Letter from Rome

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

Welcome to our newly-renamed Newsletter and this introductory epistle, also with a more alluring title, for July-August 2011.  We’ve combined these two months into one summer edition because, as most if not all of you know, the entire country of Italy almost completely shuts down during this time, and I wouldn’t be a very wise or popular director if I didn’t do as the Romans do and close down shop. 

With Italians heading off to the beaches or the mountains, there are fewer and fewer people around to protest the Italian government’s “austerity” plan that was approved by the parliament a few weeks ago.  If it were an actual plan to reduce the size and scope of governmental reach into the economy, I’d probably hit the streets myself to shout my approval.  And the speed with which the Italian government passed the plan was admirable when compared to the blatant demagoguery of the Obama administration in the United States.  But for those of us who’ve witnessed the Italian government in “action” before, we have every right to be skeptical of the plan.  The European monetary union was designed to make governments such as Italy’s more fiscally disciplined, because when previous Italian governments used to face fiscal crunch time, they simply devalued the currency and few Italians seemed to mind the continual addition of zeros to their liras.

We may return to that seemingly blissful state before too long if the gulf between creditor and debtor Eurozone members continues to grow.  But for now, it looks like there will be reduced public expenditures and a smaller deficit, but not enough to get the Italian economy growing or enough to prevent the downgrading of Italian government bonds.  I can’t imagine too many Italians worrying themselves too much about the future, not nearly as much as they should.  Perhaps it’s because so many are with their families over vacation, the same families they have always relied upon to provide the care and assistance that more welfare-addicted Europeans now demand as a “right” from the state, as our good friend Frank Rocca noted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.   Although strangely and misleadingly subtitled, Rocca’s article describes the problems Italians face in the wake of falling birth rates and smaller families to care for each other.  It’s not clear how welfare cuts will damage a country that didn’t really rely on that system in the first place.  If anything, as the head of the Vatican bank has been mentioning wherever he goes, it’s the collapse of the family that is causing our financial and economic problems, not the opposite.  (Wall Street Journal editors, please take note!)  All the quibbling about debts, budget numbers and even growth rates masks the fundamental cause: “The problem is structural: Not enough people do not enough work for not enough of their lives.”

So, in the famous words penned in Il Gattopardo, Italians will have to change to keep things the same.  But can one really maintain la dolce vita without a six-week vacation?  Will everyone have the join the American/Asian rat race of ever-increasing hours at work with less time for everything else?  I for one am not convinced that ordering Italians to put their noses to the grindstones will have the desired effect.  One German philosopher who preferred the Italian way, in spite of, or perhaps due to, “the death of God” he famously proclaimed and its resulting nihilism was Friedrich Nietzsche, who manifestly refused to worship “the cult of work” and found it anti-religious.  Nietzsche’s most exemplary Christian, Blaise Pascal, also thought that our obsession with diversion results from a deep-seated reluctance to confront our mortality.  At this current rate of growth of Eurozone economies, contemplating death is about all young Europeans will be able to do.  Is there, then, a uniquely “European” solution to the present crisis?

Maybe a particular way of life that originated in the Middle East and matured in Europe, both ancient and new, can serve as a guide, a way of life that Pope Benedict will surely recommend at World Youth Day in Madrid this August, even though he, more than anyone is, aware of the past and present dangers facing the continent.  On the passing of Otto von Habsburg, Fr. Robert Sirico recalled a conference we held in Rome in December 2006, along with George Weigel and Jean-Yves Naudet.  In the video accompanying the piece, we can see and hear the last son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor who had little nostalgia for the past and whose political and spiritual energies are devoted to keeping Europe both Christian and free.  A good friend of Acton, the art historian Elizabeth Lev, recently wrote a wonderful piece recalling all the papacy has done for modern Rome and the hordes of (often complaining, materially well-off but historically ignorant) tourists who visit this time of year.  And another friend of mine, Manuel de Teffé, directs and produces music videos and writes about the need for the recovery of a “relational” economy.  Each of these examples shows that there are still ways for modern Christians to serve God and neighbor in ways that may force us to, yes, work more hours, but perhaps even more importantly, to understand better what work is for.  With fewer certainties about the world to guide us and an often hostile state and culture surrounding us, the examples of the early Christians may be more helpful than those of a more recent past.

All three contributions to this month’s newsletter have something to say about the problems of work in our age, with two pieces from Samuel Gregg on the strange “conservatism” of European political class and youth, and one from Jeffrey Tucker on the lack of respect and appreciation for ordinary commercial activity he sees every day.  May these inspire you to use your vacation time well so that we can return refreshed and inspired for the trials of September and beyond.  Who knows, we may even learn what to do with true leisure when we find it.

Kishore Jayabalan