The "Toward a Free and Virtuous Society" conference in Mexico was certainly enlightening and motivating. At first glance, it is not easy to see the relationship among ethics, economics, and politics, but after the basic principles of each discipline are uncovered, several important connections begin to emerge.
The first of these is the notion of creativity, which is an ethical, economic, and political concept. Creativity is the basis of our entire spiritual and social reality. First, it defines our status as beings made in God’s image, according to Genesis. Second, creativity is the primary source of all entrepreneurial activity. Third, creativity has a profound impact on politics, for it helps us achieve new forms of social organization that are more akin to human nature.
Along with creativity is the notion of freedom, which is as fundamental as creativity itself. Freedom is the "transcendental condition of all possible virtue" (I like to define it in Kantian terms.) God created man as a being endowed with free will and the ability to create on his own.
Economic activity, as an expression of freedom and creativity, is better achieved in a free market. The free market is not an "American idea to be implemented in Latin America," as some seminarians indoctrinated by liberation theology had suspected. The free market is more of a plan and an ideal rather than a present and complete reality. The lecturers at the conference made it clear that the United States economy is not as free as one might think; in fact, it is quite restricted by powerful state mechanisms, such as high tariffs and governmental intervention.
Thus, freedom and virtue become important goals to achieve in societies throughout the world. Virtue is especially important because a lack of virtue can denigrate freedom, and freedom is the condition of virtue. A free market cannot overlook its moral commitment. The economy, in itself, cannot sufficiently explain and justify the social reality that we face nowadays. Ethics rooted in the Christian tradition–particularly, the ethics explained in the church’s social doctrine–is urgently needed. This alone is able to make the free market and the discipline of economics sufficient to explain and justify our claims to freedom and virtue.
At the conference, I asked a specific question regarding the state: "Does the Acton Institute have an ideal schema or program that outlines what the state should be or how it should be curtailed?" The answer was given immediately by Rev. Zandstra. He said that the Acton Institute does not have any special plan to abolish the state, or anything of the sort. "That would be a revolution," he said. The Acton Institute wishes to emphasize, rather, that the state should be the last institution to which we should turn when it comes to solving our social problems. When a social problem arises, we must be mindful of a special hierarchy of assistance: our family, our relatives, the community (always along with the church) and, lastly, the state. The state should never be the first or second resource; it should always be the last. Of course, some societies need various forms of state organization, according to their particular circumstances. However, whatever the case may be, individuals must take responsibility for themselves, their families, and those in their communities. The state cannot (and should not), for example, teach values to our children. That responsibility belongs firstly to the family and the church. It is not the role of the state to teach morality; rather, its primary obligation is to uphold freedom, protect private property, and ensure security. Likewise, the state must not dictate economic rules. Rather, the state should only guarantee–through its institutions and laws–a juridical framework for freedom and security.
With regard to the other aspects of the conference–those that did not relate to academic matters–I should mention the following: I am extremely grateful to have met all of the wonderful people who work with the Acton Institute. They were very kind and attentive at all times, even more than they should have been. Surely there was an endowment of virtue on their part. I am very grateful to the Institute for giving me this opportunity through its conference. The "Toward a Free and Virtuous Society" conference is not primarily an academic experience; rather, it is a spiritual one. Certainly, the spirit is what moves this entire institution–but not just any spirit, the Holy Spirit itself. Without the Spirit of Christ, a project such as this could never have come to fruition. And that is how it should be; after all, the Acton Institute is, first of all, a spiritual enterprise; the economic matters follow, but only after being deeply rooted in Christian spirituality. Economics, in itself, is an expression of the human spirit, and that spirit–in order to be complete and whole–should recognize its source in the Spirit of Christ. That is one of the unwritten laws of economics, I would dare say.