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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 1

'The Godfather,' Acton, and the price of liberty

As far as I am concerned, the classic Godfather saga remains incomplete with only two installments. The alleged third one is remarkable only in how unremarkable it is, and when my boxed set arrived from Amazon, I immediately removed a third disk that went by the title Godfather III and threw it into the trash. It is completely unmemorable, except for one line. It is the lament of Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” 

This should be a daily mantra for all who are working against any abrogation of ordered liberty throughout the world. Our work is never done. It seems the lesson is never learned. In fact, in many ways our efforts are more important in 2019 than they were 30 years ago. 

Thirty years: The Acton Institute began its mission as the Berlin Wall was falling, which reunified East and West Germany and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. (I still have the front page of the New York Times with the headline.)  However, less than 30 years later members of the latest generation find themselves, you should pardon the expression, in solidarity with politicians in their seventies, a coalition that has either forgotten or never grasped the perils humanity faced not so long ago. The defeated evil we celebrated in the 1990s is ascendant once again, much like Glenn Close rising from the bathtub in the last scenes of Fatal Attraction

Our task at Acton has always been an incremental battle against the cumulative encroachments of statism. We are founded on that first principle that human flourishing to its fullest extent relies on liberty oriented to truth. This is what our Creator inscribed, not only on our hearts and minds, but also in our souls. 

Once again, our collective failure to recognize the tremendous benefits made possible by maximizing freedom has resulted in class envy and the cavils that capitalism has not completely eradicated poverty. Despite the fact the World Bank reports extreme poverty has fallen to 8.6 percent of the world’s population since 1990, when it was more than twice that number, the rise of those suffering from short-term memory loss seems to have risen in tandem. 

The World Bank also reported recently that more than 93,000 people rose out of poverty every single day between 2013 and 2015. For those keeping score, that’s approximately 68.5 million people. Child mortality has fallen by 58 percent since 1990, as well. The World Health Organization reported that the average life expectancy increased to 72 years in 2016, up 5.5 years since 2000. 

The reappearance of far-left political and economic ideology is not terribly shocking, because it never really went away. It is only reemerging after a hibernation that was both too short and too shallow. Some of our elder statesmen have found a popularity they never enjoyed as socialism entered its waning phase. 

More worrisome to my mind is the rise of a younger generation of socialists as energetic as they are telegenic. Their misguided idealism, which I once shared, presents long-term challenges to our country at large. These young men and women advocate for “free” college tuition, universal health care, and wide-ranging and expensive climate-change programs – all with no plan for how to pay for any of it. Being undeterred by reality, should their programs be enacted, they are clueless as to the social and economic consequences that would inevitably ensue. 

Those of us at the Acton Institute, however, know full well those costs and consequences as do those who had the misfortune of living in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and more recently in Nicaragua and Venezuela. It’s up to us to prevent such devastation in the United States. Our historic undertaking demands that we continue cheerfully fighting the good fight for the hearts and souls of our young people as we close out our third decade and look forward to our fourth. The price of liberty is, indeed, eternal vigilance. 

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.