Posts Tagged equality

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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A Lack of Self-Denial: In Sex, Economics, and Everything Else

President Obama’s recent “coming out” on the issue of same-sex marriage has led to a renewed discussion of the issue. Obama’s explanation for his “evolution” (which, in reality, is unlikely an evolution at all) is that his Christian beliefs require it:

When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.

Now, I have no issues with the Golden Rule properly applied, but I resent that it’s come to be used not as an imperative for disinterested compassion, but as a bludgeoning tool for legitimizing particular behaviors and supporting an anything-goes moral outlook. At a fundamental level, such a view of “equal treatment” requires us to rid words of meaning and rip truth out of justice, should that particular truth be so awful as to offend so-and-so’s individual choices.

Through this understanding, the President’s refrain goes something like this: “Want to change the definition of an age-old institution? Well, if I wanted to do that, I would certainly want to be appeased.”

And there’s the biggie: I. I. I.

When the Golden Rule is contorted as such, it illuminates how much we’ve come to elevate self-satisfaction and self-affirmation in our society-wide contemplations about morality and justice. Rather than look to things like history, experience, science, or God himself (gasp), we base our actions and outlooks around what we might prefer. And alas, even when we do choose to look at the right sources—as Obama so keenly attempts with his “faith”—we tend to limit their value only insofar as it allows us to throw they’re broader purpose out the window.

The mindset is captured well in Collin Hansen’s analysis of the recent goings on, in which he sums up our current cultural outlook as follows:

  1. God made me this way.
  2. He wouldn’t deny my natural desires.
  3. And I don’t have to explain myself to you or anyone else.

Yet such cultural erosion is by no means epitomized or even made clearest by this frequent battle over whether homosexuality is right or wrong. The push toward homosexual marriage is just one logical step in what has been a decades-long journey down a road of obsessive me-centered self-affirmation, and it certainly won’t be the last. That we’ve come to view homosexuality as the primary issue in the larger debate is unfortunate, yet it is perhaps due to the fact that many Christians don’t seem to think there is a “larger debate.” As Hansen puts it, “The pursuit of self-fulfillment covers a multitude of adultery, divorce, and pornography in our churches. Why shouldn’t it also cover homosexuality?”

Yet there is just as big of a need to re-re-re-(re?)-emphasize the former: Why shouldn’t it also cover the rest?

When we look beyond the issue of homosexual marriage to issues of heterosexual sex, whether we’re talking pre-marital sex/contraception, pre-marital cohabitation, pornography, adultery, or whatever, we see the church becoming more and more comfortable with a version of “love” and “covenant” centered around Individual X’s abstract personal desires and less and less attached to (or interested in) the truth of the Bible and the Gospel. It should come as no surprise that Christians who are fine and dandy with sinful heterosexual lifestyles feel the need to affirm homosexual ones. By their own framework of “truth” and set beside their own moral outlook, such a move does indeed constitute “justice” and “equality.”

Thus, while the question of whether one favors homosexual marriage is indeed an important one for public debate, for the Christian in particular, such popular calls have a deeper Read the rest of this entry »

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An Equality of Human Dignity: Charles Murray, Bill Maher and Materialism

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has been making waves. In the book, Murray argues that America has, over the past 50 years, experienced a new class divide between what he calls an “upper middle class” and “lower middle class.”

I have yet to finish the book (more reactions will surely come), but in observing Murray’s exchanges throughout the media, I’ve been struck by the left’s reactions to his thesis, particularly their rejection of his belief that social decay might just kinda sorta have social causes (as opposed to purely economic ones).

This week at Values & Capitalism, I examine this view, using Bill Maher’s recent interview with Murray as an example:



Maher aptly demonstrates the materialistic assumptions of his progressive worldview, assuming every social problem is linked to some kind of economic inequality.

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

Yet even if Maher were persuaded on this particular data, I trust he’d only get more creative with the numbers, for who can deny the unstoppable, exploitative power of bourgeois prosperity? For Maher and other progressives, this is not about data; it’s about an underlying faith in the evil of economic inequality and the transcendent power of material equilibrium.

Material. Material. Material.

Skyrocketing divorce rates? Follow the money. Absent fathers? Move that money around! Obesity epidemic? Give more funding to public schools. Widespread theft and burglary? Heck, have we tried more government coupons?

Such an outlook ignores what drives us as humans and what makes us prosper. If Maher really wants to repair our cultural divide, he should move beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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Atomic Communitarianism: The Control Freak’s Biggest Nightmare

Individualism is constantly misunderstood, which is a big reason I started this blog. To value the individual, we are told, is to disdain community.

LearnLiberty recently released a video to dispel this myth, and this week at Common Sense Concept, I provide some additional commentary. The thesis: Properly understood individualism is what makes community possible.

Watch the video here: (my comments here)



After building on Dr. Skoble’s critique of communitarianism, I examine some popular concerns over “atomic individualism,” setting forth what I believe to be the real issue: “Real individualism results in atomic communities, not isolated hermitdom, and this is what the control freaks are worried about.”

The argument ties into several points I’ve been harping at recently (here, here, and here), but the most recent connection would be with Jim-Wallis’ “Circle of Protection” confusion.

Given that many Christians seem lost on the nasty implications of communitarianism, I thought it might be a good time to connect the dots:

For the admirers of utopian scheming, the big impressive tower will never be constructed if the project is left to free individuals pursuing their petty mutual ends. Heaven on earth will never be achieved if Read the rest of this entry »

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Prosperity Explosion: Is Income Disparity Necessary for Growth?

Hans Rosling recently released a marvelous video on the relationship between income and life expectancy over the last 200 years (HT). The visualization is stunning.

See it for yourself:

One item worthy of note is how Rosling describes our “remarkable progress” as occurring despite “enormous disparities.” It is a small but important distinction to dissect.

Is it not true that loosening up trade and expanding freedom requires income disparity, or the mere allowance of it? After all, it is during the de-centralization and the individual freedom of the Industrial Revolution that the bottom-left countries started moving decidedly toward the upper right. In a free society, income disparity is typically a sign of efficiency, i.e., maximizing, channeling, and organizing human potential and innovation effectively (thus a subsequent boost to life expectancy).

This isn’t to say that the current extent of income disparity is inevitable, or that all forms of such disparity are signs of efficiency, but overall, you cannot have steady growth without a steady improvement of allocation, and you cannot maximize allocation improvement without allowing for inequality in economic rewards.

Don’t get me wrong. I share Rosling’s optimistic outlook about the future. I do think we can close the gap between “the West and the rest.” It is indeed possible and desirable that we get most people to the healthy-wealthy corner of Rosling’s chart.

Hans Rosling, data, visualizationHowever, I don’t think we can accomplish this if we see economic inequality as an evil or a hindrance to our productivity. It is in the countries that view it as such that we consistently find resistance to upper-right movement.

It is not, as Rosling says, despite income disparity that prosperity has exploded; it is in part because freedom-loving people stopped fearing it. We began living lives of individual invention and personal risk rather than cowering beneath crippling insulation and slavish submission.

It is only by allowing for life to happen that we can hope for life to improve.

(Photo Credit)

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Up from Feudalism: Cultivating Culture in the Status-Free Zone

Feudalism

When status competition was limited, people were more likely to turn to status-free zones.

Michael Knox Beran has a hearty piece in this month’s National Review discussing the cultural implications of status competition (“Status Hiatus”). In the article, Beran discusses the evolution of such competition throughout human history, focusing primarily on the West.

Beran explains that in the feudalistic societies of old, status was organized through “state-enforced hierarchies” of one kind or another, whereas in today’s free(r) societies there is a great deal of status competition.

However, despite the advances we’ve made in making status mobility more universal, Beran sees a fundamental problem that will always exist:

The difficulty is that every tremor of satisfaction we feel when we look down (upon those who are lower than we are in a particular hierarchy) is counterbalanced by the pain we feel when we look up (to those who are higher). The farther one climbs, the more vexing the problem becomes.

There are two basic approaches to “managing” status, both of which present their own problems. First, we can make status primarily about merit (which we have done in America), but by doing so we will risk the marginalization of society’s lower-skilled members. Second, we can try to destroy all hierarchies by force (via government “equalization”), but this route will surely lead us backwards toward feudalistic containment (not to mention the resulting miseries).

To solve the problem, Beran tries to determine which approach leads to more human flourishing. Based on the historical record, Beran concludes that as silly as our status pursuits may be, they do indeed lead us to Read the rest of this entry »

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Foreign Aid: Charity, Justice, and Bono’s Anti-West Prejudice

Bono at the World Economic Forum

Bono says that Africa remains poor because the West is greedy and prejudiced.

Every time I hear Bono talk about Africa’s problems, his passion makes me want to be on board with his mission. The problem is, whenever I hear about his actual solutions, I realize that the guy cares more about having compassion than achieving success.

Bono loves to talk about justice and equality, but the conversation is always entirely based around materialism. For Bono, Africa’s plight is primarily about a lack of resources, and thus it is simple enough to be solved by 40 cents here and an iPod there.

Bono & Co.’s efforts in Africa have been ineffective and counterproductive, as plenty of critics have pointed out (e.g. here, here, and here), but what I’d like to focus on at the moment is the false premise behind those efforts, which holds that success in Africa is dependant on the financial benevolence of Western governments.

The Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal focusing on this video’s assertion that financial aid to Africa is “not about charity. It’s about justice.” The video is pretty light on specifics, but Bono has since adopted the language on several occasions, offering a bit more illumination on why he thinks our donations are a matter of justice rather than charity.

My first reaction would usually be, “Of course the solution to poverty is justice,” but Bono and the ONE campaign consistently misconstrue the word “justice” by applying it to Read the rest of this entry »

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