Posts Tagged responsibility

American Idealism and Economic Opportunity for the Glory of God

flag, crossFrench Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that Americans “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”

Drawing on this sentiment, George Weigel argues that although materialism may reign in America more than it once did, “there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.”

Pointing to President Calvin Coolidge (no fan of materialism), Weigel emphasizes that Coolidge’s famous line—“the chief business of the American people is business”—shouldn’t be taken by itself. For Coolidge, and for most Americans (even today), promoting the dignity-conferring effects of business is part of a larger, deeper idealism.

As Weigel explains:

As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists…”

And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.

Weigel then explains how the market economy supports such idealism (emphasis added):

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.

A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.

Yet many of today’s Christians will shrug at any talk of an “American ideal,” and in some sense, rightly so. Our ultimate aim should be a Christian ideal, and we have a natural disposition to self-construct the latter for purposes of satisfying the former. But while we should be careful to make such a distinction, we should also recognize that a careful concern for the Gospel demands a careful concern for culture and country. Catholic social teaching aside, Weigel’s “vision of American possibility” fits quite nicely into the most generic understandings of Christian mission.

But we must dig deeper, even still, for just as American idealism has been watered down by self-centered post-modern thinking, so has our Christian idealism.

Even more fundamentally, the Christian should be concerned with the glory of God—an overarching, not-of-this-world notion that shatters our convenient cultural obsessions with “individualism” and “collectivism” and pushes us toward a different orientation altogether. Living a life focused on lifting up the King of Kings in all things will mean producing plenty of fruits that fit the current categories—responsibility, self-control, hard work, sacrifice—but I fear that we’re getting to a point where we can’t discern the fresh from the rotten from the poisonous. This is why the market, like any institution, needs to be analyzed first and foremost by how well it enables and empowers transformation at the root of individual worship. Otherwise, the byproducts we’re seeking will soon be replaced by nothing more than hollow do-gooderism cloaked in the lingo of the church.

Pro-market Christians can and should tout the market as the best mechanism for Read the rest of this entry »

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You Didn’t Build That: The Logical Ends of Collectivist Idolatry

In a recent campaign speech, President Obama doubled down on what has become a streak of denigrating business and pooh-poohing individual initiative.

The quote in question:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back…If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen…The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Although the President’s “you didn’t build that” line is the center of attention, such a response is only logical for those who believe, more fundamentally, that enduring excessive tax hikes is an ideal way to “give something back.” When from the government all blessings flow, then to the government all things must go.

On a more practical level, the notion of “giving back” through increased taxes assumes that any funds we have “given” to the government are somehow being over utilized—that we are getting too big of a bang for our buck, particularly if we go do something leechy like start a business. For Obama, it seems as though rich people and business owners in particular are getting above and beyond what they have contributed to our bloated federal bureaucracy, so how dare they push back when asked to “give back”? By this logic, our federal deficit is really a deficit of “giving back.” The federal government has not overpromised and under-delivered; we citizens have overly devoured and under-“given.”

Talking this way quickly becomes problematic, particularly because the word “give” is being used to describe something that “giving” is not (thus my excessive use of quotation marks thus far—my apologies). President Obama is not talking about business owners “giving something back” through charity, community service, social entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, or, God forbid, value creation. He is talking about business owners submitting to his coercive political agenda, a primary plank of which happens to be making rich people pay for things they don’t want to pay for by getting non-rich majorities to throw stones at them.

Sounds like a good model for “giving something back.”

Yet I’m not one to say that we can’t give something back through government, or even that we shouldn’t. We should be thankful for the successes of government—for the positive achievements it has made toward maintaining social order and creating conditions for human flourishing. Plenty of people gave something to make these achievements possible, material or not. Indeed, as an example of purely material “giving,” Warren Buffett and Rep. Scott Rigell have participated in just that, donating freely and willingly to the IRS. If this is what Obama is advocating—voluntary contributions to the federal deficit—it would be far less problematic, though perhaps still inadvisable (show me the cuts).

So yes, we can and should give back to our communities and institutions, including government, and we should recognize that others have contributed to our successes through their own generosity and commitment (a point aptly made by Jordan Ballor).

But Obama is saying something quite different, for when this notion of “giving something back” is wielded as Obama wields it—toward his own narrow, explicitly coercive purposes—we should recognize that Read the rest of this entry »

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Returning to Duty: Three Recommendations for Occupy Wall Street

Where's My BailoutIn my critique of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I noted that what really needs to happen is what John Witherspoon once called a “return to duty” — an introspective moment that leads us to “hearken the rod” rather than disdain it, to return to individual moral uprightness, and to reject the seductive idol of material security.

The sentiment is pulled from a sermon Witherspoon delivered to Princeton in 1776, containing stern counsel for how to recover from cultural erosion and pull the weight that liberty demands. The solution, Witherspoon explains, requires much more of the individual than a secular, materialistic worldview can invigorate.

Granted, today’s “occupiers” are propelled by a more serious, more pampered sense of entitlement than Witherspoon could have ever imagined. Yet this simply means our task is more difficult. (e.g. “Yes, I know you have air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, expensive fair-trade groceries, and a bottomless credit card to pay for it all, but someday you’ll have to face the real world, hunker down, and…you know, actually persevere.”)

Here’s Witherspoon’s diagnosis:

Both nations in general, and private persons, are apt to grow remiss and lax in a time of prosperity and seeming security; but when their earthly comforts are endangered or withdrawn, it lays them under a kind of necessity to seek for something better in their place. Men must have comfort from one quarter or another. When earthly things are in a pleasing and promising condition, too many are apt to find their rest, and be satisfied with them as their only portion. But when the vanity and passing nature of all created comfort is discovered, they are compelled to look for something more durable as well as valuable. What therefore, can be more to the praise of God, than that when a whole people have forgotten their resting place, when they have abused their privileges, and despised their mercies, they should by distress and suffering be made to hearken to the rod, and return to their duty?

Exceptions abound, but on the whole, this seems very close to what we’re witnessing — a society that has grown “remiss and lax in a time of prosperity,” and is finally being “compelled to look for something more durable as well as valuable.”

Our workers grew up in a less globalized world, insulated from the rising competition of today’s (rapidly) developing nations. Up until recently, we were privileged with a virtual monopoly on freedom, allowing it to spoil our attitudes and outlooks toward ourselves, our neighbors, and economics in general. Our kids went to schools with inflated tuition costs, all the while thinking they were guaranteed a $50,000-per-year job in post-colonial gender studies — a myth solidly affirmed by parents, school counselors, and political leaders, themselves beneficiaries of a post-war boom made possible (in part) by an otherwise war-ravaged economic stage.

The recent expansion of freedom and prosperity has been a good thing, to be sure, but it doesn’t look so hot if you Read the rest of this entry »

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Economics, Ecumenism, and the Church: An Interview with Jordan Ballor

Jordan Ballor, author, Ecumenical Babel, Acton InstituteI recently reviewed Jordan Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, in which Ballor aims to promote (and initiate) a “critical engagement” of the modern-day ecumenical movement.

Ballor’s argument is careful and thorough while also being engaging and precise, and although the book’s primary focus is on the way we approach ecumenism, it also stirs broader questions about the role of economic ideology in the church at large:

  • What is the proper role of ideology in the church’s social witness?
  • Do ecumenical organizations “count” as churches, and if so, how should we understand their place in the broader “playing field”?
  • How do we as Christian individuals — or even as private Christian enterprises — differ from the church in our responsibilities regarding socio-economic ideology and God’s social purposes?

To expand on these questions (and plenty more), Ballor was kind enough to engage in an interview with Remnant Culture. As in his book, Ballor offers a healthy dose of criticism while providing some clear-cut ways to promote a healthier ecumenism going forward.

Q. As you mention in the book, there is not much “transdenominational authority” in Protestant Christianity. How influential has the ecumenical movement been in establishing such authority?

Not nearly as influential as it might have been, especially over the last three decades or so. There’s an instinct in Protestantism to look outside of institutional groups for leadership and authority, and when such groups squander their standing by spending their time talking about prudential issues in imprudent ways, they do a great deal of damage to their own credibility. The lack of influence that ecumenical groups have these days is largely due to these dynamics. This is more the case for the “mainline” ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, than it is for some of the “evangelical” ecumenical efforts, such as the Lausanne Movement. But there’s generally a suspicion of such “transdenominational” authority, and in many cases for good reason.

Part of why I wrote Ecumenical Babel was to try to articulate why recovering such Read the rest of this entry »

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A Romantic Boom and Bust: The Opportunity Costs of Love

Last week, I explored the degree of risk and uncertainty involved in pursuing God’s ultimate will for our lives. This week, Tho Bishop has a great piece at the Mises Institute that echoes these themes from the angle of earthly love.

Bishop’s primary goal is to show the parallels between Austrian business cycle theory and what he calls an “Austrian romance cycle,” focusing specifically on the element of time.

The comparison makes for quite an enjoyable read.

Here is the gist:

Romance starts with a first move. Just as Austrians understand that it is the role of the entrepreneur to shoulder the risk of capital investment in order to potentially achieve profit, we can understand that it is the role of an instigator to take the risk in the hope of finding romantic success. Without an entrepreneur, economic growth is unobtainable; without someone making a first move, romantic growth is unobtainable.

To demonstrate the similarities, Bishop provides a brief parable about a young romantic named Adam. In the beginning of the story, Adam is interested in investing in a new relationship, and like any good investor, he is trying desperately to convince certain women that he is “worth the risk.”

Becoming a bit impatient with the slow growth of his success, Adam begins to “stimulate” his love life in the same way a government might try to manipulate an economy: by faking it.

Adam has become frustrated by romantic failure. Fed up with his lack of success in romance, Adam begins to tell every girl who will listen that he saved orphans from the rampaging cannibals of Rojinda, climbed Mount Everest, and once out debated Ron Paul on the House floor. Adam has decided to manipulate his “interest rate.” All of a sudden Adam finds himself as the center of attention.

Behold! The impressive splendor and all-encompassing prosperity of the boom! Spending for the sake of Read the rest of this entry »

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The Age of Adolescence: Peter Pan Syndrome in a Free Society

Video games - adolescenseI’m about one week late to the Web frenzy surrounding The New York Times Magazine’s most recent piece on “emerging adulthood.” I had a variety of reactions to the article (both positive and negative), but I wasn’t interested in saying much until I read Mark Driscoll’s provocative article in The Washington Post (“The world is filled with boys who can shave”).

The Times piece focuses on today’s ”emerging adults” and tries to answer why so many are taking so long to reach adulthood. Driscoll seems to accept most of the article’s root analysis, but he uses it more as a launching pad for his own discussion of adolescence as it relates to today’s young men.

As Driscoll explains:

Historically, a guy would go through two life phases: boy, then man…But here’s what’s happened. Rather than moving from boy to man by this succession of sociological transitions, we’ve created something called adolescence…

Today, adolescence starts somewhere in the teen years and continues indefinitely. There is no foreseeable end. The problem with adolescence is guys don’t know when they’re ever going to grow up and be men, and no pressure is exerted on them to do so.

Driscoll goes on to label this trend a “Peter Pan Syndrome epidemic” in which “men want to be boys forever.”

For me, as a twenty-something who has (hopefully) completed the transition through modern-day adolescence, it’s hard to deny the reality of what Driscoll is describing. It was always difficult to identify the exact time I was supposed to Read the rest of this entry »

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Pay What You Wish: The Origins of Consumeristic Charity

BreadI previously wrote a post discussing Panera Bread Co.’s new pay-what-you-wish business model and its macro implications.

Here’s a brief summary of how the new store works (from USA Today):

While the store does have cashiers, they don’t collect money. They simply hand each customer a receipt that says what their food would cost at a conventional Panera. The receipt directs customers with cash to donation boxes (there are five in the store). Cashiers do accept credit cards.

Last week, the Freakonomics blog posted a new study on pay-what-you-wish pricing, which suggests that the best way to maximize profits in such models is to “combine pay-what-you-wish pricing with an appeal to charity” (quoted from Freakonomics).

Marketing professor Ayelet Gneezy reached this conclusion by presenting 113,000+ theme park visitors with several pricing schemes for purchasing souvenir photos.

The four schemes, as summarized by Freakonomics, were as follows (and I quote):

  1. A flat fee of $12.95
  2. A flat fee of $12.95 with half going to charity
  3. Pay-what-you-wish
  4. Pay-what-you-wish with half going to charity

When it came to profitability, the “charity” factor provided a healthy boost in demand for photos sold under the pay-what-you-wish option.

As Gneezy explains in the abstract:

At a standard fixed price, the charitable component only slightly increased demand, as similar studies have also found. However, when participants could pay what they wanted, the same charitable component created a treatment that was substantially more profitable.

This would seem to bode well for the Panera model, even though Panera is far less explicit when it comes to the actual amount devoted to charity. Although “all profits” will go to charity, the consumer has no idea Read the rest of this entry »

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To Birth or Not to Birth: Does Parenting Make Us Unhappy?

parentingJennifer Senior recently wrote a fascinating piece for New York Magazine titled “All Joy and No Fun,” in which she discusses whether having children makes us happier.

Although we all probably think we have a good idea of what happiness consists of, it becomes quite elusive when we analyze it as a scientific variable.

Senior adequately recognizes this elusiveness in her article. Rather than taking a firm position from the get-go, she instead drifts from study to study, illuminating some of the more persuasive points while still playing a fair amount of devil’s advocate.

Such an approach is necessary for this topic, for as Senior notes, the majority of mainstream studies say that parenting does not actually make us happier in the long run:

Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines.

Most parents tend to doubt such findings (including me), but when you actually read the studies, it’s hard to doubt their conclusions (at least from a macro perspective). Certainly none of us are unhappy parents!

“So what, precisely, is going on here?” Senior asks. “Why is this finding duplicated over and over again despite the fact that most parents believe it to be wrong?­”

The only answers Senior is able to come up with are that either (1) “parents are deluded,” or (2) “the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.”

I would say the second guess is probably more convincing.

As Senior explains:

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological Read the rest of this entry »

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Human Trafficking in Moldova: Q&A with Missionary Patrick Stitt

The Stitt Family

The Stitts (from left to right): Patrick, Kalyna, Finnian (2), Jack (3), and Levi (1)

I have the great privilege of knowing Patrick and Kalyna Stitt, who will be shipping out in June to be missionaries in Moldova. The Stitts will be working through the Home of Hope to curb human trafficking in the country and help bring spiritual and physical restoration to its many victims.

Human trafficking has been at the forefront of global discussion lately, and for good reason. Innocent women are being sold or duped into sexual slavery, and it is having a devastating impact on those involved. There are currently many high-profile efforts to eradicate the sex trade, but most have been highly ineffective and counterproductive. After all, sexual slavery is, in many ways, a cultural epidemic, and top-down organizations usually have a pretty difficult time influencing cultures for the better.

What I love about the Stitt family is how fully they embody the concept of Radical Individualism. Through their own pursuit of God, the Stitts have decided to leave the comforts of America and follow the voice of the Holy Spirit across the world. They are not dwelling in fear or cowering behind earthly securities, but are founding their family’s self-interest in what matters most to God. Such courage, faith, and determination is incredibly inspiring.

Patrick was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about their mission, as well as discuss the issue of human trafficking on a broader level. In addition to reading the following Q&A, you can find out more about the Stitts at their website by clicking here or you can donate money to their effort by clicking here or here. If you are interested in hearing Patrick and Kalyna give a more extended version of their testimony and ministry, you can listen to it on our church’s podcast.

Q: What initially sparked your desire to minister to victims of human trafficking?

Patrick: I suppose everyone is struck by the idea of slavery and oppression. In particular, I reflected on the suffering of the hopeless — those who are distraught but are without the means to ameliorate their situation. When I learned about the girls and women who are forced into the sex trade I realized that these poor souls were possibly the most forlorn on the earth. But as horrendous as their lot in life is, I realized I wasn’t the man with plan. What can I do? For many years I took the easy route of Read the rest of this entry »

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Government Is Only a Tool: Milton Friedman on Responsibility to the Poor

Mark J. Perry recently posted a classic video of Milton Friedman on our responsibility to the poor. The video somewhat ties into yesterday’s discussion on using forced taxation and wealth redistribution as a means to accomplish widespread “charity” and “economic justice.”

The student in the video begins by asking this question: If we are a government of the people and by the people, why shouldn’t we, as a people, take action through government to help those in need?

Friedman’s answer is spot on:

The government doesn’t have any responsibility. People have responsibility. This building doesn’t have responsibility. You and I have responsibility. People have responsibility.

Friedman’s argument is simply that government is a tool of the people. Although people may choose to use that tool as a means to eradicate poverty, it is we as individuals who are actually responsible, and pretending that the government Read the rest of this entry »

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