Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why I'm Interested in Wilhelm Röpke

I recently bought a copy of Wilhelm Röpke's A Humane Economy as well as a biography of him. Röpke (1899-1966) was a Swiss economist who inspired the German economic miracle under Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democrats and, so far as I can tell, held firmly to two ideas: (a) The economy must be a moral place which cares for all of society. (b) Individuals and private institutions, not the state, should be the primary actors in the economic sphere. With regard to the latter point, he bears much resemblance to Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics, which staunchly supports the free market against an overly regulatory state. But unlike Mises or F. A. Hayek - to say nothing of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of libertarianism - Röpke explicitly emphasized the social and moral role of the economy.

The demands of social justice are clearly written in the Gospels and across both the Old and New Testaments. The appeal of this part of Röpke's thinking to me is obvious. But I am also attracted to the small, individual, private vision as well, for at least three reasons I can identify:

(1) As someone coming from a conservative, formerly GOP background, I have some deep-seated suspicions of government. Some of these are irrational. Many I have abandoned over the years. But some remain, with good reason, I think. We have seen in other arenas - such as same sex marriage or the never ending war in Afghanistan - the pernicious effects of a government that may have too much power for its own good.

(2) I would not characterize America's welfare state as a failure. There are many good programs accomplishing a great deal of good in our society. And yet, deep problems remain. I think it is worthwhile to at least ask if there might be alternatives to simply creating another program. This is particularly so in the US, which has a deep tradition of volunteerism and individual initiative. Large government-directed social programs may make sense in other countries, but I think Americans instinctively want to do these things themselves.

(3) Being moral agents and caring for our neighbors are fundamentally individual responsibilities. There are many legitimate roles for the government, but there is a cheapening of our dignity if, at every turn, we simply pass our moral obligations on to distant bureaucrats. Encountering the poor and the weak, the stranger and the outcast for ourselves is an experience - and a duty - which no program, however well-meaning or effective, can accomplish.

So I'm excited to read more abut Röpke and his ideas. If I find the time both to make headway on my new reading and to type up some additional thoughts here, I look forward to sharing my new discoveries.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Under God" - On Its Necessity

This post first appeared on The Guild Review.  Sorry for the shortage of posts of late; I hope to change that in the coming weeks and months, but life has been busy!

In 1954 a joint resolution of Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Among those pushing for this addition were the Knight of Columbus, an American Catholic fraternal organization.

To secularists, these words are anathema, an attempt to establish an official religion and overturn the First Amendment.  To others, these words nail America's flag to the mast of Christianity, underscoring that this country is, and always has been - at least in their view - a Christian nation.

I am both less confident and less interested than this latter party in America's Christian heritage.  This is not a debate I wish to enter today.  Rather, I would like to contend that the words "under God" are essential for Christians, or indeed probably any people of theistic faith, to say the pledge.

My hang up is the word "allegiance."  Christians owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ, their Lord and their God.  He is king of the universe and king of their hearts.  All Christians are, rather literally, monarchists.

This does not necessarily mean that Christians should be theocrats, endorsing government by bishops or other clergymen.  Indeed, Jesus Himself insisted that that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him.  But I would contend - as I tried to flesh out some years ago - that the republics we establish by the consent of the governed must exist under the larger kingship of Christ.  He has granted us, so to speak, the right and responsibility of looking after the affairs of our particular polities. But this does not change the fundamental reality that He is the ultimate lawgiver, judge, ruler, and commander.

So when a Christian - or, so far as I understand, a Jew or Muslim as well - is asked to swear allegiance, the natural question would be, "Do you mean allegiance in the ultimate sense, or in the local, political sense?  If you mean in the ultimate sense, my allegiance is to God alone."

Perhaps, you say, it is obvious that a political pledge is concerned with allegiance in the local, political sense, and not in the universal, theological sense.  Perhaps that should be obvious.  But across the centuries - and certainly in the 20th - regimes have made claims that exceed the political.  They have demanded that their own fiat should trump the consciences of citizens, that the good of the state is more important than the moral law.  In such cases, the political has claimed an unholy, idolatrous precedence.

Let me be clear: I do not think America is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship along the lines of the Communists or the National Socialists.  But it never hurts to make clear, long in advance of any problems, the terms of our discussion.  And let us not forget that the dictatorship of relativism is quite strong and that it must be opposed, in culture and, yes, sometimes in politics.

Concerns about the First Amendment's establishment clause are not to be taken lightly, but neither should we overlook the fact that, absent these two little words, large swaths of America would rightly have serious questions about taking the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Four Tips for Living Localism

In the past 15 years I have moved more times than I care to count. I have lived in four states and the District of Columbia, as well as spending a semester in Italy and a summer in Germany. Both of my parents are from states other than that where I grew up, and I married a gal from yet another state. I am what David Goodhart calls an "Anywhere," a person at home in the globalized, cosmopolitan world.

But there are problems with such a globalized view. As R. R. Reno recently pointed out in First Things, self-government necessarily requires some sort of localism. The larger the entity involved - epitomized by that largest of all entities, the global community - the more likely that political and cultural elites run the show in a insular world that common folk can rarely penetrate.

In the last few years my wife and I have settled down in Greene County, Virginia, where we own a home and raise our children. I am ready to become a "Somewhere," a person rooted in a given place, a person committed to living in solidarity with one's neighbors. But how do you go about doing that, in concrete ways? Let me make four suggestions:

(1) Get to know your neighbors. Yes, your literal neighbors, the people whose homes are within sight of yours. Wave when you see them getting the mail. Talk to them on a Saturday afternoon when you're both out mowing the lawn. Invite them and their kids over to have take-out pizza on your porch some Friday evening. There's no substitute for actually knowing actual people.

(2) Subscribe to your local paper. I have had a subscription to the Financial Times, a British newspaper focused on international business and politics, almost continually for the last decade. It is emblematic of my status as an Anywhere. But lately I also took out a subscription to the Greene County Record. The journalistic quality is hardly the same, the problems discussed are hardly as large. But I think subscribing to the local newspaper, however modest it may be, has a couple virtues. It helps us understand the problems and opportunities of our local area. I have been surprised to discover how many concerts and classes there are, at little or no cost, near our home. Moreover, a subscription to the local newspaper encourages investigative journalism - or at least some level of coverage - regarding local politics. And that's important. One reason so many local political scenes are run by a good ol' boys network is that there is so little media attention focused on local politics. My 50 cents per week is a modest contribution toward improving such coverage.

(3) Take an interest in your lowest level of government. Who represents you on the city council or county board of supervisors? Do you know how long their terms are? Where they meet? How much authority does your local body have? Given the limited media coverage, you'll have to do some homework on this one, but the local newspaper will help you. And you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that, in conjunction with your neighbors and other informed citizens, you can actually make an impact on local politics, with visible results in your community. It's not always easy, but probably a lot easier than trying to change the outcome of a presidential election.

(4) Get involved in your house of worship. Don't just show up for worship once a week. Get to know your fellow worshipers. Join a Bible Study or men's or women's group. Find a ministry that needs your help. Serve on a committee. Teach a class. So much of the basic fabric of civil society has been destroyed, but one of the few places you can still reliably find its remnants are in houses of worship. I don't think that's a coincidence: our faith in God has implications for how we love one another. So if you want to see your local community reinvigorated, your fellow believers may be a good place to start.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Pontificating on Dylann Roof - Is It My Place?

I recently published a blog post calling to spare Dylann Roof from the death penalty. But as I was pushing the button, I heard a little voice in my head. The conversation went something like this.


Aaron Linderman, the Reader: Back in November you wrote a post about boundaries, about not having an opinion on things that aren't really your business. You don't live in South Carolina. Your family wasn't among the victims. You're not on the jury. Is it really your place to be commenting on this?

Aaron Linderman, the Writer: Does seem rather inconsistent, doesn't it?

Reader: Yes, it does.

Writer: Well, I suppose I was trying to articulate a principle, namely, that in cases like Roof's, we - and by that I mean the people of Virginia, my state - should show mercy.

Reader: Perhaps you should have been clearer about that. Perhaps you should have written about some of the people currently on death row in Virginia.

Writer: That's a good idea. But I think the argument would be basically the same: These are unsavory people who have grievously hurt society. But rather than continuing the cycle of violence, we should demonstrate that we live in a humane civilization and spare their lives. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there's no serious case that they pose a threat of escaping and striking again.

Reader: But on that point about the ongoing danger to society: Are you aware that, here in Virginia, six death row inmates escaped from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in 1984? It can happen.

Writer: Indeed, it can. A group of seven who escaped in Texas in 2000 also comes to mind. The state has the responsibility to protect society.  For this reason, I think we should probably keep capital punishment on the books, but with several strict limits: (1) There must be the utmost certainty of the defendant's guilt. These days that probably means DNA evidence. Here in Virginia Earl Washington was wrongly sentenced to death, and there are many other cases as well.  This is utterly unacceptable.  (2) It must be a particularly heinous crime that is being punished. (3) The prosecution must make the case that there is a real probability that the defendant could escape from a maximum security prison and kill again. Speaking of prison security, I'd be quite happy to vote for extra money for maximum security prisons, so that we can have confidence in a life sentence.

Reader: This is all interesting, but aren't we getting away from the initial question? Is it really your place to comment on this case?

Writer: Carnes Lord, in his book The Modern Prince, discusses the "right to be wrong." He argues that our elected leaders - not bureaucrats or investigative journalists or other backseat drivers - have been vested by the people with decision-making authority. A bureaucrat has a duty to describe a situation as best he can and to subsequently carry out his orders as well as possible. He does not get to decide, in a fundamental sense, what to do. Elected leaders are vested with that power. We can criticize their decisions, but we must also recognize that, in giving them the authority to make such decisions, we are also granting the possibility that they will make poor ones.

That concept may be relevant here. A jury of ordinary citizens in South Carolina has been given the authority to decide Dylann Roof's fate. I contend that the best choice would be to grant him mercy - even, and perhaps especially, if he is uninterested in it - and spare his life. But I also recognize that government is best conducted, whenever possible, at the local level. And if the above discussion has demonstrated nothing else, I think it shows that this is a complex question. The South Carolina jury is free to make their decision as they see fit. But I do hope they choose life.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mercy for Dylann Roof

The trial of Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston in 2015, has now moved to the sentencing phase. The basic question is whether Roof will received life in prison or be executed for his crimes.

There is no doubt that Roof's attack was heinous. In addition to the deaths themselves and the attendant suffering inflicted on the community and the families of the victims, Roof's motive casts a further specter: he sought to ignite a race war in America.

In spite of all this, Roof's life should be spared. His execution would potentially make him a martyr to those few people who share his twisted views of racial superiority and violence. In contrast, sparing his life demonstrates that American society retains the moral high ground and will not stoop to the kind of vindictive actions Dylann Roof has taken.

To my knowledge, no one is making the case that Roof poses a significant threat of escape. So long as he remains behind bars, he poses no threat to society. His blood need not be shed to protect the rest of us.

Human life has dignity - all human life. If we embark on the task of choosing which lives are and are not worthy of respect, as Dylann Roof did, we enter morally dubious territory. Human dignity is innate and inalienable; even acts as heinous as Roof's cannot erase the sacred calling given to him and every man and woman on the planet: to love and to be loved.

Perhaps, as he lives out his days in prison, Dylann Roof might yet come to see that. I'm not optimistic, but I can hope.


UPDATE: For further discussion on this topic, see the follow-on post.