Posts Tagged True Community
Last 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.
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 »
I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”
Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:
A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.
These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.
Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.
Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.
So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?
Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…
A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.
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 »
The topics of self-interest and sacrifice are commonly discussed on this blog—my own view being that any form of either is bound to lead to selfishness unless both are aligned to God’s will (through good, old-fashioned obedience).
I’m currently reading Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, in which author and economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes a unique approach to the subject, arguing that our views of “rational” man have been severely lacking on both sides (if your ideological buckets are that neat and tidy, that is).
Without incorporating love into our usual assumptions about the self and the other, argues Morse, we will structure a philosophy of life around a fantasy and be doomed to a mechanistic, regressive society.
First, the not unique part—i.e. a summary of the context:
The decentralized market economy is probably the most celebrated self-regulating social institution. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” insight shows that people pursuing their own self-interest can actually end up furthering the public interest through no intention of their own. Since Smith’s time, free market economists have developed the Invisible Hand concept further through a construct called homo economicus, or economic man. Economic man is a rational person who calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness.
The obvious problem is that we are not, and can never be, fully rational, no matter how much Ayn Rand wishes it were so (though we can certainly be more rational than we are).
On the other side is a similar problem, one which, though more obvious, is plagued by increasingly abundant misunderstanding: other people have an even smaller chance of being “fully rational” on our behalves.
The lofty bureaucrat on top of the hill may think he has a better idea than we do about the appropriate price of an orange (or a cup of coffee), but our personal preferences would likely differ if Grocer Bob had the chance to experiment. Of course, the implications lead to deeper struggles than the prices of oranges and coffee, which is why more fundamental, philosophical variations on Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” have long served as platforms upon which many a tyrant has constructed his moralistic authoritarian palaces.
Yet even critiques of centralized approaches to knowledge and decisionmaking—Hayek’s, most notably—seem to only get us back to square one: that individual choice would be better (and it would!).
Yes, our knowledge is limited, and yes, our definitions of the “good” will not naturally conform. These are crucial realities to confront, but do they mean that Read the rest of this entry »
In a recent CNN debate between contenders for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum initiated a brief spar with Ron Paul over the notion of individualism as it relates to the family.
Paul began by emphasizing that “we need to see everybody as an individual,” after which Santorum retorted that the “basic building block of a society is not the individual. It’s the family.”
Yet whether he knows it or not, Santorum is perpetuating a false dichotomy, affirming to conofused Americans everywhere that placing the proper emphasis on the individual diminishes the family, rather than enhances it.
In my recent post at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I explore the misconception further, drawing on Ryan Messmore’s wrap-up of the same event to demonstrate the need for clarity in the interrelationship of individualism and authentic community. My point, however, should be noted by Paulites and Santorumistas alike.
No matter how obvious we “liberty buffs” think the connection may be, Santorum’s all too common knee-jerk insertions of “family!” should indicate that confusion still persists, even (or especially?) among conservatives. More importantly, it should inspire us to give the individual-family connection the prominence and proper placement it deserves:
Whether or not Paul was leaving such an impression will depend on who’s listening, but Santorum obviously didn’t get the memo. As Messmore seems to understand, this is indicative of a larger misunderstanding in the public at large. Far too often, proponents of individual rights assume that everyone else will connect the dots between the individual and community. Indeed, some of our very own fail with pride.
But in doing so, or rather, in not doing so, we risk leaving the impression that the lines do not exist in the first place. We may think it’s obvious that the family and other essential private institutions are natural byproducts of individual liberty, but the connection is far more misunderstood than we realize.
Such distinctions are (also) particularly important at a time when collectivists promote a false sense of “community” and “family” in their own PR with vigor (“It takes a village!”). Which is why the consequence of inaction is Read the rest of this entry »
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.”
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 »
The budget talks are a’blazin and Jim Wallis is at it again, rallying left-leaning Christians everywhere to support a laundry list of progressive “anti-poverty” programs (i.e. all of them).
On July 20, Wallis and 11 other “religious leaders” met with President Obama to ask for a “Circle of Protection” around any program ”focused on reducing poverty.” (“Circle of Protection”–is that Orwellian, New Age, or something out of a 1980s RPG?)
“We made our simple principle clear,” Wallis said. “The most vulnerable should be protected in any budget or deficit agreements…We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.”
“This is what God requires of all of us”? You mean Medicaid, food stamps, and foreign “aid”? Inspiring, I do declare.
But, man, if we’re falling short on our redistributionist checklist, folks in the third-world must really need a sense of what God requires of them. Maybe Wallis can head over to Cuba or Zimbabwe and teach those tyrannical bullies a thing or two about how to properly manipulate and micro-manage their peoples toward greater prosperity. How I would love to see Wallis positioned in the former Soviet Union, trying to fix things by avoiding programs that “focus on reducing poverty” (i.e. everything).
As much as I appreciate Wallis’ attempt to intercede on my behalf, what God “requires of all of us” cannot be rolled into some quaint piece of legislation signed by Harry Reid or John Boehner. God’s “requirements” do not constitute a legalistic bullet list of progressive programs, and the church extends well beyond an “enlightened” majority with a tendency to sign and spend things quickly. (I’ve discussed this previously).
Why, for example, is our bloated, inefficient, fraud-laden Medicaid system the God-ordained method for helping America’s poor find healthcare in the 21st century? Why, might I ask, is such a system only God-ordained insofar as it remains untouched by budget cuts? If we cut the program by, say, 1% (or even .00001%), will judgment day come sooner or more harshly than it would otherwise? And to what degree? Paging Harold Camping…Al Gore?
What if I happen to disagree with page 3,500 of the legislation, but agree with the rest? What if I disagree with the whole thing and suggest Read the rest of this entry »