Posts Tagged property rights

The Moral Case for a Free Economy: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.

In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.

Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.

One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?

Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.

The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?

There is something “underneath” economics.  Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.

Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.

Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?

Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on Read the rest of this entry »

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From Contract to Cooperation: In Family and in Business

Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse

The subject of contracts is not particularly sexy, which is part of the reason I’d like to talk about contracts—and how we might reach beyond them.

In one sense, we have come to ignore, downplay, or disregard the value of contracts. Across the world, we continuously see grand planners like Jeffrey Sachs trying to impose markets and social stability with the flick of their wands, paying little attention to cultural factors like trust and property rights or the institutions required to make contracts mean something. Similarly, here in America, our government seems increasingly bent on diluting or subverting our most fundamental agreements, whether between husband and wife or Foreclosed Billy and his bank.

Yet in other areas, we are overly contract-minded, particularly when it enables us to slack off or lead predictable, controllable lives. Our default setting as humans is to pursue the minimum amount of work for the maximum reward—to put in our 40 hours, shrug our shoulders, and say, “that’s that.” Take the recent union battles in Wisconsin, where protestors proudly insist that their gripes aren’t about the money, but rather, securing a specialized right to privilege and protection. If such an alarming display of entitlement and self-obsessed insulation-seeking isn’t adequate evidence of our new-found comfort level with legalistic, minimum-effort thinking and living, I don’t know what is.

Contracts certainly play an important role in ordering our affairs—as indicated in my preliminary jab at Mr. Sachs—but we mustn’t forget that they can only take us so far. We may indeed need to establish some minimums in our commitment-making (and enforce them accordingly), but that needn’t mean that the minimum is all we aim to achieve.

This is an issue that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians consistently get tied up with, with our discussions consistently centering on words like “coercion,” “obligation,” “voluntaryism,” and all the rest. Yet in trying to understand the dynamics of these features, we must recognize the limits of such categories, lest our aforementioned human tendencies to carve out rationalistic legalistic frameworks impede or limit our thinking about responsibility and commitment to only involve rationalistic legalistic frameworks.

Here’s where that tricky little thing called “love” comes into play, for it so comprehensively breaks such propensities, and, in doing so, shatters the type of line-item, pseudo-rationalistic entitlement and selfishness that ultimately holds individuals back and consequently drags entire families and societies down into the muck.

If there’s one person who understands this, its economist Jennifer Roback Morse, whose book, Love & Economics, argues that love, particularly as encountered in marriage and parenting, helps to show our convenient political-theory buckets for what they are and teach us crucial lessons about how we are to view people and progress. “Familial relationships are not coercive in the usual sense, nor are they voluntary in the usual sense,” argues Morse.

Marriage may be “contractual” in certain ways, but Morse prefers to see it as a “partnership”—one filled with what she calls “radical uncertainty.” “Will we both remain healthy?” she asks. “Will we both continue to be employed at our current level of income and status? Will our needs change in ways we cannot fully predict?”

As Morse notes, a partnership reaches beyond our preferred and overly nit-picky me-vs.-them comparisons (see also: “love keeps no record of wrongs”), focusing more heavily on the we aspect and thus transforming our efforts to be in service of someone and something higher than ourselves:

Partnerships feature ongoing, joint decision making during the life of the relationship. In purely contractual relationships by contrast, the parties negotiate most, if not all, of the significant decisions prior to entering into the contract. In a partnership, the partners share responsibilities, decision-making, and risks…

 …In a partnership, both partners have enough at stake in the relationship that they have an incentive to do all the unstated but necessary things that can be known on the spot and in the moment. The contract is neither the end of the relationship nor the method for how the parties relate to one another.

Orienting our perspectives around we-centered uncertainty requires us to reject the type of liberal, me-centered Read the rest of this entry »

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You Can’t Plan a Market: Transforming Culture from the Bottom-Up

The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyWhy has post-Soviet Russia not panned out to be the bustling, prosperous economy that the freedom folks predicted it would be? Is this the fault of the free market, or is there something deeper at work?

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I examine the question, channeling economist William Easterly to make the case that “you can’t plan a market.”

Although many Western tinkerers wrongly ignore the structural limitations in improving developing economies, many on the opposite side make the mistake of pretending that the structural stuff is a cinch.

I argue that it isn’t:

In our modern, polished system (with the wear-and-tear steadily increasing), we are tempted to look at other countries and think their problems are simple enough to be fixed by scribbling a couple solutions on paper and circulating it through the right hands. Even for free-market types, there is a rash assumption that all it takes is a magical structural concoction and a semi-functional government to get a poor country in motion.

Forget the individual habits and beliefs of the people on the ground. Forget the spiritual and cultural factors that limit or propel that society forward. Forget the psychological damage caused by previous (or current) totalitarian rule. “Just give them a market,” we say, “and let them be.”

As I say in the piece, “spontaneous order is not spontaneous order unless it is spontaneous.” Even in America, lest we forget, our thriving economic system did not come from the wave of a magical capitalism wand. Look no further than the 19th century to behold the painful and chaotic emergence of what we know today (and appreciate it).

To demonstrate this lesson, Easterly’s book points to several key market components that are difficult to “invent,” particularly from the top down: trust, property rights, social relationships/unity, peace, etc.

Such features — what Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling call “intangible assets” — must originate from Read the rest of this entry »

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Objectivist Ethics vs. Christian Ethics: Is There Any Common Ground? (Part 2)

Objectivism, Ayn Rand, Christianity, Sermon on the Mount, contrast, ethics, philosophyBy William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: This the second post by guest contributor, William Schultz, who began by providing a basic introduction to the ethics of Ayn Rand. In this installment, William discusses whether (and where) Christians and Objectivists might find common ground.

At a public forum on the minimum wage, a man talked with two people. Both were vigorously opposed to lowering or abolishing the minimum wage.

One of these individuals was a “social-justice” activist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would lead to the exploitation and suffering of the poor. This concern was, however, only the tip of the activist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a radical egalitarian society which reined in the power of large corporations and wealthy individuals for the sake of the common good.

The other individual was a Wal-Mart lobbyist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would hurt Wal-Mart by increasing the competition the company faced in the market. This concern was, however, only the tip of this lobbyist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a corporatist state where Wal-Mart’s profits would be indefinitely secured.

These two had a common interest in supporting minimum wage laws. However, their ultimate political values conflicted. With enough time, their political values would clash.

There’s a similarity between the relationship of the two individuals above and the relationship between Christians and Objectivists. Christians believe that men should be treated as ends not means. They believe that murder, theft, initiation of violence, lying, etc. are evil. On these issues, Christians and Objectivists are in agreement.

However, the ultimate value of a Christian is different from the ultimate value of an Objectivist.

Just what are the ultimate values of a Christan and an Objectivist? What criticisms does Read the rest of this entry »

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No Dominion, No Stewardship: Property Rights and the Environment

This week at Common Sense Concept, I explore the essential primacy of property rights in reaching productive and sustainable environmental solutions. More specifically, I focus on the tragedy of the commons and how God has called us to dominion in order to avoid such manifestations.

As I argue, many Christians prefer a more passive and detached approach to environmental stewardship, opting for advocacy and observation rather than ownership and control. In this view, human engagement with the ecological system is most often an exploitative invasion akin to the Hexxus-possessed tear-down of Fern Gully. Thus, we tend to retreat and assume an attitude that limits productive engagement altogether.

In reality, God has called us to a form of stewardship that is interactive and transformational. Environmental stewardship is not a spectator’s sport.

Here’s an excerpt:

The fact that God calls us to dominion (as displayed “in his image”) indicates that successful stewardship will only come when we exhibit overarching sovereignty and control. God does not tell us to cohabitate with the animals and feed them butter and bread with sugar sprinkled on top. He does not tell us to merely observe his creation and then go about our normal “human” business (though observation is indeed a marvelous thing). We are not to be mere spectators, or even mere protectors. Rather, God calls us to active ownership of creation by which we can take control of it and transform it for the better.

To discuss the natural implications of such a view, I leverage some useful insights from Steven Hayward, author of the new book, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Owning parts of nature — whether habitat or actual rare species — sounds counterintuitive to the secular mind (though plainly not to the Old Testament Fathers), but Read the rest of this entry »

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The Immateriality of Wealth: Ten Ways to Alleviate Poverty

Jay Richards recently wrote a fascinating piece for The American, in which he argues that many of the “preconditions of wealth creation” are immaterial and spiritual, contrary to many of our materialistic assumptions.

Alas, humans have long been ignorant of what is necessary for wealth creation to occur, and  modern-day perceptions have unfortunately leaned toward the common materialistic superstitions of the past.

As Richards explains:

For most of human history, discovering the sources of wealth creation would have been devilishly hard, since most economies, such as there were, tended to be static. If a Mesopotamian farmer or Greek shepherd in the second century BC ever asked, “Where does wealth come from?” he would have assumed that wealth came from rain, common labor, good luck, or some combination of these. He probably also would have assumed that to get really wealthy, you need to plunder other people.

Thankfully, we don’t need to plunder other people in order to create wealth, whether on our own or through the government. In fact, plundering people doesn’t achieve much of anything in the long run.

Instead, we should focus on getting the proper immaterial preconditions in place. When that is the case, wealth creation will begin foster in a way that is truly beneficial for all (…even for the would-be plunderers).

Richards provides a list of ten specific items that he believes lead to healthy preconditions for wealth creation. “The more of these a culture has or does,” says Richards, ”the more likely it is to be prosperous.”

Here is the list (and I quote):

  1. Establish and maintain the rule of law.
  2. Focus the jurisdiction of government primarily on Read the rest of this entry »

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Kingdom Economics: Transcending Scarcity

Living in God's Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunenI have been reading David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which I received as part of a promotion by Matthew Lee Anderson. Although I still have a ways to go, I recently read one little piece about kingdom economics that I found particularly interesting.

While writing about the church’s “distinctive ethic” of generosity, VanDrunen says the following:

Anyone who has studied economics — the economics of the common kingdom — has learned the fundamental principle of scarcity. Though worldly wealth is not exactly a fixed quantity that creates a zero-sum game (there is much more worldly wealth now than there was a thousand years ago), there is truly only so much to go around. A certain sum of money will only satisfy a certain number of needs and desires. A piece of property cannot be enjoyed by everyone.

VanDrunen then comments on the personal benefits of generosity, on which I have recently commented (here, here, and here):

The explanation lies not in a complex theory worthy of a Nobel Prize economist, but in the mysterious, wonderful, economics-defying work of God. He “is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). When the impoverished give generously, God makes them “enriched” in the experience (9:11). In part, this is about money, but only in part.

Then, VanDrunen offers this high-level summary of kingdom economics:

In the church there are no winners and losers, but every act of love is mutually enriching in Christ’s economics — an economics built not on the principle of scarcity but on the principle of extravagant Read the rest of this entry »

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Government Grinches: How Economics Saved Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss, Art Carden, economicsArt Carden recently wrote a creative spin on Dr. Seuss’ famous holiday story, in which he illuminates what the Grinch’s behavior tells us about property rights.

In Carden’s approach, the Grinch’s disapproval of Whoville’s holiday joyfulness could represent any number of private-sector resentments, but the parallel that seemed clearest to me was with the government’s disapproval of our financial decision making.

Here’s a little taste:

On Christmas Eve Night, the Grinch went to town
He stole all the presents, he took their wreaths down
He stole their Who Hash, everything for their feast!
He swiped their Who Pudding!  He swiped their Roast Beast!
He looked at his sled loaded up with Who snacks
‘Twas quite an efficient Pigovian tax!
Then late in the night, when he got to Mount Crumpit
For he’d taken the load, and he threatened to dump it
The Whos, with one voice crying out in the night
Screamed “bring back our stuff!  You haven’t the right

At the end, Carden sums up his point effectively, pointing out that economic value need not (only) come from the material realm:

The holiday season brings specials galore
They teach us that Christmas can’t come from a store
Reflect, as you watch them, as day turns to night
On good economics, and property rights.

Read the poem in its entirety here. Happy Friday! Read the rest of this entry »

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The Christian Origins of Social Justice: Pope Pius XI on Individual Freedom and the Common Good

Pope Pius XIAs I’ve discussed before, “social justice” can be a pretty slippery term (see here and here).

For some, social justice means exactly what it implies — plain and simple social justice, whatever that may look like in whatever situation it may manifest. For others, it’s a bit more specific — sometimes only concerned with poverty alleviation, other times only concerned with basic human rights.

In any case, it seems that much of the surrounding discussion fails at a fundamental level simply because nobody wants to talk about their personal definitions or perceived meanings or implications. People seem very anxious to say, “You’re against social justice!” despite the variety of approaches to the term.

Anthony Bradley recently wrote an article for WORLD Magazine in which he brings a bit of historical insight to all of the confusion. Bradley argues that although the term “social justice” originated in the Church, it has now assumed multiple definitions that are “antithetical to the concept of justice within the history of Christianity.”

I encourage you to read the full article, but here’s a starter:

According to Hinze, Italian theologian Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio introduced the term into Catholic social ethics in the mid-1800s to rearticulate potentially misunderstood concepts like “legal justice” and “general justice.” Gustav Gunlac and Oswald von Nell-Breuning were particularly influential in inserting the language into QA. The concept was officially described later in 1937 in the encyclical Divini redemptoris, which attacked atheistic communism.

But what was so wrong with atheistic communism?

As Pope Pius XI wrote:

[T]here [is] social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of Read the rest of this entry »

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Jay Richards: “Can a Good Christian Be a Socialist?”

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Does being a good Christian go beyond profession of faith?

Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God, recently made a post on The American asking whether a good Christian can be a socialist.

The question itself is enough to stir up plenty of ire among socialists, particularly because nobody likes to feel judged. But while I don’t believe we can or should make judgments about an individual’s personal salvation (see Matthew 7), I do think it’s healthy to ask whether certain belief systems are consistent with others.

Richards begins by emphasizing that brazen trust in the State does not necessarily negate one’s trust in the Christian God:

“I think one could trust God and affirm, say, the Nicene Creed (the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy), while also believing that the state ought to own the means of production and determine all the basic terms of the market, such as price and production. There have been many such people. It’s not my place to question either their sincerity or their status in the eyes of God.”

However, Richards then adds a caveat, arguing that being a good Christian — i.e. pursuing Christ beyond basic salvation — includes “working out the wider implications of one’s worldview.”

So when we work out the wider implications of socialism (as Richards suggests), what do we find?

“[S]ocialism, despite its compassionate rhetoric, inevitably involves gross violations of the right to private property—otherwise known as theft. That right is presupposed in at least two of the Ten Commandments (you shall not steal and you shall not covet your neighbor’s possessions).

Socialism estranges individuals from the right to the fruits of their labor. It allows a centralization of power utterly contrary to truth that all human beings are fallen. It harms the poor by decimating the information and incentives needed to abundantly Read the rest of this entry »

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