Posts Tagged spontaneous order

Post-Election Reminder: Politics Is Not Where Life Happens

Russ Roberts, economist, Cafe HayekLast week at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I offered some suggestions as to what a newly elected President Obama might do if he wishes to unify the country and restore American confidence —  namely, affirm the value that each person brings to the table, male or female, rich or poor, and “appeal to more than material welfare,” as President Coolidge once did.

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I discuss how we as Christians should respond after the election—but regardless of what the President does or doesn’t do.

For this, I rely heavily on economist Russ Roberts, who recently reminded us that politics isn’t “where life happens,” and thus, we should remember that our best opportunity to sell a political ideology of individual liberty is by building and cultivating the very communities and institutions — the “voluntary emergent orders” — we seek to protect.

As Roberts writes:

My other source of cheer is to remember that politics is not where life happens. Policies affect our lives, but we have much to do outside that world. Yesterday I helped my youngest son learn Python, learned some Talmud, played with my photographs on Lightroom, had dinner with my wife, and went shopping with my oldest son for his first nice blazer. Lots of satisfactions there. Nothing to do with politics.

Toward the end of the campaign, I saw an ad where Obama looked into the camera and said something like “look at my policies and those of my opponent and decide which one is best for you.” Those of us who believe in voluntary emergent order and civil society as a way to make the world a better place, reject Obama’s calculus. We believe that our policies aren’t just good for ourselves but allow everyone to reach their potential and serve others through the marketplace and the communities we choose to join and build. That’s a world I want not just for my children to but for your children, too. Being nice to your neighbor helps your neighbor imagine the possibility that the policies we pursue are not just about ourselves.

My response:

For both the Christian and the Jew, this “voluntary emergent order” begins with loving God and loving neighbor. We certainly need to make clear the state’s persistent attempts to intrude and subvert that order, but throughout such a struggle, particularly after a battle as aggressive and exhausting as this past election, we would do well to re-energize ourselves when it comes to pursuing the very callings and Read the rest of this entry »

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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 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—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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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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Obama’s Fatal Conceit: Top 10 SOTU Pride Trips

This year’s State of the Union address was particularly painful for anyone who understands that human knowledge has its limits.

Fantastical utopian scheming was aplenty, and thus, I was continuously reminded of Hayek’s marvelous bit from The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

And oh. my. goodness. Our dear, dear President has quite the imagination, no?

In my latest post at AEI’s Values of Capitalism, I pick my top 10 favorite pride trips from the speech, analyzing omniscient Obama’s “blueprinted” approach to prosperity with Hayekian skepticism.

Here’s #4:

[Obama:] “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that –- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.”

Of course we do! All we need to do is, like, double our workers in the most popular industries. (Don’t mind the “how,” because “we know how to fix it.”) Is Little Jimmy content to live in Mommy’s basement until he’s 38 years old? There’s an app for that.

But what if those industries aren’t going to have twice as many openings in, say, 5 years? What if a new industry is birthed right when Obama’s grand old plan finally gets passed (or right now)? Yeah, yeah, yeah … we’ll just pump up the jams on the next crop of growing industries and it’ll all work itself out. The federal government isn’t just smart; it’s quick.

And another goodie:

[Obama:] “Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.”

How does the President know that twice as much work will exist in the next five years (or that it exists now)? Or are we talking about “shovel-ready” work-study jobs? Like “free” room service for the dorms? More research assistants for the Chair of Transgender Post-Colonial Literature? Or perhaps you’d prefer to help Librarian Betty pick her nose when her hands are full? Double up!

Read the rest here.

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Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human Body in Earthly Engagement

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithI have previously examined the ways in which sociability and strong relational bonds can impact societal health and economic prosperity. Likewise, I have persistently emphasized that spiritual transformation through Christ and subsequent obedience to God play crucial roles in strengthening such bonds.

Without recognizing and embracing such an alignment, I have argued, we will be severely impaired in identifying real value as God sees it, and will be ill-equipped to pursue our proper mission.

Yet throughout all such considerations, I have rarely (if ever) contemplated the role of the body in the spiritual and intellectual workings that drive our stewardship. This is strange, to be sure, for despite the great importance of all the other inputs to our actions, it is the body that actually does the doing.

But alas, even this basic realization does not go far enough, says Matthew Anderson, editor of Mere Orthodoxy and author of the new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith.

For Anderson, the body is much more than some tool we use to move our spirits from here to there; it is an essential and inextricable part of what it means to be human, a truth affirmed and amplified by the reality that have we been created in the image of God. For Anderson, the connection is crucial, but has been largely ignored by an increasingly dualistic culture. For many of us, the body has become nothing more than a mere means for pleasure or a “prison for the soul.”

Yet for those of us who over-emphasize the spiritual side of man, Anderson argues that any such transformation will never be complete without a full understanding the bodies position therein:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth.

Anderson proceeds to tackle a number of issues through this approach, from tattoos to homosexuality to death (and beyond), yet throughout each revealing insight, my mind consistently flashed back to his chapter on how our bodies more simply relate to the other (Chapter 4). It’s easy to understand how an appropriate body-faith orientation might improve our marriages or our churches, but what about our larger socio-economic engagement and overarching earthly stewardship?

“We are social even in the womb,” says Anderson, and that sociability “is inextricable from the structure of our bodies.”

When we score a goal, we like to bump chests and give high-fives, the act of which is sometimes followed by hazardous, celebratory dives into a large piles of teammates. When socializing with friends and family, we often prefer to do so over a cup of coffee or a meal, sharing in the most basic bodily necessities as we relate to each other, pour out our hearts, and foster social bonds. These shared bodily pleasures and activities “not only curb our loneliness,” says Anderson, but are “a manifestation of our gratitude for the goodness of the created order that God has placed in us.”

Yet, as is the fundamental premise of the book, Anderson believes the distortion of the body’s place in such interactions has by and large distorted God’s created order in the process. Thanks to the rise of a self-absorbed, short-sighted, and materialistic culture, the social ties necessary for a healthy and flourishing society have largely vanished, and our views of the human body have corresponded accordingly. No longer are our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather, we have perverted them into serving as temples unto ourselves.

As Anderson explains:

In our late-modern world, the body’s basic dependency upon the world for both its sustenance and its pleasures has been distorted to the extent that what we consume has become central to our identity as persons. What we wear, what we eat (or don’t eat), what we endorse—these become the means by which we construct ourselves…

….In a consumerist society, the world is flattened out as everything becomes an instrument for the individual’s well-being. Things only have value when a consumer desires  them, which means that there is no order of goods to which our desires should confirm.

At the root of this, then, is a sort of “degraded” individualism, as Anderson calls it — the type of misaligned, atomic hedonism that submits to no authority other than its humanistic God of Autonomy. Edmund Burke railed against such an approach back when we 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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Population Bloom: We Are Not Bags of Garbage

David Beckham, Victoria Beckham, family, populationDavid and Victoria Beckham recently had a baby — their fourth, to be exact — and although I’m not typically one for celebrity news, The Observer ran an article condemning the couple as “irresponsible” and  “selfish” for their excessive family building. Have these people ever watched TLC?

The article illuminates a primary feature of progressivism commonly critiqued on this blog: Without proper “guidance” from an all-knowing Computer State, humanity is a virus.

This week at Ethika Politika, I write in their defense, spending much of my time summarizing the morbid views of such misanthropes:

Such claims are not new. Indeed, they have been around for as long as we’ve managed to doubt our own value, promise, and potential (I’m looking at you, Mr. Caveman), as well as that of others (and you, Peter Singer.)

For Thomas Malthus, the eighteenth-century scholar and notoriously wrong “population expert,” humans were(/are) dead-set on creating the same world that Mr. Ross fears — one with too many bodies, not enough food, and an existence “condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery.” Tough luck.

For Paul Ehrlich, the more recent and more embarrassingly wrong “scholar” of population doom, humans are a “cancer” that, without forceful (er, “enlightened”) population control, will naturally tend toward catastrophe and mass starvation. If left to our own devices — via petty ole “freedom,” of course — we unruly beasts will feast and gorge and reproduce ourselves into an oblivion. For Ehrlich, the bulk of humanity can only be saved (or “sustained”) if we initiate targeted starvation, abortion, and sterilization of the unenlightened. These hapless folks — the chosen ones — must pay the price for humanity’s ultimate transgression: existence.

Under this vision, it is only logical that disdain be dumped on those who create new life. Our procreation decisions become nothing more than strategic factors in a number game of the “enlightened”:

Such a view assumes us to be reckless monsters, hopeless without servile submission to the robotism of an all-knowing Computer State. We are movers and users and Read the rest of this entry »

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Iron Chef Church: Christianity and the Entrepreneurial Mind

Leigh Buchanan recently wrote a piece for Inc. Magazine titled, “How Entrepreneurs Think,” exploring a recent study on entrepreneurial psychology by Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. (HT)

The study draws a clear line between entrepreneurs and corporate executives, concluding that the former typically exhibit effectual reasoning, while the latter are more prone to thinking causally:

Sarasvathy likes to compare expert entrepreneurs to Iron Chefs: at their best when presented with an assortment of motley ingredients and challenged to whip up whatever dish expediency and imagination suggest. Corporate leaders, by contrast, decide they are going to make Swedish meatballs. They then proceed to shop, measure, mix, and cook Swedish meatballs in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible.

But this doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs are wandering aimlessly through life. Their approach is simply not static. Like an Iron Chef, they are highly mobile and highly adaptable.

The distinction here, according to Buchanan, is as follows:

That is not to say entrepreneurs don’t have goals, only that those goals are broad and — like luggage — may shift during flight. Rather than meticulously segment customers according to potential return, they itch to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible, a principle Sarasvathy calls affordable loss. Repeatedly, the entrepreneurs in her study expressed impatience with anything that smacked of extensive planning, particularly traditional market research. (Inc.’s own research backs this up. One survey of Inc. 500 CEOs found that 60 percent had not written business plans before launching their companies. Just 12 percent had done market research.)

…Sarasvathy explains that entrepreneurs’ aversion to market research is symptomatic of a larger lesson they have learned: They do not believe in prediction of any kind. “If you give them data that has to do with the future, they just dismiss it,” she says. “They don’t believe the future is predictable…or they don’t want to be in a space that is very predictable.”

Jim Manzi, in his commentary on the article, points out that one must make another distinction between risk and uncertainty, with risk being somewhat quantifiable and uncertainty more  Read the rest of this entry »

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