Acton Commentary

The Way Forward


Remarks delivered Oct. 30 at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich.

It is amazing to stand in this ballroom 18 years after our beloved Bill Buckley was with us here. This legendary intellect came to what was then a small, obscure organization with 5 people on our staff. A committed proponent of the cause of capitalism, he did not permit the rigors of supply and demand to prevent him from committing intentional acts of charity (the best kind) to foster right ideas. The world (as well as our reading vocabulary) is a diminished place for his absence; and we will express our homage for his mentorship in due course in the person of another good friend, a long time collaborator with Bill on National Review (and fellow New Yorker I might add), the lovely and formidable Kate O’Beirne.

It is now the stuff of legend to note that in the inaugural issue of the National Review its editor, surrounded by a sea of unquestioned and unquestionable collectivism, when all things seemingly acquiesced to the thousands of nuclear warheads pointed directly at us; it was then that National Review calmly, if quixotically stated its mission; and I quote, to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Permit me, then, to frame my remarks this evening with the memory not only of those words, but its accomplishment, fresh in our minds. May I give voice, for just a moment, to something I sense we may all be feeling at this moment? I refer, of course, to the erratic nature of both the markets and politics in recent weeks. One senses a deep frustration on the part of those who worked hard to delay gratification so as to secure their future and that of their families. There is a foreboding on the part of everyone for fear that no one really knows the whole of what is happening and may soon happen to us, much less to see a way out of the difficulties.

Yet I stand before you tonight hopeful, even if soberly so. I say hopeful first because I am a Christian and always have a reason for hope. But also, because I am unshaken in the conviction that the idea Acton represents is precisely that ‘way out.’

That idea – which could have been an inoculation but may now have to be an antidote—is a body of thought representing a refined and proven tradition which we have attempted to represent over the whole of Acton’s history. The idea of which I speak, boiled down to its clearest expression, is the synthesis of faith and freedom; liberty and virtue; free markets and moral responsibility; between prosperity and a deep practical and personal concern for the poor and marginalized.

We have worked for nearly twenty years to limit the tendency of the State to corrupt our civil, economic and moral lives only to wake up as though overnight to massive government interventions and a near takeover of vast sectors of our economy. Let no one say to their grandchildren that when this happened there was no dissent. Tonight, I dissent!

What more proof do people need in light of the historical record that bureaucratic interventionism – I may as well say it out loud - socialism - is not the cure for what ails us but bad medicine, a poison that more and more is the principal thing that does ail us. And this medicine is precisely what has been prescribed, merely in various disguises, by almost all political leaders. Even people who have professed a free market orientation seem to have fallen prey to Bastiat’s aphorism that everybody has the illusion they can live at everyone else’s expense, without remembering that sooner or later the pocket in front of you will be empty as well. When the economic preoccupation is redistribution of wealth, rather than on removing the barriers to its production, we are in a precarious and increasingly vulnerable position.

In contemplating these frustrations, I am reminded of a moment in Church history when the way forward was not so clear. There arose a challenge that had it succeeded, would have deformed the face of Christianity so as to make it unrecognizable. The year was 359, and sensing the overwhelming momentum that the Arian heresy was gathering, St. Jerome, the great Biblical scholar who translated the Holy Scriptures for the first time into the common tongue, penned these sad and memorable lines:

“The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.”

After the events of the preceding month, many of us may be tempted to update Jerome’s 4th century lament: “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself collectivized.” The monumental threat that the free and virtuous society faces in this historical moment is that politicians, policymakers, business and even some religious leaders have succumbed to a false conception of who human beings are in their civil, religious, familial and social lives. They have succumbed to a false anthropology, one, moreover, that leads into all manner of error in the sphere of economics and public policy, an anthropology that sees humans principally as consumers rather than as creative beings made in the image of God, defining people by their class or grievance group to which they belong, rather than as beings with a destiny beyond this world, those “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors” as C. S. Lewis so memorably put it.

More than ever before, our voice will be needed, and I am convinced that the Acton Institute stands at the right place and at the right historic moment with precisely the right ideas to propose. And what are those ideas?

That when one divorces freedom from faith both freedom and faith suffer. Freedom becomes rudderless (because truth gives freedom its direction). It is left up for grabs to the most adept political thug with the flashiest new policy or program; freedom without a moral orientation has no guiding star. Likewise, without freedom and the ability to make moral, economic and social choices, people of faith have restricted practical impact. Theocracy is the destruction of human freedom in the name of God. Libertinism is the destruction of moral norms in the name of liberty. I say a plague on both their houses.

All too many in recent years have at times fallen prey to a consumerist mentality, which is not merely the desire to live better, but the confused idea that only in having more can we be more. Rather than the Cartesian formulation, “cogito ergo sum” we have a new one: “consumo ergo sum.”

How common it has become to live outside one’s means, whether it’s the huge flat screen TV we think we can’t do without or the newest automobile or the house larger than our income can afford. The old rallying cry, “Live free or die,” has given way to “I’ll die if I can’t have it.” Consumerism is wrong not because material things are wrong. No, the Creator pronounced his creation ‘good.’. Consumerism is wrong because it worships what is beneath us.

Then there are the imprudent risks assumed in piling up debt on mortgages with a hubris which assumed that values could only continue to rise at 10% or better per year.

To balance the heresy of consumerism, our culture has invented its opposite, environmentalism-as-holy-order. Here the virtue of thrift—a traditional, indeed, conservative virtue—is reconfigured as a ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ political demand. Thrift, that “handmaid of enterprise,” was mothered by scarcity, a scarcity that unregulated pricing in a free market has, better than all economic systems in human history, served best to mitigate. What an obscenity, then, that the principle of thrift should be employed in the mouths of those who oppose this system of natural rationing and allocation, preferring instead top down systems of distribution that would bring poverty and misery to any nation that fully embraced them.

And what must be said about the mortgage originator who sold a loan knowing the customer could ill afford it? Who cared only for the bonus that loan would generate, knowing that the loan would be sold off to some other unknowing bank within days?

And then there is Wall Street. How often the greed and avarice of Wall Street has been skewered and denounced by the East Coast cognoscenti literati, creatures who would not recognize a moral principle if it bit them in their Aspen condos. Most often Wall Street, functioning as a surrogate for the free economy, is denounced for all the wrong reasons: for seeking and making a profit, as though running in the red was somehow a moral virtue and every attempt to be productive was greed. No, if we are going to offer a moral critique of Wall Street, let us not do it because free markets allocate and produce capital, without which people’s homes and savings evaporate, or to be more precise, never get created in the first place. Rather, let us offer a moral critique because all these previously private businesses are now waddling up to the governmental trough begging to be nationalized or subsidized and demanding their share of the dole. Isn’t it obvious that once we concede the principle of a bail-out for those “too big to fail,” we invite a queue that will wrap around the globe?

But if tonight I appear to be a generous distributor of anathemas, let me now turn my attention to the institution which initiated, enabled, enhanced and will deepen and sustain this economic and moral hazard. I speak of that institution which has been doing this for the last several decades, and that is the Invasive State as opposed to a limited government. Tocqueville taught us long ago the lesson we are about to re-learn, namely that a society where the moral tie is weakened and where no one accepts responsibilities and consequences for their actions will quickly morph into an authoritarian, State-centered society.

The only society worthy of the human person is a society that embraces freedom and responsibility as its two indispensable pillars which is a society that understands that our individual good depends on our common good and vice versa. Let us reflect upon some crucial facts that are too often overlooked.

The institution of government—what many view as the first resort of charity—is the very thing that unleashed and encouraged those vices of greed and avarice and reckless use of money that got us into the current financial imbroglio. It did so by first placing a policy priority on a worthy goal, increased home ownership, but pursued it with a fanaticism that neglected other goods such as prudence, personal responsibility and rational risk assessment.

Moreover, its official banking centers enjoyed subsidies which distorted that most sensitive of price signals—the price of money—to delude both investors and consumers into believing that capital existed to support vast and extravagant consumerism when in fact no such capital and savings existed.

It’s an obvious point but one the mainstream media appears intent on missing: The financial crisis did not occur within a free market, a market permitted to work within its own indigenous mechanism of risk and reward, overseen by a juridical framework marked by clarity, consistency and right judgment. Quite the contrary. The crisis occurred within a market deluged and deluded by interventionism.

Today we find institution after institution “in the tank” for unrestrained government intervention. One is reminded of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s call for the left to begin a long march through the institutions of Western Civilization. The left, it seems, got the memo. How will we respond to this disheartening situation? Now is no time to retreat in disarray. Now is no time to stumble. There remains a remnant … a potent remnant who has not bowed the knee to big government. My call to you tonight is a transparent one: strengthen the soldiers of that remnant. In particular—strengthen that band of brothers gathered with you tonight, the Acton Institute.

Never in Acton’s nearly 20 year history has our message been more essential than right now. As an institution that cherishes the free and virtuous society, we are living through this thing with all of you, and we need your help to continue. Our history of integrity; the quality of our products and programs; the responsible tone with which we approach the questions at hand, all speak to the fact that this work is worthy of your investment. I humbly ask for it with the promise that we will use it well and prudently.

The fact of the matter is that too many of us have become much too comfortable and yielded to a perennial temptation, the temptation to take our liberty for granted. Those of you who have invested in the work of the Acton Institute over the years know—and especially those of you who have had a chance to see our latest media effort “The Birth of Freedom” know—we believe the time has come for a renewal of those principles that form the very foundation of civilization, the same principles that make prosperity possible and accessible to those on the margins.

Liberty is indeed, as Lord Acton said, “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” As such it is in need of a nutritious soil in which to flourish. In this sense you and I are tillers of the soil, if you will.

Liberty is a delicate fruit. It is also an uncommon one. When one surveys human history it becomes evident how unusual, how precious is authentic liberty, as is the economic progress that is its result. These past few weeks are a vivid and sad testimony to this fact. As a delicate fruit, human liberty as well as economic stability must be tended to, lest it disintegrate. It requires constant attention, new appreciation and understanding, renewal, moral defense and integration into the whole fabric of society.

In a trenchant analysis of the free society, Friedrich Hayek once offered a sobering speculation:

“It may be that as free a society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, and that once freedom is achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued…” and then he goes on to ask, “Does this mean that freedom is valued only when it is lost, that the world must everywhere go through a dark phase of socialist totalitarianism before the forces of freedom can gather strength anew?”

He answers, “It may be so, but I hope it need not be”

Hayek offers what I consider a partial remedy to this threat. He argues that “if we are to avoid such a development, we must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.” (The Intellectuals and Socialism, F. A. Hayek).

He is right of course, but Hayek left something out: We must make the building of the free society once more a moral adventure – for its construction was morally inspired in the first place. It emerged from a vision of man as a creature with an inherent and transcendent destiny. This vision, this anthropology, inspired the institutions of Western Civilization: Universal human rights; the right to contract and private property; international institutions of charity; the university. All these formed because of the high view of human dignity we inherited from our Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Earlier, I gave you only the dark side of St. Jerome’s story. A brighter side emerged however, when St. Athanasius came on the scene and scattered the errors of Arianism, defeating its arguments and confounding its proponents. The rectitude of Athanasius’ ideas inspired the Christian faithful to rise up and affirm what they knew to be their tradition, their prayer, their birthright and their heritage.

As a priest, part of my calling is to defend that Tradition. As a child of America and the West, I have a second birthright to defend—the free and virtuous society. Please help us in the critical task of demonstrating why it is not merely the technical proficiency of markets that will enable us to surmount the economic crisis we face. Help us to continue our effort to convince people that economic and moral excellence is of a piece.

People will never surrender themselves for an abstract point of utility. But for a moral adventure? For a deed of moral courage on behalf of human liberty? For this, we will be able to summon a vast army.