I would like to congratulate you . . .


dbking / Foter / CC BY

I would like to sincerely congratulate my friends and family who see a moral victory in the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage.

But I am prevented by two considerations. First, this ruling has come at the cost of discarding the possibility that government recognizes marriages for the well-being of children. This essential purpose has been understood for millennia. I understand it is practically ineffective while we have no-fault divorce, and a culture that doesn’t value commited relationships. I would have these changed. Government recognition of marriage really should be about the couple’s responsibility to the broader community, particularly in raising their own biological children. It’s a reasonable norm with reasonable exceptions, that don’t entail the logic of the Court’s ruling. As nice as it is for two (or more?) people to express their desire to commit to each other, that is a matter for private communities, not the government. If we construe government to be in the business of affirming the validity of personal relationships, then that is effectively instituting a deeply held religious belief called progressivism.

Second, I am sad that people seem to think that human dignity and moral worth are secured by political activism and legislation. This is not the case. All human persons have intrinsic moral worth due to their being created in the image of God. This is not a particular evangelical belief, or a conservative belief. It is a reasonable, public, and humane belief. It is a justified, true belief. I know it to be true, and I bet you do, too. It was true before Friday’s ruling, it is true after the ruling, and it will be true no matter what other political developments happen in the future.

For good reason my conscience prevents me for celebrating this decision. It is my firm but not-at-all-certain hope that there remains tolerance and goodwill in this country toward dissenters.

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Pope pontificates unprofitably on free markets

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis’s recently released exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (pdf), has made the news and elicited commentary for its admonitions against the free market economy.  This is not a new stance for the Catholic Church.  Still, this latest iteration of qualified praise (hat tip First Thoughts blog) from commentators across the political spectrum led me to study the primary source itself.  After reviewing the text, I can only conclude that on free markets and the poor, Francis is tragically mistaken.  He gets it wrong.

In a section titled “Some challenges of today’s world,” Francis calls Christians to say “no to an economy of exclusion.”  Consider this passage:

… today we have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.  How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality.  Today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.  As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Herein we get a good sample of the main vehicle of discourse: platitudes.  Pope Francis doesn’t try to marshal any facts or hard evidence that the world is as he says; he takes it for granted that we share in a worldview where the powerful crush the weak and eat them for breakfast.  But is this really the world we live in?

Writing for the Daily Caller, conservative and Christian Matt K. Lewis affirms Francis’s warning against greed.  To me, his acknowledgment of the “tension” between conservatism and markets comes off as a little too contrite.  Lewis appeals to pure speculation by otherwise venerable Christian writer and apologist Francis Schaeffer.  He supposed that employers who sacrificed profits to pay their employees more would demonstrate Christ’s love better than by giving those profits to charity.  This obsession with profits is beyond misguided; it’s destructive to lend credence to the notion that not giving away profits is inherently bad.

Jesus warns us all to refrain from judging our neighbors.  He warns us to remove the log from our own eye before removing the speck from our neighbor’s.  Accordingly, who am I to say that my neighbor is greedy?  It is one thing if I know my neighbor intimately.  But it is uncharitable and an overreach to attribute greed to a general class of people whose trade circumstances I know little about.

As I see it, Francis’s social teaching remains too mired in a Eurocentric, Old World conception of human society.  The Pope himself hails from Argentina, a poster child for the economic development frustrations that are the norm in Latin America.  At one point, Francis sharply rebuts the efficacy of supply-side economic theory:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.  This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.  Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

But to say that supply-side stimulation has never been confirmed by the facts is untrue!  In America, Kennedy’s 1964 tax cuts, along with Reagan’s 1986 and Bush’s 2002 and 2003 tax cuts, helped everyday Americans greatly.  Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson details some more of Francis’s economic shortsightedness, particularly his trust of government to ameliorate inequality.

If Pope Francis really wants to lift up the “excluded,” he should look no further than to the tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently, China.  There, real people have been lifted out of poverty and brought into purpose, productivity, and prosperity, thanks to the free market.

Elswhere in his treatise, the Pope offers a thesis that violence will continue as long as inequality prevails.  What supports this idea, given that we’ve always had economic inequality, and there is no political mechanism to eliminate it on the horizon?  We could call upon Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to see how violence has declined precipetously over the history of civilization.  We can lay this against our background knowledge that inequality is increasing to say that violence has shown itself to be inversely proportional to inequality.  Truely, may the rich get richer!

The progressive may ask, how could anyone say that?  Well, if life is anything more than a zero sum game, where the only way forward is government enforced redistribution, then that’s something we need to know and lay hold of.  In a Wall Street Journal opinion from 2012, Rabbi Aryeh Spero makes the case:

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Further, seeking to unlock the hidden treasures of creation brings deep joy.  Spero remarks:

Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual.

Where the Pope sees dehumanization and a stripping of dignity, a capitalist who understands economic truth in light of the image of God–Imago Dei–sees joy.  To make room for the invisible hand, to allow suppliers to compete for the benefit of the consumer, and to practice capitalism–under the rule of law, not under the unbridled strawman Francis berates–brings very real material and spiritual benefit not just to the capitalist, but to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”

If we love God with all our mind, as we’re called to do in Matthew 25, then we can heed Francis’s call to serve as ones “bruised, hurting and dirty.”  But that will mean for someone like myself, refuting a simplistic vision of the world that vilifies entrepreneurship, uncritically trusts government to alleviate inequality, and endows dignity as a wealth transfer instead of a mutually beneficial transaction.  If there is joy in the Gospel, it has to be in knowing the world as it actually is.  As for the economic realm, it looks nothing like Pope Francis sees it.

Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand: Can a brother shrug?

In the past few weeks, Paul Ryan has been the prime bogeyman of liberals and progressives.  His proposed Federal budget plan trims entitlement growth more than Democrats would like.  Supreme Keynesian Paul Krugman has accused Ryan, a father of three from Wisconsin, of being an Ayn Rand fanatic.  The Congressman has played down his affinity for Rand’s egoistic philosophy of Objectivism.

Liberals’ groaning over Ryan intensified after he delivered a policy speech at the Catholic Georgetown University last week.  Here he hoped to justify his policy decisions in terms of a personal understanding of his Catholic faith.  Invoking church doctrines creatively and boldly, he suggested that the moral obligation of solidarity with the poor might best be served by a prudential application of subsidiarity.  In layman’s terms, our society can help the poor better by learning from history and subsequently devolving aid responsibility from the highest offices of power to the smallest practicable unit.

Ryan’s speech was thoughful and provocative, but perhaps too threatening to the Georgetown faculty’s belief that Catholic social teaching is an automatic endorsement of unmitigated big government.  Ninety of the school’s faculty signed and sent Congressman Ryan a scathing epistle rebuking and encouraging him to bone up on the doctrines he cited.

So recently, Ryan has aggrieved his fellow parishioners and has been linked with one of the grumpiest, most selfish atheists of yesteryear.  Is he just a glutton for punishment?  No. If we heed Mr. Ryan’s call to look at history and experience, we’ll find that his Christian faith and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy furnish common ground for resisting America’s decades-long progressive drive toward cultural and fiscal oblivion.

In Ayn Rand’s most influential work, Atlas Shrugged, we get to see a worldview shaped by the author’s firsthand experiences of two historic catastrophes: Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and America’s Great Depression.  The first impressed her with man’s capacity for coercion, and the second his capacity for incompetence.  And it’s this second lesson that remains pertinent to us today.

We can trace the more salient markers of the the progressive quest for social equity: FDR’s New Deal entitlements of the 1930s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, and lately, Barack Obama’s budget-busting program expansions.  The unending accretion of altruistic programs has done more harm than good.  We’re saddled with triplicate and quadruplicate bureaucracies that don’t produce results.  A little empirical evidence demonstrates just how ineffective Federal social programs have been for the past half century.

Progressivism, the worldview that drives the long leftward march, prefers central planners to do the thinking of everyday life rather than families or individuals. The result of such a society is what Rand’s Atlas warns against: a world where people exchange the virtues of thought and creativity for pity and manipulation.  Among the classifications she assigns to the degenerate denizens of the Atlas world: “moochers” and “mystics.”  People who’ve stopped working and stopped thinking.

It’s in vigilance against such a fate that Christians share with the Randian cause.  Apologist and philosopher J.P. Moreland warns us against the sensate society, where people make decisions less with their brain and more with their gut.  One of the central truths about humanity is that each of us bears Imago Dei, God’s image.  We resemble him in our ability to reason and to create.  Even these two activities are at the core of Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean pursuit of existential necessities.

How do we turn back from a world where centralization has elevated entitlement and choked out incentive?  Atlas only offers the dramatic cataclysm of a Capitalists’ strike.  But fortunately, in the real world, Congressman Paul Ryan encourages us all to re-think our march off the cliff of uncritical, state-driven altruism.  If we can get around the Left’s pipe dreams, maybe America can jettison the vice of entitlement and recapture the values of reason and creativity.  Then we will have a truly compassionate and just society.

The Elephant in the Room of Economic Development

A couple weeks ago, David Kestenbaum of All Things Considered reported on the Indian economy, artfully mixing interviews of Indian economic experts with the slice-of-life story of an elderly, impoverished, street-dwelling shoe-shiner Umrao Singh.  The words of both the Indian academics and Singh pointed to a shared sense of fatalism.  In pondering why the Indian growth rate has in recent decades been much lower than comparable developing economies, the experts jokingly alluded to the “Hindu growth rate . . . maybe it is there in the scriptures.”  Meanwhile, Singh justifies his poverty as he looks on the dwellings of his wealthy neighbors by saying, “this is what God has chosen for me.”  Like his countrymen, he concedes that “what is written is written, you can’t change it.”
A famous destination for seekers of wisdom, peace, and enlightenment in the 1960s, India has  regained the spotlight in recent years as a new wave of thinkers and celebrities have  attempted to answer the question of “happiness.”  Michael J Fox touted the Indian culture of cosmic acceptance in his 2009 TV special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.  I even read a New York Times article that somehow was able to proclaim a certain Tibetan monk as if with some degree of scientific authority, the happiest person in the world.  Fatalism and acceptance are compelling themes for the frenzied denizens of postindustrial societies.  But do these ideas really do justice to the marginalized poor in developing economies?  Given the shared outlook of Singh and his nation’s experts, and the fawning enchantment of India’s onlookers, does a problem of justice and marginalization even exist?

In his report, Kesterbaum supposed India’s problem was a lack of manufacturing jobs.  And while manufacturing has been credited with building the modern middle class everywhere from America to China, it is not the key ingredient that India lacks.  Rather the one thing that will satisfy the technical questions of the economists, the existential needs of the poor, and the postindustrial search for happiness is a proper fulfillment of the Christian concept of Imago Dei.  As apologist JM Njeroge noted in a recent interview, this idea is the root of much of human progress in recent centuries.

To answer the economists’ riddle, consider the innovators and the moralists who steered their societies through the original industrial revolution.  The scientists who accumulated knowledge of the physical world and the inventors who applied that knowledge as technology took as a given what astronomer-astrologist Johannes Kepler posited in the seventeenth century: because man is made His image, we can “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  Likewise, what would become the human rights movement snowballed with the successive propositions of moral philosophers.  In the American Revolution, we clearly see ideas and corresponding actions rooted in the affirmation that man is created in the image of God.  The same is true for subsequent moral movers, including abolitionists, suffragists, and labor activists.  Even when modern authorities on development point to the necessity of institutions like the rule of law, they are indirectly appealing to the outworking of Christian faith.

A society’s confidence in Imago Dei is also the basis for its sense of agency, without which the innovators, capitalists, and producers of wealth will find it hard to be motivated beyond immediate gain.  Wherever this notion does not prevail, you will see a society’s actors either jockeying among themselves for a sliver of a fixed socioeconomic pie, or consigned as ones marginalized without
hope for advancement.  But where there exists this understanding of agency, it enables those with economic capital to grow the sum of human wealth, and it allows both reformers and the destitute an actionable hope for change.  For this reason it is important that we permit ourselves to make meaningful distinctions between cultures and parse through the differing assumptions that animate them.

Whether informed by detached, journalistic diggings like Kestenbaum’s, or the ponderous musings of would-be “happiness” gurus, our notions of human development and spiritual fulfillment will remain incomplete if we forget that the Image of God has been the singularly transforming force for good in our world.

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