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Acton Notes - November / December 2009

Dr. Arthur Brooks Headlines Annual Dinner

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks delivered the keynote address at the nineteenth annual Acton Dinner in Grand Rapids on October 29. He is the president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Until January 1, 2009, he was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Dr. Brooks focused his remarks around happiness in America, the free society, and the importance of the free enterprise system. “We are engaged in a struggle for the future of the free enterprise system and simple happiness is one of the biggest reasons why it matters how this struggle turns out,” he said. Dr. Brooks posed a question, asking, “Does the economic system and economic policy system matter?” He noted that 80 percent of our baseline happiness is inherited. He added that it was important that “we get the other 20 percent right.” Dr. Brooks asked another question: “What would make you happier today? A surprising number of people said money. Money seemed to be one of the most salient things people brought up.” He continued by noting that since the 1970s the average per capita income has risen by 50 percent. “So if we look at the United States and say we have grown tremendously in prosperity since the early 1970s, how much happier are we? The average level of happiness has however remained unchanged,” he said.

Dr. Brooks noted that the current administration in Washington believes that income redistribution will result in greater happiness. “The best system for a happy population indisputably is one that facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition,” Dr. Brooks said. He restated that this system was under attack. He closed by noting that those who are struggling financially will not find happiness under a leftist economic system. Dr. Brooks said this was the opposite of social justice, and the Acton Institute understands that well.

Is Capitalism Worth Saving?

The American Enterprise Institute and the Acton Institute held a cosponsored event at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids on October 30. The discussion was titled “Is Capitalism Worth Saving?” American Enterprise Institute president Dr. Arthur Brooks and Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico headlined the discussion. Dr. Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Stephen Grabill of the Acton Institute, and Mr. Rudy Carrasco, a writer and minister, also offered remarks at the event.

When Dr. Brooks asked Rev. Robert Sirico if capitalism was worth saving, Sirico answered “No, not if by capitalism we mean what we have seen over the last forty or fifty years in this country.” Rev. Sirico referenced the deep problems of state capitalism: “If what we want is more bailouts and managed capitalism, it is not worth saving.” He mentioned that a capitalism worth saving needs a moral framework. Pointing to the importance of morality in the market he noted, “In the economic sphere this is the way human beings work out who they are, how they discover their vocations and provide for their families.” Speaking of even larger truths Rev. Sirico declared, “What is the end of freedom? Lord Acton said liberty is the political end of man, and the total end of man is union with God. The embrace of the good.”

Dr. Brooks called on the attendees “to make the ethical case for the system that had led to the greatest flourishing of any country in the history of the world.” He also offered some thoughts on the thinking of the current administration in Washington. “Ideologically administration officials believe that the greatest possible good comes from people having the same amount of stuff. Redistribution is the paramount goal of domestic policy in this administration,” he said.

Dr. Stephen Grabill also offered important thoughts, posing his own question. He asked, “Does the market inspire people to greater practical virtue, or does it eviscerate what little virtue any of us have?” He continued: Rather than elevating greed and self-sufficiency, the market fosters interdependence and cooperation. Its rewards do not go to those who are the most isolated, self-absorbed, or cut off from society, but to those who sustain mutually prosperous relationships with others.

Liberty Weekend in Poland

Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren delivered a lecture and hosted a premiere screening of Acton film, The Birth of Freedom (with Polish subtitles) recently in Warsaw, Poland, as part of a conference on the life and thought of Frederic Bastiat sponsored by the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education. The events took place September 19-20. Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman, said in his article titled “Bastiat in Poland:”
A high point of the conference was the screening of the Acton Institute’s latest film, The Birth of Freedom, a sweeping and stirring look at the historical evolution of individual liberty. Kris Mauren led an energetic discussion at its conclusion.

The Acton Institute is the original publisher of Bastiat’s Providence and Liberty in English. Mr. Mauren was also interviewed by several television, radio and print media outlets.

Rev. Robert Sirico Praises the Free Society

Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico delivered an address at the nineteenth annual Acton dinner on October 29, which was a very moving tribute to human freedom and the virtuous society. Sirico warned about the dangers of the planned economy and collectivism in his address to the packed hall of 500 attendees. Speaking of his days in seminary, Rev. Sirico declared:

I was largely surrounded by men (students and professors) who were advocating policies that would have exactly the opposite effect that they intended—not cultural renewal but spiritual dissipation, an elixir for the poor that already was proving a poison to the poor.

In light of the anniversaries this year related to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Rev. Sirico touched on the dangers of the socialist plan- ners and the universal value of human freedom. He paid tribute to leaders who recognized the threat to freedom:

A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner reaching from the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a worker’s revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, who bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ, and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face-to-face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.

Rev. Sirico received a rousing ovation for his remarks. He powerfully made the connection between freedom and eternal truths:

Because we know that we are beings with a destiny beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom, we cannot acquiesce to the softer, more insidious tyranny of our own time.