Icons of Human Creativity
At AIER, the economist Donald J. Boudreaux writes that
The reality about innovation uncovered by [recent Noble Prize winner] William Nordhaus alone is sufficient proof that capitalism works magnificently. Of course, to say that capitalism works magnificently isn’t to say that it works without identifiable hitches, hiccups, and costs. But it is to say that those who today call for socialism to replace capitalism are ignorant not only of socialism’s well-documented history of failure and tyranny, but also of the enormous benefits that capitalism inspires in creative entrepreneurs to deliver.
Based on Nordhaus’s work, Boudreaux points out that all of us are better off because of entrepreneurs and innovators such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Why? Because
…producers, on average, capture a mere 2.2 percent of the total benefits of their successful introduction into markets of technological advances. A whopping 97.8 percent of those benefits are enjoyed by people each of whom as a consumer did nothing other than exercise his right to spend his money on those options that he judges best for himself.
From: Business Today.in
To be sure, “each innovator would surely like to capture a much larger share than 2.2 percent.” But because of “the robust forces of market competition … even the most successful of innovators” will necessarily “give the bulk of the benefits of their innovations to strangers in the form of price cuts, expanded outputs, and improved quality.”
As a practical matter, this means that
If the social benefits of the typical successful innovation were a pie divided into 45 equally sized slices, those who creatively figure out how to innovate, and who bear the risks of doing so in competitive markets, are content to allow those who play no role in the entrepreneurial-innovative process to grab 44 of the 45 slices. The persons responsible for making the pie in the first place ultimately receive as payment for their efforts only one slice.
Christians and others of good will concerned with caring for the poor would do well to take a more serious–and sympathetic–look at the wealth-producing potential of the free market.
But this doesn’t mean, as Boudreaux observes, ignoring the practical and moral failures of the market.
However, we need to see these failures against the twin horizons of the market’s ability to create wealth AND the universal human tendency to misuse use (intentionally or not) our freedom.
The failures of the free market, or if you prefer, capitalism, are not unique to the market. They reflect rather our situation as fallen creatures living in a world marred by sin.
The Church’s role here is not to condemn wealth creation as if creating wealth is in and of itself is sinful.
Instead, I think the Church must continually call market actors (but especially innovators and entrepreneurs) to faithful uphold in all their economic activities the real moral goodness of their efforts as not only stewards of human wealth but icons of human creativity.
Let me explain.
Because we are social creatures, much of what we do, we do in imitation of others. Through their creativity actions in the market, innovators and entrepreneurs demonstrate concretely the human potential not simply to create wealth for themselves but for others.
And this wealth is not simply material. It is also culture and even spiritual.
While wealth can be used selfishly, it can just as easily be used to build schools, hospitals, churches and any number of social institutions that lift the human spirit and reveal our dignity as creatures created in the image of God.
King’s Wine, King’s Tune
Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal (Russia Wages a Religious War Against Ukraine), Loyola University Chicago is history professor (and author of “Russia’s 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories,” forthcoming from Bloomsbury), Michael Khodarkovsky writes about the conflict between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Throne over the latter’s establishment of an autocephalous (self-governing) Church in Ukraine.
Khodarkovsky briefly sketches out the history of the conflict. What is, I think of most interest, however, is his observation about the close relationship between the Russian State and the Moscow Patriarchate.
The ties between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate are as old as Russia itself. Throughout its history, the Russian Orthodox Church had been subservient to the state and an unshakable supporter of autocracy. Since the late 15th century, the church provided Moscow’s rulers with a political theology of manifest destiny, asserting that Moscow had become the Second Jerusalem and the Third Rome (Constantinople being the second).
While the relationship is more complex than what the author suggests (or can reasonably address in an editorial), his fundamental point is sound.
The close relationship between Church and State in Russia has worked to the harm of the former. This was never more the case than with the rise of Communism at the beginning of the 20th century.
The emergence of the atheist Soviet state in 1922 dealt a severe blow to the church. The state confiscated most ecclesiastical property. It destroyed many churches while turning others into storage places. Steeples that rose high enough became jamming stations to prevent Voice of America or the BBC from reaching Soviet citizens. Few seminaries survived. Those that did, trained a small number of priests. The KGB infiltrated the priesthood, informing on clergy and promoting Soviet interests abroad.
Writing in the comments section, two readers made points especially important to those of us concerned with the evangelical work of the Church as well as to the overall health of the Church in America and worldwide.
Don Dewitt writes, “This is exactly what happens in nations without a tradition of separation of church and state.” He goes on to say that “Evangelicals and VP Pence” should “take note–partnering with government turns a church into a tool of the state, not the other way around.”
Another comment by David Holmes makes the point that the struggles of the MP in Russia parallel those of the Catholic Church in China (for example, here).
Bottom line, the Church does well to keep a distance from the State since, to borrow from the Acton Institute’s Fr Robert Sirico, “to drink the King’s wine” means “to dance to the King’s tune.”
Doing Wrong by Doing Good
It today’s Wall Street Journal an interesting there’s an interesting article (The Stealth Pension Mortgage on Your House) on how sometimes even when well-intended policies can have unintended, unjust consequences. The specific issue is how government pensions hurt homeowners:
On average nationwide, unfunded state and local pension burdens represent 20% of real-estate values. This ratio can rival or exceed an owner’s home equity, depending on the size of his mortgage. If real-estate prices adjust to reflect unfunded pension obligations, many homeowners’ equity could be at risk. As we’ve seen in Detroit, the public pension stealth mortgage can ultimately devastate the housing market.
The essayists, Rob Arnott and Lisa Meulbroek, don’t argue that local and state pensions are in and of themselves unjust. Rather they highlight the hidden real estate costs to homeowners and renters:
It doesn’t matter if we own or rent; landlords pass higher taxes on to tenants. Nor does it matter if properties are mortgaged to the hilt or owned outright. In time, unfunded pension obligations will be reflected in real-estate prices, if they aren’t already. A state’s unfunded liabilities are effectively a stealth mortgage on private property. Think you can pass your property on to your heirs? Only net of the unfunded pension obligations.
For most Christians, one of the hardest concepts to grasp in the ethical analysis of economic issues is the unintended negative consequences of otherwise just policies. Sometimes along with the good we intend, we end up doing harm we don’t intend but nevertheless do.
Sexual Orientation, Religious Faith and Personal Identity
David French at National Review Online draws our attention to what he calls the “mistaken belief” that while “sexual orientation is absolutely core to a person’s identity,” religious faith
…is something else entirely — so superficial that any given person is one Vox explainer or Bill Maher monologue away from enlightenment. Yet only a few millennia of human history demonstrates that religion is core to human identity that countless people have been willing to burn rather than recant their deepest beliefs.
He asks us to consider whether or not it isn’t “also bigoted to believe that a person is incapable of expressing disagreement with a person while also treating them with dignity and respect?”
French understands that “some Christians are bigots” who
…actually do hate others and harbor malice in their hearts. But actual Christian orthodoxy — including orthodox Christian sexual morality — is anything but hateful. It expresses the beauty and intent of creation, it honors both the marriage vow and the single life, and it creates a framework for having and raising children in loving, stable homes. It recognizes that each and every person must put a restraint on their desires, orienting their lives towards the true “chief end” of man — glorifying God and enjoying him forever.
After summarizing the Golden Rule, he asks
All across America LGBT Americans live and work alongside Christians who disagree with their actions and beliefs and also treat them with dignity and respect. It’s not hard to do when you love people and seek to imitate Christ. Should these Christians be muzzled while contrary views be given free rein? Or can we actually be tolerant and realize that disagreement is not mistreatment, and love is not hate?
For at least a small, vocal minority of Americans, the answer to French’s question is clear. Yes, those who disagree with the LGBT agenda most remain silent. Ideally, they should do so voluntarily but if not they should be compelled by social pressure. If need be, they should be compelled by the force of law.
But is it really true that sexual orientation or gender identity is absolutely central to a person’s identity while a person’s religion is merely a superficial add-on?
Thinking about French’s argument, I am reminded of conversations with people about why someone might reasonably (and charitably) refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. What French has helped me understand is that many of those who found such a refusal bigoted likely thought that religious faith was superficial–something that could be put on and taken off as easily as an overcoat with the changing of the weather.
But is religious identity really like this? For some people, no doubt. For others though, religious identity is the core of who they are.
I’ve had several conversations (most notably with psychologists or other mental health professionals) who assumed my Christian faith and/or my priestly vocation were roles I played. Sincerely held roles to be sure but roles nevertheless.
Conversations with these individuals quickly turn abusive as they seek to strip away my Christian “veneer” or my clerical “role.” Or, as one clinician put it “Who is the real you behind your religion?”
What’s noteworthy for me is that these clinicians would never dare assume–much less say–about sexual orientation or gender identity what they assume about me: That Christian faith or vocational commitment obscured my identity.
Just as there are bigoted Christians, there are Christians who use the Gospel as a way to hide from others. Likewise, there are clergy who hide behind their office. For the majority, however, religious faith and vocation are at least as important as sexual orientation or gender identity are for other men and women. It would be good of both sides remembered this.
The other question raised by French’s analysis is important for our life of civil engagement. If disagreement is tantamount to hatred, then LGBTQ advocates are themselves guilty of hating Christians who hold to that tradition’s historical moral teaching.
Such mutual accusations of hatred don’t foster civil discourse or peace between different segments of the population. What it does do is encourage strife as we see our life together increasingly as a zero sum game in which one side can only win to the degree that the other side loses.
Our Two Freedoms
Monday, April 02 (O.S., March 20), 2018: Great Monday; Venerable Fathers slain at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas: John, Sergius, Patrick and others († 796); New Hieromartyr Deacon Basil († 1938); Martyr Photina (Svetlana), the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with her († c. 66); Holy Virgin Martyrs Alexandra, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Juliania, Euthymia and Theodosia († 310); St. Nicetas the Confessor the Archbishop of Apollonias in Bithynia (9th C); Hieromartyr Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake, Novgorod († 1612); New Martyr Miron of Crete; St. Cuthbert, Wonderworker of Britain († 687).
Matins: Matthew 21:18-43
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1.1-20
Vespers: Exodus 1.1-20;
Vespers: Job 1.1-12
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24.3-35
At Matins for today we hear the following hymn:
Today let us add lamentation to lamentation!
Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for
his celebrated and sober-minded son;
for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave,
he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over
Hearing this I might be tempted to think any number of things that are, at best, morally confused. At worse, I might end up of saying something that is truly evil.
The confusion is this: Because inner freedom–what the text refers to as the ‘freedom of soul’–is what matters, I might wrongly think that political or soul freedom is unimportant. “After all,” I might think (or worse, say), “even though Joseph was a slave, he ‘preserved the freedom of his soul’ and even became ‘lord over all Egypt.’”
As St Paul points out to the Church of Rome, I can’t do evil that “good may come” (3:8). The fact that, as the Apostle says a bit later, that God is able to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28), doesn’t mean evil isn’t evil.
At the very least, evil is something I should avoid. If I can–or better, as much as I can–I should oppose evil. I should oppose evil not only in my own heart but in the world around me.
I must be faithful to the example of Jesus. When after suffering temptation in the desert, how does He begin His own ministry? Going to the synagogue he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1, 2)
Jesus begins His own ministry by opposing–and so ending–the hold that moral evil and physical suffering have on us (Luke 4:16-21).
While moral freedom is more important than political freedom, the two freedoms are not opposed. While I can have the moral freedom without political freedom, I can’t have the latter without the former.
Ideally, though, a society should have both. And, in any case, Christians are called to work for both moral and political freedom. What we can never do, is sacrifice one for the sake of the other.
“Love is love is love” isn’t True
Didn’t realize this moment was being filmed yesterday but I’m so happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics but for the first time ever a kid watching at home CAN! Love is love is love.
To say, as Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy does, that “love is love is love” is at best morally trivial. What it actually is is wrong.
Kenworthy doesn’t mean “love” he means romantic attraction. While this is one form of love, it doesn’t exhaust, dare I say it, the diversity of love.
A mother’s love for her child is not the same as that same woman’s love for her husband. Nor is the love between siblings the same as the love between friends.
We can love our co-workers and our enemies. But, here again, this love is not the same.
That love takes different forms doesn’t degrade or minimize different loving relationship. To suggest however that love is fungible (as Kenworthy suggests) does.
To believe, as Kenworthy seems to do, that “love is love is love” is a sign of emotionally and morally immaturity.
Property Rights & Religious Freedom
The Hon. B. Theodore Bozonelis, a retired State Chief Judge, and Secretary of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has an essay on Public Orthodoxy that illustrates the connection between religious freedom and property rights. He writes that
Despite the world-wide recognition of the status of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians, the government of Turkey will give no legal standing and status to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the historical Holy Center of Orthodox Christianity at the Phanar, in Istanbul. The lack of legal standing and status in essence nullifies property and other fundamental civil rights in Turkey for the Ecumenical Patriarchate which precludes its full exercise of religious freedom. The Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot own in its name the churches to serve the faithful or the cemeteries to provide for their repose. Since it lacks a legal standing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is powerless to pursue legal remedies to assert property rights or even seek to repair deteriorating property without government approval. (Read the rest here).
As events in Turkey illustrate, the absence of legally enforceable property rights is detrimental to religious freedom. Important as they are, property rights alone are not sufficient.
Economic rights more broadly, such as, the ability to engage in free economic exchange and to make a profit, are also in the service of religious freedom as well as the individual’s freedom of conscience as well as a community’s freedom to assemble and act as a community.
Sometimes in our zeal to defend the poor and oppressed and to include those on the margins of society, we overlook the importance of property right and economic liberty. We don’t help the poor by curtailing the rights of the middle class or wealthy.
Instead, and let’s return to the situation of the Ecumenical Throne in Turkey, the first step in helping the poor and marginalized is to defend their economic liberty. What we should be aiming at is, as Hernando de Soto argues in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else is to make the legal–and as importantly, cultural, changes need to secure the economic liberty and property rights of all but especially the poor.
Physicians’ Liberty at Risk?
In a recent forum for Democrats running for Wisconsin governor, the current Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers offered this solution to providing health care for those in urban areas; mandatory physician residencies.
“I believe the state of Wisconsin, and we can do this relatively easily, we should provide subsidies to any physician when they go into their residency that they have to serve time in an urban hospital. We need to subsidize and, in some cases, compel and direct residencies and have people in residencies for physicians.”
While I don’t want to minimize the health care needs of those in urban areas (or rural areas for that matter), compelling physicians to practice in underserved areas is simply wrong.
It also opens the door to the state compelling physicians to offer (or not offer) medical care against their best medical judgment. We’ve seen in Canada, the UK and other places that health care providers are obligated to assist in abortion or euthanasia or other services in violation of their conscience and/or best professional judgment.
Wealth & Poverty in St Luke
Recently, I posted an essay on Acton’s Transatlantic Blog reflecting on the economic implications of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament. After reading my essay (David Bentley Hart’s Gospel of Cass Division), a friend of mine shared observation from his seminary New Testament professor that I think helps set the context for Jesus’ comments about wealth.
During the New Testament era, keeping the various laws of ritual purity was expensive and so beyond the economic reach of all but the wealthiest members of the Jewish community. We get hints of the economic burden of the Law in several places. The first, and maybe most notably, is in Luke 2:24 where Mary and Joseph offer “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (NKJV) in thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus. Historically, this was the minimally acceptable offering under the Law and so the typical offering of the poor who couldn’t afford either a bull or a sheep.
Another notable example is the widow in Luke 21:1-4:
And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.’
The critique of the wealthy is clear. Yes, they offer great sums of money. However, they do so not because they are generous but because they are able to do so with relatively little adverse economic impact. The widow, however, has very little money and so the more extravagant gifts and sacrifice necessary for the purification of serious sins are beyond her reach. Like the Mary and Joseph, all she can offer is the bare minimum and so cannot free herself from any weightier sins.
But the wealthy? They can buy ritual purity that is beyond the reach of the poor. For the rich, forgiveness and reconciliation of even the most serious of their sins is ready to hand. But the poor remain estranged from God because of their poverty!
Knowing that reconciliation with God under the Law was conditioned by personal wealth helps us make better sense of Jesus’ comment earlier in Luke 20:46-47.
Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.’
The wealthy are castigated then not for being wealthy as such but for using their wealth to create and perpetuate a two-tiered religious system in which because of their poverty the poor are excluded from intimacy with God.
Compounding the injustice even further, the various sacrifices need for ritual purity had become central to the economic system surrounding the Temple. It is as a sign that He has come not simply to correct this spiritual and economic injustice but overthrow it. “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Luke 19:45-46).
Jesus comes to replace a system in which access to God is a function of wealth. Worse, acquiring the different sacrificial offerings gas becomes the heart of what in another context would be a morally legitimate system of free exchange. In effect, merchants are making a profit from a system that imposes an economic burden on those who would be reconciled with God on a spiritual level and re-integrated into the community on a social level.
In the events leading up to the cleanings of the Temple (Luke 19:1-10), we meet a man intimately involved in the economic injustice at the heart of the Roman Empire–the tax collector Zacchaeus. Though he works for the Romans–and so has placed himself outside the Jewish community–he nevertheless has access to Jesus and so grace. For this reason Zacchaeus “the sinner” (v. 7) stands, like Jesus Himself, as “a sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34, Douay Rheims) for those who would limit ritual purity to the wealthy and the powerful.
Aware that he has committed injustices against his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus is willing to make amends: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (v. 8). Two things are noteworthy here.
First, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer alms (which was a requirement for all Jews) but as a sacrifice for the harm he has done. He does this outside the formal sacrificial system to the Temple. It isn’t a Temple priest but Jesus who both receives his offering and declares the sacrifice efficacious. “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’”
Offering a sacrifice for sin is no longer limited to the priests in the Temple. Now, even those outside the community, those who are ritually impure (“sinners and tax collector”) are able to offer sacrifice. That Jesus, Who is not a member of the Temple priesthood, receives the sacrifice undermines the economic system that reinforces the religious authority of the wealthy. at the expense of the poor. With the coming of Jesus, the poor are no longer on the margins of Jewish society. They too have access to God and the forgiveness of their sins.
Immediately after the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. This serves to reinforce and extend the spiritual/economic lesson. Once again, the question is that of the right use of wealth. Troubling for critics of the free market, the moral legitimacy of profit is assumed. And yet to understand the parable as a New Testament endorsement of capitalism is an anachronistic reading of the text.
Jesus purpose in telling the story is to correct the many who wrongly “thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” Like the other passages in Luke, the concern is with announcing the end of an economic and spiritual system in which wealth is used to restrict the access of those on the social or economic margins of society from the Kingdom of God.
This chapter reaches a crescendo when in verses 28-40 Jesus enters Jerusalem not as a wealth King on a magnificent horse but as a poor man riding on a donkey. The symbolism isn’t lost on either the crowds or the Pharisees who “called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples'” (v. 39). Entering as He does on a donkey, “the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5 in Luke, “a colt”), Jesus announces a new dispensation in which the wealthy are no longer able to claim–and enforce–an exclusive right of access to God and His blessings.
Unfortunately, for all the enthusiasm with which He is greeted Jerusalem is unable to grasp the true meaning of what Jesus has accomplished.
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”(Luke 19: 41-42).
The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown in his commentary of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (The Birth of the Messiah) argues that a central message of Luke’s Gospel is that (among others) those excluded from the Jewish community because of poverty have now become the privileged witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To understand this as a proto-Marxist statement is as anachronistic as seeing the Parable of the Talents as an endorsement of the modern, free market.
Instead, Brown argues that in St Luke’s telling, economic poverty no longer excludes people from communion with God. It is this that raises, or maybe better, reveals, the dignity of the poor. They too have access to God. And just as God has done, the wealthy are obligated to extend grace to the poor. This grace isn’t limited to material assistance alone; it also must include respect. Philanthropy, no matter how generous, that fails to respect the dignity of the person falls short of what is required by God. In other words, it is unacceptable for out charity to leave the poor in undignified circumstances. Charity that keeps the poor, poor and so dependent, is unacceptable because it replicates the same economic, social and spiritual condition that Jesus came to overturn.
While good in itself, easing the burden of the poor is simply not enough. We fail the poor when we leave them poor. The reason is that wealth has a purpose: it is meant to protect human dignity, to foster human flourishing and serve the person’s growth in holiness.
Neither wealth nor the wealthy as such are condemned in the New Testament. If this were not the case, alleviating the poverty of the poor would be a sin.
What is condemned, however, is not wealth as such but (I would suggest) the willingness of the wealth (with some notable exceptions like Zacchaeus and a few others like Joseph of Arimathea in Luke and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) to use their wealth to keep others from the Kingdom of God.
For Consideration: Tariffs
(Cafe Hayek) Tariffs proved wonderfully attractive to those who benefitted from them. Farmers who grew wool were protected against the harsh wind of foreign competition. So were planters who grew cotton. Both thereby increased their profits. Capitalists and workers in the iron industry, as in pottery, coal, vinegar, candy, and paper production, enjoyed tariff rates that ran to 50 and 60 percent. Protected from the cruel world, such “infant industries” were enabled to grow – or perhaps only to retain their infantile ways….
In recent decades a charming and imaginary history of that outcome has been written. Its theme is that giving capitalist firms a monopoly somehow energized them.
Stanley Lebergott (1984), The Americans: An Economic Record, p. 153.