Monday, May 31, 2021

Capitalism to you: 1 thru 5, or 6 thru 10?

(From Edward Fesser blog...)

When people use or hear the word “capitalism,” some of the things they might bring to mind are:

1. The institution of private property, including private ownership of the basic means of production

2. Market competition

3. The existence of corporations as legal persons

4. Inequalities in wealth and income

5. An economic order primarily oriented to the private sector, with government acting at the margins and only where necessary

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things.  Indeed, some of them (such as private property and a government that respects subsidiarity) are required as a matter of natural law.   Eliminating all economic inequalities (as opposed to remedying poverty, which is a very different matter) is neither possible nor desirable.  The concept of the corporate person has long been recognized by, and regarded as salutary within, the natural law tradition (whatever one thinks about its instantiation in modern business corporations).  Socialism in the strict sense, which would centralize the most fundamental economic decision-making, is intrinsically evil.

On the other hand, other people using or hearing the term “capitalism” might have in mind things like:

6. A doctrinaire laissez-faire mentality that is reflexively hostile to all governmental economic intervention

7. The market as the dominant social institution, with an ethos of consumerism and commodification of everything as its sequel

8. Corporations so powerful that they are effectively unanswerable to government or public opinion

9. Doctrinaire minimalization or even elimination of social welfare institutions, even when there is no feasible private sector alternative

10. Globalization of a kind that entails dissolution of corporate and individual loyalties to the nation-state and local communities.

Now, all of these things are bad and should be opposed on natural law grounds.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely illustrative.  And what it illustrates is that it is unhelpful to talk about either embracing or rejecting capitalism full stop.  The term has too many connotations for that, and needs to be disambiguated.  Hence the sweeping claims often made by both sides in the debate over capitalism inevitably generate excessive heat while reducing light.  When people say “I support capitalism,” they often mean “I support 1-5” but their opponents hear them as saying “I support 6-10.”  And when people say “I oppose capitalism,” they often mean “I oppose 6-10,” but their opponents hear them as saying “I oppose 1-5.”  To a large extent, they talk past each other.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Hope, Anger, Politics, CS Lewis, Seneca, and Acid...

Some snippets gleaned from the March issue of First Things. For some time our political parties have made utter and complete enemies of the opposing party members. I do not belong to either party and neither party represents my ideas and beliefs. But I think the currently prevalent attitudes and pronouncements of politically active people, both politicians and citizens, are outside of the bounds of useful discourse and help nothing. Is there hope for out country to ever be a semi-united nation again? To that question the following clips from various columns in the aforementioned digest maybe have something to say:

"The virtue of hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage: anger with the way things are, and courage to change them for the better."

Hope is a choice we make in the face of suffering and disappointment. Georges Bernanos once described hope as “despair overcome”. Hope has a strength that comes of struggling with doubt and fear."

Like many Americans, I am angry at the way things are. Certainly, patriotism and respect for elected officials are important Christian duties. They’re especially vital in America, where the law, not ethnicity or religion or even language, is the glue that holds us together. Disregard for the law is uniquely toxic in our country."

(America was founded with no place for a king. The law, in the form of the Constitution, sits in the place of a throne for America, and all decisions must comply and fall under its guidance. Without this, America is not what it was founded to be.)

"Anger is the easy daughter. C. S. Lewis warned that the pleasure of anger lies in “the fact that one feels entirely righteous oneself only when one is angry. Then the other person is pure black, and you are pure white.” It’s hard to imagine a better description of the current condition of American politics. In the long run, that’s fatal to national community."

"If our leaders (of both parties) want national unity, then they cannot demonize and punish their opponents. They cannot turn their reverence for the Republic, the law, on and off like a spigot, according to their party’s current agenda. If our leaders want national healing, they need to respect and listen to people they disagree with and don’t like."

"Seneca concluded his essay On Anger with these words: “[Nothing is] great which is not at the same time calm.” Anger untempered by patience and prudence, anger fixed on revenge or vindication of the self, anger not directed to the common good, can only diminish and destroy. Absent love and the interior peace it brings, all of life is conflict, and our faith is empty. Absent love, speaking the truth is not merely useless; it becomes an instrument of self-righteousness and a weapon against others."

"(Two) key points about Augustine’s view of Christians and politics."

"First, Augustine never offers a political theory, for good reason. He doesn’t believe that human beings can know or create perfect justice in this world. Our judgment is always flawed by our sinfulness."

"Second, no political order, no matter how good, can ever constitute a just society. Errors in moral judgment can’t be avoided. Therefore, the Christian needs to be loyal to her nation and obedient to its legitimate rulers. But she also needs to cultivate a critical vigilance about both."

"Hope feeds and grows on the experience of love, the will to persist in that love, and the letting go of anger, no matter how vicious or lunatic the times. Nations rise and fall. Ours has no special immunity. But in the meantime, God and his love for us endure. Strong tremors are shaking our society. If you’re like me, you’re feeling knocked off balance, and you’re casting about for explanations."

"Those on the left spy resurgent racism, xenophobia, and other pathologies, which they assume are radicalizing a populist base."

"Those on the right worry about utopian dreams on the left, which fuel a new totalitarianism. By my lights, these lines of analysis can tend toward hysteria (“Fascism!” “Socialism!”) rather than understanding. They are ... not pathways toward a sure footing in this time of staggering and stumbling."

"(A wise person) once said “Lack of trust is the acid eating everything.” He was not referring to trust in God. He was pointing to the decline of trust in many once-stable authorities. Mistrust runs through public life as well. Trumpian loyalists denounce some Republican senators as “traitors.” They are denounced in turn by respectable conservatives as an emerging “extreme right” that is captive to conspiracy theories." The accusations fly and get more and more entrenched."

"We not only distrust one another. We also have lost confidence in institutions that in an earlier time easily won our loyalty. We should seek people and institutions we can trust. Unlike faith, this trust needs to be partial, not complete. No worldly institution backs up its promises with the certainty of God’s power and righteousness. We are not called to be chumps. Yet we must beware the acids of mistrust and counter them with gestures of loyalty."

(A complete and bitter mistrust of everything outside my own small realm of ideas and those that agree with me will "eat everything like acid")

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Pessimism of the West - Snippets from First Things column by R. R. Reno

Some sections I wanted to preserve from the Jan 2021 issue:

Western civilization exerts unprecedented influence. Science commands the intellectual loyalty of elites around the world. Western strands of Christianity have enjoyed extraordinary missionary success in Africa and Asia. Communism—a Western ideology—migrated to China, destroyed its Confucian culture, and over the past generation has evolved into a materialist and technocratic mentality far more indebted to Bentham than to Mencius. Globalization is an American-led project, and it has gone from strength to strength. Yet, at the apogee of the West’s cultural power, we are riddled with guilt and doubts.

China poses a threat, but as was the case with early-­twentieth-century Japan, which brought war to Asia in the 1930s and to the United States in 1941, Chinese power today arises from the great extent of its Westernization. The clearest sign of cultural triumph is when one’s adversaries adopt one’s weapons. My fear of Chinese dominance is not a fear of being under the thumb of an alien Confucian civilization. Rather, I see in twenty-first-century China a perverse version of the West: the promise of wealth and security in exchange for submission to ­technocratic control.

What, then, accounts for our gloom? To some degree, it arises from our investments in failed utopias. As the Christian vision of the final triumph of God’s justice and peace was secularized in the modern era, the West gave birth to many vain dreams of reason. Descartes epitomized the “begin afresh” mentality, one that imagined that with sufficient intelligence and goodwill we could demolish the flawed city we had inherited and rebuild it as an impeccable empire of reason. In this spirit, we proclaim that democracies don’t go to war with one another. Or that global trade brings peace. Or that scientific management can eliminate inequality, poverty, and every other social evil.

For a recent football game, the University of Minnesota replaced the players’ names on their jerseys with the words “End Racism.” It was but an instance of today’s desperate ambition. But the modern Western spirit of “eliminationism” is countermanded by reality. Man combines the noble with the base, the grandeur of transcendence with grave defects that can never be eliminated—short of eliminating mankind, which is what environmentalist radicals and population-growth fanatics propose. Nobody was more pessimistic about postwar prosperity in the West than the ardent Marxist. He saw the spread of prosperity as a curse, not a modest blessing. Its meager satisfactions induce false consciousness and delay the revolution that will eliminate all injustices—the only aim worth attaining.

The West is not Marxist, but all of us are affected by the secular utopianism to which Marx gave powerful expression. Why hasn’t the “spirit of progress” triumphed? Even if things get better, utopianism exercises such a powerful influence over our public imagination that we can see ourselves only in the dark light of present (and past) failures. That a single black man should be wrongfully killed by police is intolerable, and society explodes with outrage. That one woman in college should feel pressured to have sex is unacceptable, and we set aside due process. Anything short of perfection is cause for upheaval. We have always still farther to go.

Ironically, modern utopianisms, for all their idealism, are built on drab utilitarian foundations. This, too, contributes to our malaise. Noble acts inspire men. Warm rhetoric stirs hearts. Yet such appeals have no place in the empire of reason. Technocracy operates in accord with the predictable. As a result, the modern West tends to reduce human beings to congeries of interest. We tell ourselves that we are utility-maximizing machines—or, if we are sufficiently postmodern, power-hungry organisms bent on domination.

We often hear about the great sins of the West: ­colonialism, racism, genocide. This litany demoralizes us. But our sense that we are unfit to govern the world we dominate (as we nevertheless do, often without hesitation) stems above all from the low view of the human person encouraged by technocratic reason. We lack a vocabulary with which to articulate freedom’s heroic possibilities. Thus, the singular triumphs of the West seem unmerited, even perverse. We turn to the myth of the noble savage. Multiculturalism denigrates the West while championing anything it imagines unsullied by Western influences. The “non-Western” offers us our best hope for moral and spiritual survival.

John Paul II had a name for the pessimism of the West: the culture of death. It is manifest in the widespread acceptance of abortion, the death-dealing tool by which we prevent new life from interfering with what we take to be our “essential interests.” The same holds for euthanasia, which is often freely chosen to relieve us of life’s final burdens.

These are efforts to wring from life what we can get, rather than accepting life as a gift. The increasing childlessness of adult life in the West is less manifestly death-dealing, but it has a pervasive influence. In Norway, the number of women who had no children by age forty-five went from 9 percent in 1985 to 15 percent in 2017; for men, the percentage went from 14 to 25. To one degree or another, most countries in the West are trending toward childlessness, including the United States.

Children are the future. They are lines we cast forward in time. In children, we are drawn toward emotional investments in affairs beyond our limited years. The children in whom we place our hopes need not come from our loins. Parents have fundamental rights that must be given priority. That said, the public is rightly concerned with the welfare of children, which is why we quarrel over how to educate them. In a society charged with the current of new life, we are drawn beyond ourselves, giving birth to ideas, inventions, and endeavors that outstrip our ­immediate interests as we seek to provide the next generation with things we will not survive to enjoy.

Look around and count the absent children. In 2017, demographers reported the lowest birthrates on record for the U.S. The birth-dearth is unprecedented in human history; it is chosen, rather than imposed by disease and famine. In 2020, the diminished scope of our concerns led us to borrow money from the future to sustain our lockdowns, during which we have suspended the education of children, curtailed their play, and retarded their development so that eighty-year-olds will enjoy a marginally lower risk of dying. Long gone is the Christian horizon of life, which refuses death’s final and supreme claim. We imagine ourselves committed to ideals. Yet the culture of death empties ideals of their power. Frustrated by our inability to confect redemption on earth, humiliated by the disenchanting effects of technocratic reason, and increasingly childless, we’re reduced to the animal imperative of survival.

Is it any wonder that the West is haunted by our perceived inability to make the world more just, more sustainable, more at peace? Perhaps we are unworthy because we are impotent. We have inherited a vital civilization that has captured a great deal of the world’s imagination. But we are becoming, at best, its sterile custodians.