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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

R&L: Let’s begin with a discussion of the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the former becoming enfeebled. What should our stance be regarding the remaining authoritarian regimes?

Kirkpatrick: I always assume that democracy is the only good form of government, quite frankly, and democracy is always to be preferred. I think that it’s always appropriate for Americans and for American foreign policy to make clear why we feel that self-government is most compatible with peace, the well-being of people, and human dignity. We should make that clear and help to achieve it where we can. I don’t think that means that we ought to send troops around the world overthrowing governments, but I do believe that we ought to make clear what our political values are and why we believe political institutions consistent with free persons are better for everyone, in the long run. In this hemisphere, almost all the people have made a choice in favor of democracy – that’s marvelous.

I think that it’s very important for us to continue to assure Eastern Europeans and citizens of the former Soviet Union, that whatever the current difficulties, we are convinced that they have made the good choice, the right choice, for the long run. We should state our values and our principles, make them clear, help where we can with transitions, and support institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Republican and Democratic institutes that encourage democracy abroad.

R&L: What about the role of religion in the differences between authoritarian and totalitarian governments?

Kirkpatrick: Well, of course, I think that of the three most important distinctions between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes –the basic difference is that totalitarian regimes claim that the state had jurisdiction over the whole of society – that includes religion and family, the economy–and in serious totalitarian regimes, like the Soviet Union, Romania, Cuba, or China, they do in fact attempt to govern almost all the aspects of society explicitly, including the church and religion. Religion suffered acutely in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. The church was oppressed. I think of Father Popieluszko, who was beaten to death in Poland, is as good a symbol as any of the ultimate enmity between totalitarian government and free persons seeking to exercise religious freedom. The real point is that totalitarian regimes have claimed jurisdiction over the whole person, and the whole society, and they don’t at all believe that we should give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s. They believe that everything is Caesar’s – the government should claim it and control it. There is an absolutely fundamental hostility on the part of totalitarian regimes toward religion. That was true of the Nazis, of course, who were not only anti-capitalist and anti-family, but also anti-Christian, a fact that’s often lost sight of.

R&L: You have written about what you call the irreducible human concern with morality. Would you elaborate on that?

Kirkpatrick: I believe that people everywhere develop or are given articulate moral systems and see moral meaning in life. Actually, I believe this is probably what is human in a person. Father John Courtney Murray in one of his essays wrote, “Thus does experience forever re-invent morality.” I think experience does forever re-invent morality. And I think it happens because of the nature of human beings – I think it is human nature, if you will – as much human nature as any other universal characteristic of human nature.

R&L: Let’s talk a bit about Latin America. You’re an expert in the region. What would you see as the reason for the emergence of liberation theology in the first instance, and then we’ll shift to some reflections on the rise of Evangelicalism there.

Kirkpatrick: I don’t really feel that I’m an expert on that subject, but I’ll comment briefly .

R&L: Maybe the uses to which the Sandinistas put religion.

Kirkpatrick: I certainly think that is interesting. My impression is that the alliance – there was a historic alliance in Latin and South America between the landowners, the Catholic church, and the military. This was the traditional oligarchy, representing a kind of unwritten pact among representatives at high levels of the church, and military, and landowners. I don’t think that the church caused it, or that the church was responsible for the regimes’ nautres, but because it was brought by the Spaniards to the Americas it became part of Hispano-America. There came a time when sensibilities changed and some persons (clerics above all) looked upon the church as responsible most for the poverty that existed. The poverty in Latin America is very deep and very widespread and very terrible. Liberation theology in Latin America became a kind of Catholic version of the doctrine of Western guilt for Third World poverty. And it’s interesting to me that it was born in Spain, out of the Spanish Jesuit tradition especially. Is that right?

R&L: Well, I would trace it back to Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff and others studying in Germany under Johannes Baptist Metz in political theology, but certainly a lot of its missionaries came out of the Jesuits in Spain.

Kirkpatrick: I was thinking about the ones who made their way to Latin America. Just as the Spanish language and culture was brought to Latin America by Spaniards–by priests and by conquistadores and by settlers. I think that there are two things you can do with revulsion against poverty. One thing you can do is hate people who aren’t poor, and adopt a kind of class war. I think that Spanish culture emphasizes envy, as Ortega and Unamuno and some other people have suggested. Envy has been described by some Spaniards as the principle cultural failing of Spanish culture. And envy is a trait that is very closely associated with class war; it’s easily transcribed into class war. A doctrine of class war seemed to provide a solution to the problem of poverty to people who know nothing about how wealth is created. Unfortunately, the purveyors of liberation theology became more and more involved in saving people’s souls through saving their bodies, and while the two are not unrelated, they are not identical. These liberationists were not people who knew anything about how wealth was created; they didn’t understand that you had to do more than redistribute scarce resources in order to provide enough for everyone. Class war seemed like a theologically compatible explanation because it could explain the whole problem in terms of good guys and bad guys, and offer a rather easy solution. The fact of the visible alliance of the church with the elite in some countries has made it easy to exaggerate that and associate the church with the rich and the poor with revolution and virtue. The church needed to change sides in order to be associated with virtue, not with vice. This is how I explain liberation theology in Latin America to myself.

As a non-Catholic, I must say some practices of the church that developed in some Latin American countries are really very difficult for me to understand. For example, some practices relating to children born out of wedlock, who in some countries were not permitted to attend Catholic schools. Catholic schools at times and in places were the only good schools available. So what did that do? This and other of these practices created an impression that the Church was unconcerned, if not downright hostile, to the poor or marginalized. The country I happen to be thinking about is Colombia. I remember reading a few years ago approximately sixty percent of children in large parts of Colombia are born out of wedlock. If they’re marginalized, there’s a very wide margin! I’m not sure about that statistic today, but I think this perceived association of the church with the wealthy became one of the grounds of liberation theology on the one hand, and also one of the bases for the spread of evangelical Christianity in some Central and South American countries as well. The evangelicals say that if Catholicism isn’t the religion of the poor, we have an alternative to a basic Christian society. The whole concept of liberation theology was based on a caricature of the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

Finally, there is another thing that I left out, of course. That is simply that Marxism has been tremendously fashionable in our time, so it has infected a very large number of major institutions in many countries of the world. So I suppose that we shouldn’t be too surprised that it should infect the church as well.

R&L: But now it’s falling out of fashion, and with the examples we have of nations going from freedom to serfdom, what about the opposite direction, what’s going on now in the former Soviet Union? What do we need to look for in terms of the transition from serfdom to freedom, and what are the pitfalls?

Kirkpatrick: It is wonderful that the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union seem not to consider any alternative except democracy – thus far. To me that is a confirmation of the extent to which they associate the freedom from communism and independence with the opportunity to be more “European”– like Western Europe – which they’ve taken as almost a definition of being European. This period offers an enormous opportunity and obligation for the churches because religion has been so suppressed in the communist countries. But one of the things we’ve learned in the transition is that societies turn out to be very tough, like human infants, they survive more than you think they can survive. Just as the Russians and the Soviets didn’t manage to wipe out languages in Lithuania, neither have they managed to wipe out religion to the extent that we had feared.

The biggest single effect of the return from serfdom to freedom will be the free expression of societies, of people, of nationalities. I don’t worry about nationalism in these countries. There will be an expression of their deepest feelings, and that will provide an opportunity for more emphasis on family, religion, language, and culture – their own.

R&L: Is there precedent in history for this transition from serfdom to freedom?

Kirkpatrick: I don’t think so. I think this is an unprecedented event in its sweep and scope, as totalitarianism was unprecedented in its scope.

R&L: Did it take technological advances to really maintain a totalitarian state?

Kirkpatrick: Oh, I think so. I think totalitarianism is really unique, because it is dictatorship plus technology as Alfred Cobban once said. Plus, of course, an insane human ambition to have power over others. Put them together and you have totalitarian government.

R&L: Aren’t the seeds of its own destruction built in, then, because the societies that are going to be most technologically progressive are going to be free societies, and the societies that are going to be regressive technologically are going to be totalitarian, so it has the seeds of its own destruction, as Ludwig von Mises said in 1921?

Kirkpatrick: I think that may be true. The development of the third industrial revolution – the information age – is particularly relevant to that, because information technology requires being shared and that there be no monopoly on information and associated skills. That’s not compatible with the totalitarian state.

R&L: What about the notion that as communist nations are now moving in the direction of the free market, that some of the western nations, particularly the U.S., may be moving in the direction of an expansive state. Do you see any credence to that? Is that just a bumper sticker slogan?

Kirkpatrick: I don’t really believe it. I think that there is absolutely no free market in modern industrial states. There is no pure free-market economy. One of the remarkable things about markets is that they can survive and thrive and countries can reap benefits from them, even when they are constrained in a lot of different ways. In fact, every industrial, modern, western, democratic state is a mixed economy. But mixed economies have large areas of private transactions, of market transactions, and large elements of market economy in them, and the public sphere is limited.

We don’t know exactly how big a state-owned sphere can get before an economy tilts entirely and can no longer function as a market economy but becomes a true command economy. That isn’t the way command economies have, in fact, developed. Command economies have in fact been imposed politically from the top, and I think it is important that democracies have survived mixed economies, even with very large state-owned sectors, such as Sweden. Where political freedom exists, people can still control decisions, even about economic policies. Where there are democratic institutions, people can maintain control of governments – including governments’ efforts to run an economy.

R&L: So you’re drawing a distinction between a command economy and an authoritarian regime?

Kirkpatrick: Absolutely. Authoritarian regimes really typically don’t have complete command economies. Authoritarian regimes typically have some have kind of traditional economy with some private ownership. The Nazi regime left ownership in private hands, but the state assumed control of the economy. Control was separated from ownership but it was really a command economy because it was controlled by the state. A command economy is an attribute of a totalitarian state.

R&L: What about the fear that the welfare state could have the potential to evolve into an authoritarian regime in terms of its regulatory power and taxing power?

Kirkpatrick: Right, the Hayek thesis. I respect it, but what’s crucial, I think, is to maintain democratic liberties, democratic control of government. Until recently there was no example in history prior of a totalitarian regime evolving into anything different. The only totalitarian regimes in history had been the Nazis and the fascists and they had been destroyed in war. Japan had a quasi- totalitarian regime, also destroyed in war. Now we have seen the Soviet system evolve into a totally different form. Still, I think we must look to history on this kind of question and the only thing I can say is that no authoritarian state has ever evolved out of a democratic welfare state, nor has a democratic welfare state ever evolved into an authoritarian state. Democratic welfare states have remained democratic welfare states and they show quite a lot of variety in how large a public sector they have. They also show some variety in policy through time, as in Sweden, for example, or in France, where we see a popular revolt against socialist principles followed by large-scale reprivatization.

Maybe I should worry more about expanding public sectors, but I don’t think that in a democracy you could get so complete a concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a ruling group that a majority could not mobilize to change the ruling group. As long as you can change the rulers–the government–and preserve political competition, then I don’t worry about losing freedom.

R&L: Let me broach a last question with you. Do you have any predictions regarding Cuba?

Kirkpatrick: I think it can’t last long. I believe that Fidel Castro built his regime to fill a role in the Soviet so-called socialist world system. It was a military role that involved dispatching Cuban troops literally all over the world. Cuba also indoctrinated youth from all over the communist world. In return for that, Cuba received food and oil and other necessities in life, and now that pipeline of necessities in life has dried up.

I don’t think that Fidel Castro knows how to run a government that must provide the necessities in a society. He is quintessentially a revolutionary, committed to world revolution. Since that’s his profession, I don’t think he can last. I don’t know exactly how he’ll go, but I have no doubt at all that he will go.

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