Tag Archives: u.s. government

Community, liberty and freedom

Michael Miller writes that the battles for religious liberty are only beginning. Americans are faced with the choice of being governed by its citizens or surrendering the culture to a massive, uncaring government bureaucracy. He argues that one of the ways we can have the strength and integrity to stand up is by not being dependent upon taxpayer dollars . . .

Michael M. Miller

I’ve been thinking lately that much of the division in America about the role of the state, the Church, the family, and religious liberty comes down to a clash between the intellectual visions of two Frenchmen: Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Many of the differences can be boiled down to what we mean by community. Rousseau’s vision of community is what the sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “political community.” For Rousseau, the two main elements of society are the individual and the state. All other groups — including the Church — are viewed as inhibiting individual freedom and detracting from political community that is found in the state.

Tocqueville’s vision of community, on the other hand, is not reduced to the “political community” but instead means a wide variety of associations, different levels of groups, and layers of authority. Society is not made up of autonomous individuals and an omnicompetent state, but is a diverse group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.

Tocqueville worried that democracies could slide into what he called “soft despotism.” He said that this type of despotism “would be more extensive and milder and it would degrade men without tormenting them.” In Democracy in America, he wrote: “I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is a stranger to the destiny of others.”

Over this multitude a massive government exists, “which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, [and] divides their inheritances.” He says it would be like a father. But unlike a father, the state doesn’t want citizens to grow up; it wants to regulate and manage all their little decisions, even though the external forms of freedom remain.

He wrote this in the 1830s and his words today are prophetic. Think, for example, of President Obama’s “Life of Julia” campaign, where he envisions that big government is there to assist us at every stage of our lives. What was supposed to be a social safety net has become the social fabric of our lives.

Tocqueville believed that the way to counter the rise of soft despotism was to encourage people to get involved in their communities — and to work with their neighbors to solve problems rather than relying on the state. This requires active local politics, a rich diversity of private associations, and of course, religion. Religion, religious institutions, schools, and ministries play a central role in creating the conditions for freedom and resisting soft despotism. Religion helps fight the negative forces of “love of comfort” and “individualism” by providing an eternal perspective.

Intellectually, Christians need to be aware of these two visions of community and what they mean. We should reject the Rousseauian vision of community and adopt Tocqueville’s, where a diversity of organizations possess the local and appropriate knowledge to help those in need. His idea is similar to the Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity not only limits the role of the state, but it enables authentic human interaction. The Church (this means us) needs to think creatively to provide local solutions to social issues.

From this, I believe that in our current political and cultural situation, Catholic institutions should be wary of taking government money, which can end up making these institutions an arm of state services. The Church needs freedom to follow God’s laws and to live out its mission, preaching the gospel, getting souls to heaven, and helping to create the conditions for human flourishing. Clearly it’s not wrong to take government money, but in today’s climate — with an increasingly secular state hostile to Judeo-Christian teaching — I wonder if this is the most prudent course.

The battles for religious liberty are only beginning and the road ahead will be hard. One of the ways we can have the strength and integrity to stand up is by not being dependent upon taxpayer dollars. What vision of community do we want? Rousseau’s with a small, isolated, and so-called emanciapted individual over whom hovers the protective, watchful state — or Tocqueville’s vision of a rich diversity and layers of association where citizens can find something much better than raw, amoral emancipation: They can find human flourishing and human love.

Michael Matheson Miller is a research fellow and director of media at the Acton Institute. He is currently leading PovertyCure, an international network of organizations promoting enterprise solutions to poverty rooted in a Christian understanding of the human person.

Deficits, debt and self-deception

Dr. Samuel Gregg writes that most of us have become dazed by America’s upward spiral of debt. Societies that embrace excessive indebtedness as a way of life eventually begin to deceive themselves. Before the 2008 crash, for example, banks leveraged their assets at ratios of 40-to-1 on the hubristic basis that ‘the models never fail’ . . .

Dr. Sam Gregg

Dr. Sam Gregg

It passed almost unnoticed, but in late July the Obama administration raised the federal government’s budget deficit forecast for fiscal year 2011 to $1.4 trillion. That’s up from February’s forecast of $1.267 trillion. In July alone, the government’s deficit was $165 billion, of which $20 billion was for interest payments on debt.

The long-term outlook is even worse. The U.S. government is now borrowing approximately 41 cents of every dollar it spends. It’s also predicting additional borrowing of $8.5 trillion until 2020. If that eventuates, America’s national debt would exceed 77% of its annual economic output.

At some point, most of us become dazed by all these numbers that track America’s upward spiral of debt. This numbness is only exacerbated by the fact that governments’ debt-excesses in most developed countries have been matched and even surpassed by household and financial-sector debt.

In Spain, for instance, household debt rose from 69% of disposable income in 2000 to 130% in 2008. Britain was worse, with the ratio rising from 105% to 160% over the same period. Average American household debt increased from $27,000 in 2001 to $44,000 today.

The economic effects of servicing all this debt (let alone paying down the principle) are not hard to grasp. For many households, it means either bankruptcy or severe curtailing of lifestyles so that expectations match people’s actual incomes. For others, it translates into less access to credit, even for those with good credit records or well-conceived business plans that need only sufficient capitalization to succeed. The cost of servicing government debt also reduces the amount of private sector capital available for investment. This means slower growth, which further impedes our ability to shrink government deficits.

Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776) “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is [hardly] a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”

By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.

Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?

Here we begin to see how excessive debt can have deleterious moral effects upon the economic culture. Another such effect is a breakdown in what Pope Benedict XVI has called “intergenerational solidarity” — the responsibilities that each generation owes to those who have preceded them and to those who will follow them in the future.

Increasing numbers of people below the age of 30 are aware that their long-term financial security has been undermined by the excessive personal, corporate and government debt incurred by previous generations. It is much harder to honor your father and mother when you think they have recklessly squandered your financial future.

A second cultural consequence of excessive debt is an erosion of trust. Just as wealth-creation and sound credit arrangements are ultimately built upon substantial reserves of trust, so too does a widespread inability to repay debts corrode a society’s reservoirs of trust and subsequent wealth-creation capacities.

But perhaps most worryingly, societies that embrace excessive indebtedness as a way of life eventually begin to deceive themselves. Before the 2008 crash, for example, this manifested itself in banks’ leveraging their assets at ratios of 40-to-1 on the hubristic basis that “the models never fail.” In a post-crisis world, this self-deception appears in many continental European banks’ refusal to allow a full vetting of their balance sheets, presumably because of the ramifications of revealing just how much bad debt they’re holding.

The truth, as the Gospel of John reminds us, sets us free. Part of that liberation involves a ruthless self-reckoning and acknowledgment of our errors. The experience is rarely pleasant. Sometimes it can be positively dispiriting as we come face-to-face with our trespasses against the moral truth known by faith and reason — and our failures to fulfill our concrete responsibilities to God and our fellow human beings.

The alternative, however, is to continue living the lie that our debt problems — personal, corporate, government — will somehow go away without substantial changes of attitudes, actions, expectations and priorities on our part. And that, surely, is no alternative at all.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is the Acton Institute’s research director. He has authored several books including “On Ordered Liberty,” and his prize-winning “The Commercial Society.” His latest, “Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy,” was published earlier this year.