we should launch our critiques of any diverging “inconsistencies.”

How do we view the human person? Is he imperfect yet capable of redemption, or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, is he “born free” but “everywhere in chains”?

How do we view the project of improving mankind? Is it a process of constraining our basest passions and relying on Burkean “prudence,” or must we blindly trust in and submit to what William Godwin called “the magnanimous sentiment of our natures”?

Through what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision (what we might label today as “progressive”), the human person is a Rousseauean blossom, whose (seeming) faults are ultimately tied to imperfections in the systems that surround him rather than fundamental, universal imperfections in the human person himself. Knowing the “right path” and the “right thing to do” is the easy part. It’s overcoming all those pesky institutions that’s tricky (e.g. “Marxism works. It just hasn’t been implemented properly.”). Perfectibility is achievable (the rise of the oceans will begin to slow) if only the right captains are at the helm. Once they’re there, we need only follow the guidance of the Enlightened—buy the “good” light bulbs, drive the “good” car, go to the “good” school—and we shall further the “magnanimous sentiment of our natures” that has thus far been prohibited by systemic oppression. Fundamental to this view, Sowell writes, “is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.”

For the unconstrained, it’s not about trade-offs or complicated analyses of history, political theory, moral philosophy and the nature of man himself. It’s about “solutions” (“Forward!”). The “good” is a given, and thus, once the wise old sages have subsequently “freed” our benevolent human nature toward collective salvation, everything the State hasn’t already delivered is ours for the taking. Follow the leader, build the tower, and give way to the “general will,” but outside of the carefully constructed Collective Mission, what you do and who you destroy is as noble as your properly pampered noble-savage self.

Now, like most dichotomies, not everyone fits neatly into place—Sowell certainly doesn’t claim as much, pointing specifically to Marx—and even those who fit the category can launch from this framework in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. But one need only look at the DNC, where the freedom to butcher “inconvenient” infants gets Read the rest of this entry »

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Economic Liberty, Social Preservation, and the Conservative Mind

Russell Kirk, The Conservative MindIn his latest column, David Brooks argues that “conservatism has lost the balance between economic and traditional conservatism.” Today’s Republican Party, writes Brooks, “appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.”

The diagnosis:

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

There’s no denying that conservatism consists of a variety of flavors and factions and that today’s Republican Party lacks tact and sincerity in conveying a holistic conservative message. But this applies to modern conservatism at large, not just Brooks’ so-called “traditionalist” camp.

Mitt Romney & Friends may offer plenty of platitudes on deficit reduction and government dependency, but they are just as quick to pair this language with technocratic solutions and protectionist assurances. Further, of all the Republican nominees last cycle, it was second-place contender Rick Santorum who boasted the most “traditionalist” flair and received a brief stint of wide support for precisely that.

Now, Rick Santorum is no Ronald Reagan, never mind Russell Kirk. But Mitt Romney is also no Barry Goldwater, never mind Milton Friedman.

Wherever one looks, modern conservatism is stuck in a season of disarray — on messaging, on marketing, and, more fundamentally, on a robust understanding of its own basic principles. But this confusion is in part due to our inability to make the integral connections between economic freedom and preserving the social/moral order, even more so, I would argue, than with inherent, irresolvable conflicts between the priorities themselves. We need a new conservative fusionism: a new way of framing matters of economic liberty and social preservation as the partners that they are.

Unfortunately, despite some brief National Review nostalgia, Brooks seems less interested in fostering a new fusionism than he is in elevating his own lopsided version of “traditional conservatism” — one that, from what I can tell, strays quite distinctly from the abstract Kirkian conservatism he glorifies so marvelously up front.

This becomes all too clear when Brooks moves to application:

It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.

 This is where Brooks believes we must go? Toward government “mobility” programs? Toward “actively intervening” in chaotic neighborhoods?

(Sidenote: Are these things not already happening?)

Resistance to these types of measures is not due to a lack of concern for “stability,” tradition,” and “social institutions.” On the contrary, it’s rooted in the Read the rest of this entry »

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The Fairest Trade of All

In light of my recent posts on the inadequacy of fair trade (1, 2, 3 & 4), I thought this recent debate on the topic was well worth sharing. The discussion includes AEI’s Claude Barfield, World Fair Trade Organization’s Paul Myers, and Henderson State University’s Victor Claar.

Watch it here:

Barfield provides a good historical backdrop, but Claar, whose comments begin at 33 minutes, provides a strong and thorough critique of fair trade’s failures in both fairness and economic results.

Some of my favorite lines from Claar, in no particular order:

  • “The fairest trade of all is trade that is genuinely free—free from political logrolling by politicians desperate for votes, free from opportunistic lobbying by industries like U.S. sugar and cotton, and free from the harm to the global poor that well-intentioned rich Northerners like us can sometimes bring.”
  • “When the price of something is low–like coffee, or sugar, or cotton–market forces normally direct people to make less of it and move onto something else. But fair trade interferes with the signal that prices ordinarily provide; Fair Trade can never serve as a sustainable long-term development strategy because it will never make people significantly richer than they are today.”
  • “Putting at least some faith in markets to be a powerful force for change in the lives of the poor does not amount to abdicating our concern for the poor–instead opting to cavalierly put our hope in little more than faeries and magic dust. Just as we trust gravity to keeps us all affixed securely to the ground, and just as the principles of particle physics assure you that the chair you are sitting in right now will not let you slip through its seat to the floor, markets work invisibly, but in ways that we understand reasonably well…The laws of physics are part of God’s providence; so are the laws of economics. And we fail miserably in our obligations to our Creator when we ignore the fundamental truths of economics in our efforts to aid the poor—even if our efforts flow from the very best intentions.”

One other item of note is how little argumentation Myers delivers in his primary remarks, throughout which he manages to disregard economic efficiency (because the poor benefit from waste?), downplay petty old “freedom” (because the poor prefer enslavement?) and elevate “rules and regulations” (because the problem is obviously too much access to markets?)—all without providing a substantive argument for how price manipulation benefits the poor and how price accuracy (is there a better word?) hurts them. He provides plenty of anecdotes about how the poor need jobs and affordable goods (is this news?), but provides no cohesive argument for why fair trade fulfills these needs and free trade perpetuates them.

Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, Victor Claar, Acton InstituteI’m guessing this lapse was largely unintentional, and that, aptly representing Thomas Sowell’s “unconstrained vision,” Myers simply assumes that the (supposed) morality of fair trade is self-evident—that those who oppose it must simply value economic efficiency over the interests of the poor (and, to be fair, some do). Thus, fluffy anecdotes and pious platitudes about the struggles of the poor suffice for a moral indictment of free trade. Unfortunately, most free traders believe what they believe precisely because  they think it benefits the poor. Myers should start his argument there (when he gets around to making one).

If these assumptions about Myers’ vacuous, emotion-driven remarks are true, then Claar’s later emphasis of Matthew 22:37 is even more relevant than intended.

How do we truly love our neighbor if we are aiming only to elevate our own personal, abstract notions of fairness without checking them against reason or results? How do we truly love the Lord our God if we rely only on our “hearts” and “souls” and not also on our minds? Further, as I’ve indicated elsewhere (1, 2, 3), what does it say about our “hearts” and “souls” if they are detached from an intentionally holistic love of God that looks beyond earthly emotions and assumptions?

Click here to read my review of Victor Claar’s monograph, Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

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The Least of These: People or Political Pawns?

Barack Obama, Jim Wallis, SojournersThe budget talks are a’blazin and Jim Wallis is at it again, rallying left-leaning Christians everywhere to support a laundry list of progressive “anti-poverty” programs (i.e. all of them).

On July 20, Wallis and 11 other “religious leaders” met with President Obama to ask for a “Circle of Protection” around any program ”focused on reducing poverty.” (“Circle of Protection”–is that Orwellian, New Age, or something out of a 1980s RPG?)

“We made our simple principle clear,” Wallis said. “The most vulnerable should be protected in any budget or deficit agreements…We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.”

“This is what God requires of all of us”? You mean Medicaid, food stamps, and foreign “aid”? Inspiring, I do declare.

But, man, if we’re falling short on our redistributionist checklist, folks in the third-world must really need a sense of what God requires of them. Maybe Wallis can head over to Cuba or Zimbabwe and teach those tyrannical bullies a thing or two about how to properly manipulate and micro-manage their peoples toward greater prosperity. How I would love to see Wallis positioned in the former Soviet Union, trying to fix things by avoiding programs that “focus on reducing poverty” (i.e. everything).

As much as I appreciate Wallis’ attempt to intercede on my behalf, what God “requires of all of us” cannot be rolled into some quaint piece of legislation signed by Harry Reid or John Boehner. God’s “requirements” do not constitute a legalistic bullet list of progressive programs, and the church extends well beyond an “enlightened” majority with a tendency to sign and spend things quickly. (I’ve discussed this previously).

Why, for example, is our bloated, inefficient, fraud-laden Medicaid system the God-ordained method for helping America’s poor find healthcare in the 21st century? Why, might I ask, is such a system only God-ordained insofar as it remains untouched by budget cuts? If we cut the program by, say, 1% (or even .00001%), will judgment day come sooner or more harshly than it would otherwise? And to what degree? Paging Harold Camping…Al Gore?

What if I happen to disagree with page 3,500 of the legislation, but agree with the rest? What if I disagree with the whole thing and suggest Read the rest of this entry »

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#ActonU: The Week in Tweets

As already notedActon Institute, Grand Rapids, MI, I spent the bulk of last week attending Acton University, an event I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection of economics and religion. Although I will likely blog at length about some of the sessions I attended (or at least the topics discussed therein), I figured I’d dump my Twitter “notes” on the blog in the meantime. (The event was discussed at #ActonU.)

My apologies in advance for any abbreviations, misspellings, unnecessary exclamation points or other frivolous and/or undesirable elements of the Twitterverse. You can follow the blog on Twitter here or follow my personal Twitter feed here.

Tuesday, June 14

Evening Program: Kick-off — Rev. Robert Sirico

  • Autonomy is important, lest we become the communist man – a mere blur in society. -Sirico
  • Christianity amplifies, clarifies, & outlines the implications of the individual and the other. -Sirico
  • The human person is the most sacred thing that presents itself to our senses other than God himself. -Sirico
  • The believers at Antioch were moved, whether they knew it or not, by their view of human dignity. -Sirico
  • The question of the human person is at the center of economics, culture and family. -Rev. Sirico
  • RT @mikejmill Acton University started tonight. Biggest year ever. 625 participants from 70 countries…plus 40 faculty.

Wednesday, June 15

Christian Anthropology — Samuel Gregg

  • “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts even more.” -Samuel Gregg
  • The Christian view of reason is much “richer” than the secularist’s. -Gregg
  • If reason is merely instrumental, there can be no real basis for freedom or basic rights. -Gregg
  • Our genes and environment may influence our actions, but they do not determine our *choices* -Gregg
  • “Freedom is much more than choosing; it’s choosing to live in the truth.” -Gregg
  • Dominion is not an excuse to be destructive and stewardship is not a call to be passive. -Gregg
  • Reading Marx is like reading an Old Testament prophet who replaces the Messianic message with mere secularist ideology. -Gregg

Frederic Bastiat: Christian and Apostle of the Market — Todd Flanders

  • Bastiat anticipated Catholic Social Teaching on socialism by half a century. -Todd Flanders
  • RT @EricTeetsel The difference between a good economist & a bad one is simple: a good economist sees the present & what must be foreseen …
  • “Destruction is not profitable.” -Bastiat #yathink?
  • Standing armies may be necessary but let’s not pretend they are not an economic advantage. -Bastiat paraphrased by Flanders
  • Destroying value for the sake of creating work is akin to shunning the most basic of divine providence. -Flanders
  • Bastiat at the point of death: “I see, I know, I believe; I am a Christian.”
  • Some guy just compared Charles I’s scaffold speech with Bastiat’s view of the law and voter enfranchisement. Awesome.

Ayn Rand and Christianity — Rev. Robert Sirico

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A Robot’s Utopia: Socialism’s Reduction of the Human Person

robot, utopia, socialism, human natureMany opponents of socialism often concede that it would be wonderful if only it actually “worked.” This week at Ethika Politika, I argue that such claims require an extremely strange version of “wonderful.”

Socialism may indeed propose utopian ends, but such a utopia is one that humans could never — and should never — identify with.

The argument centers on the notion that humans tend to desire freedom and that we will ultimately be discontent without it. If we rid ourselves completely of such liberty and cede ultimate control to others, how can this really be a “utopia” in any human sense?

To embrace socialism is to reject “economic knowledge” (as Art Carden recently explained), but it is also to reject something much deeper.

Here’s an excerpt:

To escape this fundamental craving [for freedom], one assumes that a different sort of rebellion needs to take place—one aimed at the control of others rather than the control of one’s self. This is why any fantasies about “realistically sustainable” socialism are problematic: They rely on a view of humanity that is unrealistic, and in turn, they promote unreal humans. Based on such premises, true utopia—the kind we might actually enjoy—is something that cannot exist, even in theory. We can call this “idealism,” but I’m not sure it leads to ideal outcomes. We are who we are, and that is not a bad thing.

Indeed, “idealism” is often just another word for glorified falsehood, and in the case of socialism, that is certainly the case. Such falsehood might be admirable if reality were really that grim, but it isn’t. There is a beauty in humanity that must be tapped, channeled and ultimately embraced. This beauty is inherently linked with truth, which is why to be an “idealist” of the socialist order is to worship a lie — and an ugly one at that.

As I argue, the “ideal” of socialism does not elevate humanity; it degrades Read the rest of this entry »

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The Heart of the Entrepreneur: Realizing God’s Provision Through Burgers and Malts

About a year and a half ago, some of our closest friends, Brett and Emily Geselle, started their own restaurant. In the time since, Tommy’s Malt Shop has become a huge success (no small feat in the middle of a recession).

Prior to starting the restaurant, Brett had a successful career in the corporate world. Leaving that path for the high-risk prospect of starting a burger joint was not necessarily the easy, secure, or comfortable thing to do (pursuing the proper American dream typically isn’t). Yet there was something about pursuing the restaurant that made it worth the risk.

Hear their story here (HT):



This is entrepreneurship — and Radical Individualism — at its finest. Brett’s initial vision was not based in a humanistic, materialistic desire for power, glory or wealth, and neither were the actions that brought his dream to fruition. Instead, it was based in the leading of his heart by the Holy Spirit. The subsequent process involved sacrifice, strugglegenerosity, risk, wisdom, diligence, and hard work. That is how God works.

The result: a restaurant that meets community needs while also bringing the Geselles self-fulfillment and a realization of God’s provision. As Brett says in the video, “It has an impact on your heart and it will Read the rest of this entry »

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The Harmony of Individual Interests: Discovering the Common Good

puzzle, community, individual, common goodThis week at Ethika Politika, I examine two distinct approaches to the common good, one of which thinks it can be dictated, and another of which thinks it must be discovered.

Using Michael Tomasky’s now-famous essay as a starting point, I examine the fundamental errors in assuming that the common good can be achieved by enacting pushy policies from the top down.

Here’s an excerpt:

…In Tomasky’s view, the common good is not something we should participate in or collaborate toward; rather, it is a god we should be “demanded” to serve. It is not a goal to pursue, a mystery to unravel, or a fight to win, but a preexisting plan to be enacted – a candyland of utopian perfectionism, ready and waiting to be implemented in full. No longer must we waste our time “cultivating conditions” for a moral society, for such an achievement only requires that a legion of properly informed elites step up to the task — followed, of course, by a nation of noble slaves, anxiously awaiting direction and correction from their masters on top of the hill.

An additional problem with Tomasky’s approach is his false dichotomy between individual and community interests.

The real tension, I argue, is between top-down direction and organic imperative:

For the progressive, being “asked to contribute to a project larger than ourselves” (Tomasky) is akin to being bumped into submission by the bureaucrat’s billy club. In the approach presented here, such demands come primarily through the guidance our personal journeys, community struggles, and, above all, our moral understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Whereas the top-downers believe that truth is already known and thus freedom is unnecessary, the bottom-uppers see a world in which truth must be actively pursued, with freedom being the only thing that will get us there.

I also point to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises along the way, whose “harmony of all individual interests” provides great support.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Zhang Xin on China: We Are Only Allowed to Make Money

Last Sunday, I caught an interesting interview with Zhang Xin, the billionaire Chinese developer and CEO of SOHO China.

In the interview, Fareed Zakaria asks a lot of important questions, but what is most striking are Zhang’s opinions about what the Chinese system lacks.

Watch the interview here:

Zhang had very humble beginnings, spending much of her late childhood working in shoe and electronics factories trying to save money for her education. She eventually met her goals.

Here’s a brief bio from Bloomberg:

Zhang, 44, personifies the explosive rise of China, from the poverty of Mao Zedong’s communist rule to the riches of state-controlled capitalism in the world’s third-biggest economy. At age 30, armed with a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in England and connections from working at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York and Hong Kong, Zhang founded Soho China with Read the rest of this entry »

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