Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
After several months of little or no activity, Rome bustles with conferences, visitors, and other happenings from October until Christmas. (Don’t ask me why Romans decide to waste several months of the year and then try to jam everything into two months. It makes no sense but seems to have been going on for centuries.) Our friend and Vatican expert John L. Allen calls the second week in October “Sweeps Week” for all its intensity.
In this month’s letter, I’d like to mention three events John Allen didn’t cover - hard to imagine as that is - but were actually more interesting to those of us concerned with the relationship between ethics and market economics. The freedom of opinion and the willingness to question reigning political and economic orthodoxies are what separate these events from the ones Allen covered, if I may compare them to the more staid affairs of the “officially sanctioned” local conference season.
The first was an October 11-12 conference at Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University, organized by the Italian Students for Individual Liberty and the Milton Friedman Society. It was their inaugural European Liberty event and featured free-market luminaries such as Anthony de Jasay and Antonio Martino. I was invited to speak on classical liberalism and religion and was pleased with the open-minded approach many of the nominally-agnostic participants had towards my thesis of the Church’s appreciation for a certain understanding of human liberty in relation to revealed truth. Antonio Martino was also the keynote speaker for the launch of Tea Party Italia, which proved to be very popular. I have my doubts whether this model of American populism can succeed in a country so accustomed to and comfortable with statism but we should certainly help where and when we can.
The second conference was the inaugural international conference of the Markets, Culture and Ethics Project at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, which took place October 15-16 on the theme of free markets and the culture of the common good. This event also featured many well-known “A-list” international speakers: Rocco Buttiglione, Russell Hittinger, Lord Griffiths, Pierpaolo Donati, Stefano Zamagni, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, Cardinal Paul Cordes, and Michel Camdessus, just to name a few. With such an eclectic group, it would be difficult to summarize the conference’s overriding message. To varying degrees, all agreed that the free markets can indeed serve the common good, but there was quite a bit of disagreement as to how and to what extent the church, state and/or international institutions can make this happen. Perhaps not surprisingly, I thought the clearest presentations were given by those who’ve spoken at previous Acton events, such as Hittinger, Griffiths, Novak Award winner Andrea Schneider, and Acton University lecturer Andreas Widmer of the Seven Fund.
The third event of my own Sweeps Week was Istituto Bruno Leoni’s Forum on Markets and Morality, which took place in Rome on October 18. The specific focus was on sections 45-46 of Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate and its call for a person-centered, ethical system of economics and finance. The forum was chaired by Lord Griffiths and included presentations by Kevin Dowd of the Institute for Economic Affairs, Msgr. Martin Schlag of the above-mentioned Markets, Culture and Ethics Project, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo of Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe and Kim Tan of the Transformational Business Network. The discussions were very stimulating, but because Chatham House rules were in effect, I can’t reveal too much. I can say that the debate was the most wide-ranging and open of the three events I attended and with some diverging opinions on the relationship of personal ethics, corporate responsibility, business success, and the salvation of our eternal souls.
Those three events provided enough food for thought to last a year, but alas, such are not the Roman ways. As of this writing, I will soon attend the opening of the cause of beatification for Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, my former boss at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, our November 9 Acton conference in Lisbon on Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise and Poverty, and the just-announced November 20 consistory when Pope Benedict will create 24 new cardinals, including our good friend Raymond Burke. All this in addition to greeting new students to Rome and preparing for our December 2 conference on Ethics, Ageing and the Coming Healthcare Challenge, which I hope many of you will register for and attend.
Finally I hope you appreciate this month’s Acton expert analysis, which is especially international in scope with pieces on the irresponsibility of the European welfare state, the precariousness of freedom 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a look at the latest Nobel Prize winners in economics. With so much economic uncertainty in our world, we need more clear thinking and a return to sanity that I trust you’ll find in these commentaries.