Letter from Rome

December 2012

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

What does real political and economic reform require?  This question has been on my mind at least since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis affecting Europe, as Americans and Europeans appear to be unwilling to pay for the expansive and expensive government programs they demand.  The United States is headed towards a “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that some economists predict could put the country, and much of the rest of the world, into another recession.  Mario Monti, the technocratic Italian prime minister charged with putting the country on the right track, has announced he will resign after the 2013 budget is approved.  (Believe it or not, Silvio Berlusconi hasn’t left the scene.)  On both sides of the Atlantic, citizens refuse to make the necessary sacrifices and would rather have their children and grandchildren pay their debts for them.  Self-indulgence cloaked in the mantle of solidarity.

I recently took part in a small, private meeting with Arab reformers, many of whom are exiles wishing to bring down jihadists rulers and autocrats who govern the Middle East.  These reformers said they desire and need Western support for their attempts to re-interpret Islamic teachings to make them more hospitable for democracy.  It’s a matter of vital importance.  But it was very clear that these reformers had virtually no support in their home countries, as they readily admit.   To make matters much worse if not impossible, they seem to take the French Revolution as their model for change in the Arab world.  One would think that the Reign of Terror as well as the virtually complete disappearance of Christian practice in Western Europe would have had some impact on the Arab mind, but apparently not.  They did seem to believe that political Islam can be reformed, though none seemed to have any understanding of the virtue of political prudence or persuasion and will therefore likely remain marginalized and ineffective.  Call me naïve for proposing that it may be a good idea to channel the jihadist passions of the Arab street towards socially-beneficial activities such as commerce, but at least I tried.

Given the ineptitude of leading reformers in the West and the Arab world, it would be easy to blame to the inconsistent and contradictory passions of the people.  Who doesn’t want liberty and security, piety - at least the reputation for it - and progress, benefits without paying for them?  But haven’t people always been confused about what they want and what they’re willing to do about it?  (I laughed each time I hear the Arab reformers talk about “the rabble” that is the Arab street.)  What makes our current situation so much different than any other?  It could be that our means of instant communication and material ease have fooled us into thinking that we should be able to have all sorts of good things without having to earn them, but this a fundamentally childish view of the world.  And if there’s one constant in any discussion of the merits and demerits of free markets, it’s that critics always complain about the materialism and consumerism of others, never their own, i.e., those they can actually control and are responsible for.  What else can we expect when we don’t know the basic differences between socialism and capitalism (a tip of the hat to a certain media consultant on the terza loggia)?

In my view, it’s becoming apparent that some kind of spiritual or religious reawakening is the only way to achieve real reform at the individual and social levels.  The good news is that it’s happened before; the bad news is that it’s happened before.  The history of reforms that started out well and ended up in political fanaticism is a rich one, so we’d need to find ways to encourage individual introspection and responsibility along with political moderation, which is no small task.  There’s no magic formula for how many saints or statesmen we’ll need; still, we have to believe societies actually do and can change in significant and positive ways.

Even with the depressed state of the world, we are in the liturgical season of Advent, preparing for the Good News of all good news.  To prepare, I’m reading Pope Benedict’s third book on Jesus, this one on the infancy narratives.  The birth of Jesus Christ is a perfect, timely reminder of hope.  Who could possibly have imagined the changes that would be brought about by the coming into the world of one child?  That the culmination of thousands of years of promises made by God to the Jewish people would bring forth a king, one without sword or army, born in a manger to a carpenter and young virgin?  To the degree that this message is still welcome, that we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see it, reform is possible, at least in the spiritual sense.

We don’t know how things will turn out politically or economically, however.  Perhaps the US will go over the fiscal cliff or perhaps it won’t, finding a way to soak the rich a bit more while promising to, someday, deal with the problem of entitlement spending.  Perhaps Europe will muddle through its debt crisis and manage to get all those Spaniards and Greeks working, and the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the voice of reason in the Arab world.  (And perhaps Silvio Berlusconi will return to office!)  But the longer these crises go on, the more Tocqueville’s pessimistic observation that the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty move in opposite directions seems to be an accurate portrayal of the world today.

Despite, or maybe because of, this gloomy period, it’s opportune to celebrate the birth of Christ.  The thirty-three years of Our Lord’s earthly life did not appear to have changed the world but they did by presenting us with an ever-ancient and ever-new way of living in the truth about God and man.  What are the political and economic truths that result from this?  We’ll have to re-learn those one at a time, starting with matters as basic as marriage, family and work, and what a polity can do to develop these in healthy ways.  All of us will have to think more seriously about our political obligations and not just what the welfare state can do for us here and now.

So there’s a lot to think about and do.  In the meantime, we should give thanks for the blessings of faith, family and freedom we already enjoy.  Please accept from me and the Istituto Acton staff here in Rome our best wishes for a serene Advent season, a holy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Kishore Jayabalan