Letter from Rome

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

As the Romans slowly begin to return from their beach vacations, where they could sweetly pretend everything is right with the world, they are also slowly awakening to the possibility that Italy is on the verge of becoming the second “I” in the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) of European nations facing massive sovereign debt burdens and the possibility of default.  As usual, there are news headlines of “manovra” to deal with the crisis, which are followed by calls for protests, strikes, etc. from the country’s many trade unions.  (Incidentally, the term “manovra”, meaning “maneuver” or “tactic”, already reveals the cynicism that greets the government’s attempts to deal with out-of-control spending.)  But whatever the politicians say they are doing to head off the crisis, the bond markets have been ruthless in their evaluation of Italy’s financial situation, making it more expensive for the country to borrow money and predictably leading to the same politicians to blame the markets for rampant speculation.  Because, as we all know, those nasty speculators must have it out for Italy….(For an accurate portrayal of what ails Italy, see this Wall Street Journal op-ed by our friend Alberto Mingardi of Istituto Bruno Leoni.)

Given this comic-if-not-tragic state of affairs, it is remarkable that young Catholics from all over Europe and the world came to see Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day in Madrid.  It could very well be that the economics are just too gory to contemplate for the young, so they’d better get on their knees and pray.  But it seems that the message received was a more hopeful one – that of finding one’s vocation.  And it’s the idea of vocation, both the traditional religious ones and those in the everyday world, which may save the future if not the present generations of Europeans.

In the previous edition of this letter, I cited the Canadian columnist Mark Steyn’s description of our current economic situation, which he has recently re-iterated in the context of the British riots:  Not enough people working enough hours for enough years.  This is largely the result of our living off the wealth created by preceding generations combined with welfare and educational systems that makes few if any demands on its recipients; we can simply coast on the fumes of the nearly-spent capital built up by our ancestors.  The average European farmer, worker or businessman probably views competition (and certainly views foreign competition) as a threat to society that government must protect us from, which is nothing more than simple protectionism dressed up as “solidarity” that actually hurts those outside the formal, regulated economy.  This idea of entitlement, of deserving the fruits of the labor of others, rather than one’s own, couldn’t be more opposed to the idea of vocation.  As anyone who has accepted his or her vocation will tell you, there are plenty of uncertainties and insecurities to meet along the way, but “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  It is presumptuous and vain to think our vocations should be trouble-free just because they are ours.

If Nietzsche was right that “God is dead”, that belief in the Christian God or indeed all gods has become impossible, there would be no sense in speaking about “vocation” – Someone has to be making the call in the first place.  There really wouldn’t be much to do about our fate except resign ourselves to it, accumulate some more debt and just keep the whole charade rolling along.  Contra Nietzsche, it’s hard to argue that the two million people in Madrid were thinking along these lines.

It may well be that Europe’s economic woes will need help from the Almighty, but I don’t mean a miraculous overnight erasing of government debt from balance sheets, as welcome as this would be in many capitals.  Rather the recovery of the sense of vocation and the perseverance that comes with believing that God has a plan for each of us, for all of us, to discern, accept and cooperate in.  Instead of browbeating people to work more, a true calling provides the spiritual perspective needed to see one through the inevitable difficult moments and even failures.   (See, for example, “Steve Jobs: America’s Greatest Failure” on the beneficent deficiencies of the recently resigned Apple CEO.)

Such a perspective provides a framework for dealing with the economic difficulties we are all bound to face in the near-future and which our three articles in this month’s newsletter address.  All of them find opportunities and reasons to be hopeful in these depressing times.  Elise Amyx sees the chance to reduce agricultural subsidies that not only distort domestic markets but also lock out farmers in developing nations and therefore contribute to world poverty.  John Couretas writes on the tendency of some religious leaders to defend poverty programs that actually make poverty more persistent and compares it with a counter-movement to re-think how we can help the poor themselves.   And finally, Ray Nothstine looks at the growing dissatisfaction towards centralized power and how the Tea Party is doing some good.

Now, I don’t want to give the false impression that religious and economic thought always go hand-in-hand.  The famous New York University law professor Richard Epstein recently criticized Pope Benedict’s call for placing the person at the center of the economy (here’s my PowerBlog response), so moral and technical approaches can differ, something that the former Cardinal Ratzinger himself has recognized.  Maybe, however, when it comes to morals and efficiency, we simply want to have our cake and eat it too.  Maybe we’ve been told and come to believe that the hard battles have already been fought and we’ve lost that sense of sacrifice and discipline that comes from having to struggle on our own.  We may find out soon if we’ve lost it permanently.

Kishore Jayabalan