Forgiveness and Our Fundamentalist Technocrats

Over at the Federalist Mollie Hemingway has written about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk refusing to sign same-sex marriage licenses. Many in the media have noted that Davis has been married four times, which certainly calls into question her understanding of natural marriage.

But as Hemingway notes her in her piece, each of Davis’s divorces happened prior to her conversion to Christianity. This doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the divorces, of course, but it puts her opposition to same-sex marriage into a different context. This is not a hypocritical person who wants companionate marriage for me but not for thee. Rather, it is a person who has in the past failed to live up to her marriage vows but has repented of that failure and, as best we know, has been faithful to her vows since her conversion.  Continue reading

3 Thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GI have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.

I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism

While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.

Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.

Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.  Continue reading

Faith, Family, and the Dangers of Capitalism

Do Hobby Lobby’s day-to-day practices contravene many conservative values? That was Patrick Deneen’s thesis in “Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We All Lose”, wherein Deneen managed to articulate a fairly important thesis (even though it was denigrated for sputtering quite meaninglessly at the physical structures that modern capitalism has wrought.) This critique shares in common many of the objections that most careful readings of Wendell Berry usually yield from skeptical readers: paleoconservatism or agrarianism dreams up fanciful monsters created by modern industrialism that can only be fought by an equally fanciful retreat to the countryside. I think that we can apply some of what we have learned from Berry, Deneen, and other wild-eyed idealists while not falling off the proverbial cart (or blowing up the proverbial tractor.)

The benefits of industrial capitalism are enormous, even if they may be frequently overstated. Much of the economic stability, improved health outcomes, and general well-being that we experience now as compared to 200 years ago can be traced to the technological developments and their widespread industrial applications that humans have been applying with ferocious aptitude to the various agricultural, medical, and economic problems that we have faced for millennia. Unsurprisingly, these applications and their developments also disrupted many of the sociological structures that had been carefully formed over the millennia as well. Whether it was moving the locus of economic production out from the home and into the factory or office, increasing the dependence of any producer of goods upon ever-distant producers, or simply scaling up the amount of ecological and personal destruction that any one action could produce, it was usually local knowledge, smaller institutions, and more marginalized groups that ceded power to centralized forces. One of the common examples repeated over the years in Christian worldview classes is that of hormonal contraception; here a technology clearly meant for a good purpose helped fuel the sexual revolution as the natural intent of procreation was artificially divorced from sexual relations. Similarly, technological applications in warfare fueled greater and greater destructive powers with consequences not only for the people who were killed or maimed directly by weapons but their offspring who drank the water poisoned by the same weapons. One could even argue that given how much power has shifted away from the God-given institutions of church and family with an incommensurate rise in the powers of state and capital, the industrial revolution has taken a far greater toll on Christendom than the sexual revolution has.

This is not to say that an idyllic era of thrift and family values preceded the industrial revolution. Children were still overworked and even enslaved prior to the existence of factories, but factories allowed children to be mistreated in greater numbers by people without relationships or structures of accountability. Farmers mistreated animals long before the age of the factory farm, but the advent of modern chemistry, machinery, and even genomics have allowed far more animals to be mistreated– and thus be consumed by people whose bodies were never prepared to eat that much meat. Technology, in flattening various natural barriers, not only allows us to live without fear of many random destructive happenstances, but also removes the natural limits to human power that kept us from doing harm to one another and to the earth for centuries. The damage that has been done to physical ecology is analogous the the damage done to our moral ecologies; just as technology allows to eat without any regard for where our food comes from or at what (often federally subsidized) cost it was extracted, so technology also gives us the power to live more autonomously in the pursuit of our stubborn sinfulness.

Many of the serious battles that fought against these newly realized powers of destruction were fought in the Progressive Era, when it was clear that industrial capitalism was allowing a few to prosper at the expense of many others. However, since the entities of oppression had already grown more powerful than any previously existing small institution had the power to reckon with, new intermediaries and social compacts formed to deal with these oppressors. Many of them, of course, appealed to the government: whether it was labor laws or temperance movements, it became clear that the most expedient and effective way to enact justice or prevent exploitation was through the law. While there were many different contributions to the rise of governmental power during this era, it is foolhardy to ignore the role that the rising power of industrialism played.

This unyielding cycle of increasing human power and further appeals to governmental authority has continued to spin out over the last several decades. Continue reading

Why Young Evangelicals should Support Hobby Lobby

The news yesterday that the Supreme Court is going to hear the Hobby Lobby case momentarily brought the question of religious liberty back to the forefront of our national consciousness.

There are a variety of aspects to the case, many of which are worth considering.  But one that I have been thinking about in recent months is the evolution of corporate social responsibility and how, if at all, its widespread adoption might shape people’s intuitions on this particular case.

At first glance, it seems a bit funny to think that corporations can have practices or beliefs that might be justified on religious grounds, like Hobby Lobby’s now infamous objections to contraception and their subsequent refusal to fund insurance plans that would cover it.  The Supreme Court has (notoriously!) decided that corporate personhood entails organizations can spend money in elections like, well, normal persons can.

But it’s not clear why we would object, given that money making corporations have made it very clear that they have ethical positions that are core to their company culture, regardless of the individual beliefs of the people who work there. Look at Amazon, Starbucks, and Google’s support of gay rights, both domestically and around the world:  whatever you make of that particular moral question, it seems that if we are willing to countenance corporations acting as corporations in those particular ways, as we clearly do, then denying that corporations can have similarly embedded religious outlooks and practices seems simply arbitrary.

And, indeed, many companies do act according to their religious principles and not only Christian business, either.  Many Jewish businesses must be closed on the Sabbath and Sharia banks are not simply in the Middle East (or so my fearsome Googling tells me!).

Of course, this is a point about business that young evangelicals have drunk deeply.  The generation that grew up with “worldview training” heard plenty about bridging the “sacred/secular” divide when we were young.  Now that we grow old, that mentality has been buttressed by the Kuyperian-influenced outlook of places like Q, where God’s involvement in “every square inch” of our lives and practices is as close to an orthodoxy as you’ll find.  But it’s also taken tangible form, as many younger evangelicals have started businesses that are aimed at “doing well by doing good,” integrating the pursuit of profits with the pursuit of justice for the disadvantaged.  The religious outlook of the founders is often buried; we like being more coy about how we integrate our Christianity into things, after all, so Bible verses on fry boats ain’t quite our style.  But the fundamental principle is the same:  Hobby Lobby is a more mature, more explicit model for what many young evangelicals have sought to build.

Of course, this is a case where the religious practices of the business are conflicting with the government’s directives about the sort of health care its employees are obligated to expect.  We’ve been through the arguments surrounding it before, so I’m not keen on repeating all of that.  I’ll simply point to this excellent paper that lays out the legal case for Hobby Lobby’s defense and open the floor, er, comments for anyone who reads it and disagrees to make the case.

But this case will be a real conflict for young evangelicals, for whom the distribution of birth control sometimes seems like a shibboleth that borders on a right.  For many of them, I suspect the wariness toward Hobby Lobby and the conservative case on this question has more to do with commitments to contraception personally and as a social good than any understanding of religious liberty or corporate religious beliefs.


Why ‘The Family’ Matters in Economics

Nick Schulz is frustrated. He’s frustrated that economists talk about the role of institutions in the American economy, yet ignore the most fundamental one of them all: the family. With a career built on writing about the roots of economic growth, Schulz has realized that you can’t understand today’s economy—from the need for human capital to rising inequality— without considering the platoons of moms, dads, and children that form the backbone of American society. And the situation is not pretty. The American family is in a state of crisis, which in turn is having a profound impact on the economy.

Yet too many experts remain silent for fear of becoming collateral damage in America’s culture wars. Nick Schulz wrote Home Economics bookHome Economics for these silent ones who have ignored the family’s role in the economy. He concludes as former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett did, finding that the “family is the original and best Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.”

Looking across 50 years of history, Schulz provides an introductory analysis of the forces buffeting the American family, but he doesn’t dwell on the root causes. They are far too complex, ranging from changes in technology, culture, habits, morality, religion, and economic forces, among others. The point is that America’s customs concerning the family and, more specifically, marriage, have shifted dramatically. Out-of-wedlock births are increasingly common, as are parents who never marry. For those who do walk down the aisle, they face long odds of remaining together “‘til death do us part.”

For those tempted to say, “So what?”, rising income inequality, wealth disparities, and disproportionate health outcomes are all impossible to understand without taking a hard look at families. As Jason DeParle wrote last year in The New York Times that “changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40% of the growth in certain measures of inequality.” David Leonhardt, also of the Times, noted a recent finding that “family structure was one of the four factors with a clear relationship to upward mobility.” As Schulz himself found, only 5% of married families were poor at any point this year, while 30% of single-parent households felt the blow of poverty. These data points paint a bleak portrait; those being raised without a mother and a father will face immense social and economic barriers. Continue reading

Social Justice Reconsidered: Report from the Philadelphia Society

I recently sat in on the Philadelphia Society’s annual meeting, an extended examination of the term “social justice.” In some ways, I like the term, given the way it is often used to remind us that every aspect of life is morally significant. At the same time, social justice sometimes serves as a substitute for careful thought, especially about economics. This short essay is my full evaluation and recommendation for the path forward. Do I get it right?

While the phrase “social justice” has been used since the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli coined the term in 1840, Friedrich Hayek never could found a good definition, due to two persistent problems. First, strictly speaking, the concept is incoherent. As Russell Kirk argued in his lecture “The Meaning of Justice,” Aristotle’s definition of justice as the virtue of an individual in “giving every man his due” has shaped Western civilization for millennia. It makes no sense, however, to describe impersonal states of affairs as just or unjust. The second problem is that those who use the term nowadays intentionally leave it undefined. According to Michael Novak, vagueness about what social justice actually is serves the interests of the state, ever-eager to consolidate power by using any god term available. For this reason, conservative critics are much quicker to delineate the idea, e.g., Joseph Johnson in his book The Limits of Government: “social justice is the reduction of social and economic inequality by force of the state.”

At the 49th National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, members and guests reexamined social justice, seeking to discern the extent to which it continues to result in coercion and consolidation, as well as the prospects for articulating a contrast narrative. Joshua Hawley put it well on Sunday when he reminded the assembly of the question the Dutch theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper frequently asked: “What is the soundness of the social order in which we live?” Conservatives have just as much interest in this question as liberals. Novak argues that in his day Hayek himself did not oppose many of the ends of social justice. The term was especially common at the end of the nineteenth century as shorthand for the need to ensure the health of the masses of peasants who uprooted themselves to become urban factory workers. The means, however, often neglected the basic principles that made the English-speaking world great. Novak believes that the best way forward is to redefine social justice as a subspecies of justice itself, dealing with both the skill of cooperating in labor with others and the goal of benefitting a community, not just oneself. As Lee Edwards emphasized on Saturday, the space of civil society between public and private is both enormous and important: “300 billion dollars, 350,000 churches, 1.5 million charitable organizations including 3,800 non-profit hospitals…”

Based on the readings and the presentations, I believe the redefinition of social justice needs to center on three principles.

The freedom of individuals to work and create value must be protected. In his keynote address, Samuel Gregg affirmed the basic goodness of work, grounded in a Judeo-Christian anthropology that understands men and women as stewards of God’s inherently good creation. The free market was birthed in the High Middle Ages as a means of supporting the travel and trade of pilgrims and merchants; it eventually galvanized the development of tremendous wealth and opportunity. Intervention that stifles ingenuity and competition is actually unjust and harms both the common good and the liberty of individuals. As Anne Wortham asked, “Why would anyone consent to the forced redistribution of their property?” Beyond being coercive, centralized planning is also inefficient, an idea addressed by the second principle.

The solution to problems must be local and self-interested. To illustrate this idea, Brian Lee Crowley recounted the accidental discovery of glass-making by Phoenician sailors, who while moored on a sandy beach propped their cooking pots on lumps of nitrum. As the nitrum melted and mixed with sand, a translucent liquid was formed, and the sailors perceived how to make an invaluable new material. Crowley emphasized that glass and many other innovations (electricity, railroads, corporations, automobiles) disrupt the status quo profoundly; any centralized authority would never be able to predict or control such innovations. For this reason, genuine competition and free enterprise are essential for the pursuit of knowledge. In the same session, Roberta Herzberg described how rare it was for aid programs to ask low-income communities what they actually needed, and “solutions” were usually foreign and disempowering. For these reasons, i.e., the limits of both human knowledge and human virtue, matters ought be handled by those closest to them. Catholic social teachers call this notion “subsidiarity,” and it applies to both the state and culture. The breakout panel Helping People Help Themselves provided vivid examples of both the benefits of subsidiarity and the dangers of ignoring it. Jennifer Marshall explained how for 60 years the federal assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children encouraged women to not find jobs and avoid marrying anyone with a job, despite the fact that marriage is a better social safety net than any bureaucracy. Contrast this with B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose charity work focuses on the restoration of the whole person: legally, socially, and vocationally, something possible only through close relationships and accountability. This brings us to the third principle.

Faith and virtue must be preserved within civic society. The glorification of secularism and what John Richard Neuhaus calls the “naked public square” has not helped individuals, families, or the culture. Agreeing with Novak, Samuel Gregg argued that any appropriation of social justice under the larger cardinal virtue of justice must be supported and informed by natural law and divine revelation. Such appropriation would also necessarily resist the consolidation of power by the “value neutral” government, which fails to account for the dignity and moral dimension of persons in its social welfare programs, its education curricula, and its orientation toward charities and non-profit organizations. In conclusion, for social justice to be truly just, it must recognize the liberty of everyone to create, the priority of localized self-interest, and the value of virtue and faith.

Stability and “Creative Destruction” in the Home and Economy

Ross Douthat, from a column that is in the running for the best of the year:

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.

This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.

Paul Krugman comments:

Every time you read someone extolling the dynamism of the modern economy, the virtues of risk-taking, declaring that everyone has to expect to have multiple jobs in his or her life and that you can never stop learning, etc,, etc., bear in mind that this is a portrait of an economy with no stability, no guarantees that hard work will provide a consistent living, and a constant possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And nothing people can do in their personal lives or behavior can change this. Your church and your traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of your 401(k), or make insurance affordable on the individual market.

So here’s the question: isn’t this exactly the kind of economy that should have a strong welfare state? Isn’t it much better to have guaranteed health care and a basic pension from Social Security rather than simply hanker for the corporate safety net that no longer exists? Might one not even argue that a bit of basic economic security would make our dynamic economy work better, by reducing the fear factor?

Sometimes people don’t see how a strong socially conservative position fits together with an emphasis on the so-called “creative destruction” of late-modern capitalism.  Indeed, I bet most social conservatives don’t actually see it themselves.  Prior to the rise of the Tea Party and the explosion of concern about debt, compassionate conservatism was a viable option.  And a few more losing elections may make it come back into style.

But in this bit between Ross and Krugman, there is a hint as to why the two fit together on such a deep level.  A country facing economic insecurity, or even territorial insecurity, will be more equipped to handle them if things are alright at home.  As long as every sphere of our lives is shaped by the felt threat of failure, then I suspect we will gravitate toward buttressing whatever social institution can signal the most strength and stability.  In this case, an expanding federal government that can print money and has nuclear warheads.  Yes, it will reduce “the fear factor,” as Krugman points out.  But at what (literal) cost, and for how long?

Allow me to frame this all as an inquiry, because I honestly don’t know the answer.  But it seems to me like taking entrepreneurial and business risks is a lot easier if we are operating in a context of relational stability.  George Will here suggests that immigration is an “entrepreneurial act,” and that’s an interesting way of thinking about it.  But I wonder how much entrepreneurial creativity is in fact motivated and grounded in a strong sense of familial ties and in a personal rootedness in a community?

Which is to say, Krugman is right that the church and traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of our 401(k).  But they may orient us toward more permanent and enduring goods and give us the confidence to risk those 401(k)s because we know that if things go wrong we’ll somehow be alright.  To reverse Krugman’s final question, might not one argue that a bit of basic relational security would make the people in our economy work better, simply by providing more emotional and intellectual reserves to be directed into their creative activity outside the home?

Therein lies a question.  It’s a germ of a thought, and doubtlessly could be pressed on and knocked down from a hundred different directions.  But if we’re trying to understand how economic and social conservatism might end up fitting together, it might provide a halfway decent start.

Man, Models and the Markets: Why Theology Has Something to Say About Economics

Ben Bernanke has gone soft.  The chairman of the Federal Reserve said this summer that economics should “understand and promote the enhancement of well-being.” His fellow economists have long worked with an ideal version of rationality to explain the “what” of how our economies function, he argued, while ignoring the irrational foibles of real people trying to grasp the “why” of the world.

I would argue that this is precisely the space in which theology should be speaking into economics. Yet for the most part, it doesn’t seem to be.

In recent years, economists have turned to psychology to better understand the realities of human behavior. While it’s been easy for economists to craft models based on their ideals of rationality, their understanding of humanity has been incomplete. As a result, behavioral economics has begun to influence economic assumptions about the rationality of man and markets in profound ways.

English: President Barack Obama confers with F...

English: President Barack Obama confers with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke following their meeting at the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Economics traditionally places humanity at the center of its study. Homo economicus roams freely in this area of study in all of his rational, self-centered glory. Birthed by John Stuart Mill, raised in its infancy by David Ricardo, and seen off to college by later economists like Gary Becker, homo economicus formed, in Becker’s words, the “heart of the economic approach to human behavior.”

The rational actor model of human behavior is a rough caricature, but it’s been incredibly useful as a basic assumption. It presupposes that at the micro level, human behavior can be subjected to rigorous examination with consistent outcomes. The broader market can be organized along certain set rules. The results can be tested, modeled, and invested with.

Most of the time, we look and sound pretty rational (or at least I like to think so). Our markets seem to function as they should and efficiently absorb much of the available information. Yet when rationality fails us, it can do so quite spectacularly. Financial crises lurk where logic has long since departed.   Continue reading

The Places Markets Shouldn’t Go

Michael Sandel on the moral limits of markets:

These examples illustrate a broader point: some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question—health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.

This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?


Poverty, the Limits of Materialism, and George MacDonald

Christianity Today recently put together a peculiarly insufficient list of ways to help the poor that was ably and summarily criticized by Peter Greer, whose work with Hope International stands somewhere in the nexus of awesome and jaw-dropping.

But they also in the same issue ran a particularly good piece by my friend Mark Galli, in which he rightly points to the role governments play in making macro-economic decisions.  While he didn’t quite specify closely enough that their role should be to free up enterprise to create jobs, the alteration wouldn’t be foreign to the piece, even if an improvement.

But what really caught my eye was this bit:

Thus the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

Mark’s point here is perceptive, and unwittingly echoes a line from George MacDonald that has haunted me since I came across it:  “We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The line is, frankly, worth repeating.  Read it slowly, and then again:  “We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The alternative to that is aptly summarized by MacDonald’s protagonist who utters the remark, Robert Falconer:

“But it is right to do many things for [the poor] when you know them, which it would not be right to do for them until you know them.  I am amongst them; they know me; their children know me; and something is always occurring that makes this or that one come to me.  Once I have a footing, I seldom lose it.  So you see, in this my labour I am content do the thing that lies next to me.  I wait events.”

Or as he says it elsewhere, “No desire for the betterment of the masses, as they are stupidly called, can make up for a lack of faith in the individual”–a faith, presumably, in Falconer’s world that is not gained through the abstracting notions of humanity, but rather the intimate acquaintance with particular people.  “We must do,” after all, “before we can know.”  That was Falconer too.

That to say, there is a humanity contained in the personal relations that the exchanging of gifts or monies can only approximate, but never truly capture.  Beyond jobs, and on their way to them, many folks in poverty need a helping hand that isn’t strictly metaphorical:  someone to watch the kids or help out with the chores.  As Mark points out, the types of giving that Christians are often drawn to attempt to integrate this dimension into our charitable efforts.  And so much the better.

But even still, a degraded and reductionistic materialism is ever at the door, seeking to erode our sense of the humanity of those involved by the abstract nouns of “social justice” and “end of poverty.”   And, for that matter, “job creation.”  The patterns of speech have a way of distancing ourselves from the situation, or more accurately, from the people who are in it.

Our charitable efforts must be person-first, if they are to be properly “ours” at all.  The only other alternative is to perpetuate the very materialism that often sits near the headwaters of the problem itself.