Archive for October, 2008

Chesterton’s Critique of Socialism

In his 1926 work, The Outline of Sanity, vaunted English journalist and author, G.K. Chesterton put forth his arguments against both Capitalism and Socialism. Chesterton essentially argues that the problem with Capitalism is that it leads to Socialism. Now there’s a thought. All too briefly put, the tendency of both Capitalism and Socialism is to centralize power. Capitalism places power in the hands of the few rich who actually own capital, while the vast majority work as (wage) slaves for the rich who own the factories and shops. The result is a de facto plutocracy. Socialism places complete power in the hands of the government, which leads to individual freedom being subordinated to the will of the State. The result is a de facto totalitarian state. Both the plutocracy of the Capitalist state and totalitarianism of the Socialist state are particular manifestations of an oligarchy. The rich are always the privileged few, just as it is the few who hold real power in a totalitarian state. The common man, which is the mass of men, lose in either case, even if Capitalism is to be preferred to Socialism.

Below is Chesterton’s brief critique of Socialism and why it leads to totalitarianism, although he does not use that word. As I noted earlier, his critique of Socialism is brief because on this score he was preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, his critique is worth noting, even if it is a familiar critique of the Socialist State. From The Outline of Sanity (IHS Press):

Socialism is a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those affecting life and essential living. If anything important is sold, the Government has sold it; if anything important is given, the Government has given it; if anything important is even tolerated, the Government is responsible for tolerating it. This is the very reverse of anarchy; it is an extreme enthusiasm for authority. It is in many ways worthy of the moral dignity of the mind; it is a collective acceptance of very complete responsibility… A Socialist Government is one which in its nature does not tolerate any true and real opposition. For there the Government provides everything; and it is absurd to ask a Government to provide an opposition.

You cannot go to the Sultan and say reproachfully, “You have made no arrangements for your brother dethroning you and seizing the Caliphate.” You cannot go to a medieval king and say, “Kindly lend me two thousand spears and one thousand bowmen, as I wish to raise a rebellion against you.” Still less can you reproach a Government which professes to set up everything, because it has not set up anything to pull down all it has set up. Opposition and rebellion depend on property and liberty… The critic of the State can only exist where a religious sense of right protects his claims to his own bow and spear; or at least, to his own pen or his own printing press. It is absurd to suppose that he could borrow the royal pen to advocate regicide or use the Government printing presses to expose the corruption of the Government. Yet it is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing presses are Government printing presses, printers may be oppressed. Everything is staked on the State’s justice; it is putting all the eggs in one basket. Many of them will be rotten eggs; but even then you will not be allowed to use them at political elections.

As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is certainly true of political power, as we have seen time and time again throughout history. The philosophy of Socialism is flawed in its very nature, but Chesterton thinks Capitalism is too. As was noted in my last post on this topic, and to once again quote Chesterton, “Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in opposite ways at once… [the capitalist] is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time.”

So what is the answer? Chesterton, among others, believed the answer is to distribute property to individuals, so they can be self sufficient and once again know the joy of true ownership and individual responsibility. Chesterton believed small business is better than big business. Chesterton believed being a free man working your own land is to be preferred to being a wage slave. But Chesterton also recognized that this is not the ideal of all. He suggests that while not all will immediately hold to this ideal, many will once they seriously consider their present state of affairs. Of course, a modern society cannot consist of only small farm owners; there must be a balance. However, Chesterton maintains that the common man in a Capitalist society is really worse off than he realizes; once this is recognized, the idea of Distributism will take hold. More on this and what Distributism is in a later post.

Come Get Yer Handouts

Like a bunch of refugees pushing and shoving for the MREs that are being handed out the back of an army truck, America’s financially troubled companies (which is like all of them) are vigorously competing for the $700 billion handout from the U.S. government.

Something is very wrong with our economic structure. I’m not sure what that “thing” is yet, but this can’t be the way a healthy society is run.

God help us.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis

Soccer Pro Turned Seminarian

h/t to Thomas over at the American Papist. For those who do not know, Chase Higlenbrinck was a professional soccer player in MLS who recently heeded a calling to the (Roman Catholic) priesthood. Yesterday ESPN Page 2 did a wonderful story on Chase and what he is doing now. You can find the story here. Highly recommended reading for Catholic soccer fans :)

Divorce Liturgy?

Apparently there is such a thing. Turns out a vow, much less one before God, doesn’t take on the same meaning it used to. This, relayed to us by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in the latest issue of FIRST THINGS:

Swiss couples are going to church to get divorced. The liturgy for finalizing a divorce, says Pastor Frank Worbs, “helps people get over the separation and achieve definite closure.” Ruedi Reich, president of the Zurich Reform Church, says, “Going through a ceremony like this is a way of showing God that the marriage is over.” So there, God. Now please stop bothering us with your antiquated ideas about marriage.

Ha! Typical Neuhaus humor (wit) while talking about something so sad in our culture. Whatever happened to keeping one’s word? Do we even have a clue what is meant by a vow anymore?

It strikes me as disrespectful to make a vow before God and then, when the vow is broken, go back before God to officialy let Him know. A divorce is a shame, not something to bring before God to get His implicit “seal of approval.”

Chesterton’s Critique of Capitalism

The upcoming General Election here in the United States coupled with the ongoing economic crisis around the world got me thinking about all things political and economic. In such a mood, I ventured over to one of my book cases and lo and behold there sat on the shelf G.K. Chesterton’s The Outline of Sanity. For those who do not know, The Outline of Sanity is the book in which Chesterton pulls together the arguments for a political-economic theory known as Distributism. On the heels of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Distributist movement was gaining momentum in the early 1900s when Chesterton wrote The Outline of Sanity, particularly in Great Britain but also here in the United States to a lesser extent. Distributism, often described as the alternative to Capitalism and Socialism, is considered by its proponents to be more in line with Rerum Novarum than either Capitalism or Socialism. Distributism, it is said, avoids the erroneous foundation of greed upon which Capitalism rests and the totalitarian principles upon which Socialism rest. On what exactly Distributism is I shall leave for another post.

The point of this post is to look at Chesterton’s critique of Captialism in The Outline of Sanity. Assuming that most of us in the Western world are card carrying Capitalist to larger or lesser degree, I thought it would be interesting to examine a critique of our preferred economic theory by a writer most of my readers are familiar with and respect. I, for one, think Chesterton makes some very good points even if some of what he is saying is particuar to the time and place in which he lived, and not necessarily analogous to our own situation. However, everything he says is pertinent to our own situation, even if not in the same exact way. In some ways we 21st century subjects of a global economy are worse off than Industrialized England in 1926 when The Outline of Sanity was written. If you think differently, perhaps you have not been reading the newspapers of late. Not that they won’t recover, but the free markets are crashing all over the globe in large part because we are so globalized.

With it becoming more and more apparent with each passing day that our free market economy, built on capitalist principles, is in many ways a house of cards (perhaps I exaggerate – I hope), here is part of Chesterton’s critique of Capitalism. From The Outline of Sanity (IHS Press):

In the Labour disputes of our time, it is not the employees but the employers who declare that business is bad. The successful business man is not pleading success; he is pleading bankruptcy. The case of Capitalists is the case against Capitalism. What is even more extraordinary is that its exponent has to fall back on the rhetoric of Socialism. He merely says that miners or railwaymen must go on working “in the interests of the public.” It will be noted that the capitalists never use the argument of private property. They confine themselves entirely to this sort of sentimental version of general social responsibility. It is amusing to read the capitalist press on Socialists who sentimentally plead for people who are “failures.” It is now the chief argument of almost every capitalist in every strike that he himself is on the brink of failure.

I only have one simple objection to this simple argument in the papers about Strikes and the Socialist peril. My objection is that it leads straight to Socialism. In itself it cannot possibly lead to anything else. If workmen are to go on working because they are the servants of the public, there cannot be any deduction except that they ought to be the servants of the public authority. If the Government ought to act in the interests of the public, and there is no more to be said, then obviously the Government ought to take over the whole business, and there is nothing else to be done. I do not think the matter is so simple as this; but they do. I do not think the argument for Socialism is conclusive. But according to the Anti-Socialist [i.e. Capitalist], the argument for Socialism is quite conclusive…

In the last paragraph it is noted that if we were left to the logic of the leader-writers on the Socialist peril, they could only lead us straight to Socialism. And as some of us most heartily and vigorously refuse to be led to Socialism, we have long adopted the harder alternative called trying to think things out…. Now the capitalist system, good or bad, right or wrong, rests upon two ideas: that the rich will always be rich enough to hire the poor; and the poor will always be poor enough to want to be hired. But it also presumes that each side is bargaining with the other, and that neither is thinking primarily of the public. The owner of the omnibus does not run it for the good of all mankind, despite the universal fraternity blazoned in the Latin name of the vehicle. He runs it to make profit for himself, and the poorer man consents to drive it in order to get wages for himself…. Now the case for capitalism was that through this private bargain the public did really get served. And so for some time it did. But the only original case for capitalism collapses entirely, if we have to ask either party to go on for the good of the public. If capitalism cannot pay what will tempt men to work, capitalism is on capitalist principles simply bankrupt….

Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in opposite ways at once. When most men are wage earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For the capitalist [i.e. employer] is always trying to cut down what his servant [i.e. employee] demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend. As soon as his business is in any difficulties, as at present in the coal business, he tries to reduce what he has to spend on wages, an in doing so reduces what others have to spend on coal. He is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time.

And not to be worried. Chesterton critiques Socialism as well, albeit not nearly as exhuastively. I’m sure it’s because he knows his readers are, in large part, staunch capitalists in no need of convincing that Socialism is wrong. In a later post, I will provide Chesterton’s critique of Socialism, along with why Chesterton believes the capitaist society in which he lived was remarkably similar to the Socialist utopia.

Criticizing Palin and the Republican Party

It seems the homerun that McCain supposedly hit when he picked Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP, has gone up to the replay booth for further review. The homerun may have to be called back. Such is life in the political game. I was among the many who saw the Palin pick as a homerun with no down side as far as I could tell. Boy was I wrong on there being no down side. I really didn’t see that inexperience thing coming, especially in the light of Obama’s lack thereof. But the difference between Obama and Palin is, because of his oft noted eloquence, Obama doesn’t come off as inexperienced to the casual observer. Palin does. And in this media driven age, image is everything. Fair or unfair (and I think mostly unfair), Palin has been portrayed by many sectors of the media as a dimwit beauty pageant contestant who is more interested in hockey and moose hunting than foreign policy, health care, and economics.

And to be fair, I don’t think this image is created by the major news outlets. It’s really the popular comedic media that has created this image; Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, etc. I don’t begrudge them of this, it is what they do and they do it well. I laugh. And actually, all politicians get made fun of in this way, so it’s not just a piling on of Sarah Palin. However, it can’t be ignored that this image has hurt Palin and the Republican ticket, mostly because satire is often an exaggeration of the truth, and there is some truth to her image. Her lack luster interviews on the major news networks are the foundation of truth on which this satirical image rests. And on top of this, Palin appears to be not giving anymore interviews to the big three (“liberal elite”) networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), nor is she giving press conferences. It’s as if the McCain camp thinks Palin is an innocent little girl that needs to be protected from any adversarial situations. And thus the negative image is facilitated by her own party.

As if her negative media image were not enough, some prominent conservative voices are questioning her as the VP pick for the Republican party. For the last month and a half, one of those voices has been the much respected conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan. In Friday’s column, Noonan wrote:

Here is a fact of life that is also a fact of politics: You have to hold open the possibility of magic. People can come from nowhere, with modest backgrounds and short résumés, and yet be individuals of real gifts, gifts that had previously been unseen, that had been gleaming quietly under a bushel, and are suddenly revealed. Mrs. Palin came, essentially, from nowhere. But there was a man who came from nowhere, the seeming tool of a political machine, a tidy, narrow, unsophisticated senator appointed to high office and then thrust into power by a careless Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose vanity told him he would live forever. And yet that limited little man was Harry S. Truman. Of the Marshall Plan, of containment. Little Harry was big. He had magic. You have to give people time to show what they have. Because maybe they have magic too.

But we have seen Mrs. Palin on the national stage for seven weeks now, and there is little sign that she has the tools, the equipment, the knowledge or the philosophical grounding one hopes for, and expects, in a holder of high office. She is a person of great ambition, but the question remains: What is the purpose of the ambition? She wants to rise, but what for? For seven weeks I’ve listened to her, trying to understand if she is Bushian or Reaganite—a spender, to speak briefly, whose political decisions seem untethered to a political philosophy, and whose foreign policy is shaped by a certain emotionalism, or a conservative whose principles are rooted in philosophy, and whose foreign policy leans more toward what might be called romantic realism, and that is speak truth, know America, be America, move diplomatically, respect public opinion, and move within an awareness and appreciation of reality.

But it’s unclear whether she is Bushian or Reaganite. She doesn’t think aloud. She just . . . says things.

Now, it should be noted that Peggy Noonan is the one time speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, so her conservatism is distinctively Reaganesque, contra the so called neo-conservatism of President George W. Bush and his cronies. The problem that Noonan and other conservative thinkers have with Palin is her seemingly lack of ideas, and her lack of philosophical grounding. Why does lowering taxes stimulate the economy? How does giving tax cuts to businesses create jobs? Or more foundational, what is the role of government? From what we’ve heard from Gov. Palin, we don’t know how she would answer any of these questions. But to be fair, the way politics has degraded so much in our country since Reagan, we don’t know how many of the big name politicians would answer these questions. We could guess based on how they vote or what party they belong to, but it’d be nice to hear the answers spelled out for us.

In the end, however, I don’t think Palin has hurt the McCain ticket as much as is believed. Palin has rallied the conservative base in a way McCain could have never done. And in that Palin may have helped McCain more than she has hurt. Let’s remember that McCain is no darling of mainstream Republicans, especially the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. The more independently minded conservatives like Neal Boortz and Glenn Beck are no fans of McCain either. In fact, I would argue that McCain would be further behind Obama than he already is if it weren’t for Palin. He has a shot at the White House only because he picked her as VP. And in this, his pick was a good one; not a homerun, but it moved the runners into scoring position, so to speak.

If this election turns out in Obama’s favor, I’m thinking Palin could very well be at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016 or 2020. That is if she hasn’t been completely jaded by politics by then. She just needs to take her time and gain some much needed experience; perhaps serve a term or two as governor, then run for Senate. What makes a Palin run for the White House legitimate is how she rallies the conservative base of her party in a way McCain, Giuliani, and even Mike Huckabee (because of his fiscal policies) never could. If conservatives cannot rally around McCain when faced with the prospect of an Obama Presidency and a Democrat (at least) near majority in the House and Senate, then that says a lot about the current state of the Republican party. And just today, Colin Powell came out in support of Senator Obama. Couple that with negative attacks on Obama that wreak of desperation, and one starts to wonder if the wheels are coming off the McCain train.

As Peggy Noonan and others have asked, what happened to the party of Reagan? By the looks of the current Republican party, the era of strong leadership in the face of adversity are gone. All we are left with are mere politicians spewing shallow, self-serving sound bites at every turn. And this is a shame, because this is the time when America needs strong leadership the most.

The Nature of Historical Scholarship

Is there a such thing as an purely objective reading of history? I think the obvious answer to this is no, although this does not mean we can learn nothing objective from history. N.T. Wright framed this question quite nicely in Part II of The New Testament and the People of God. In the battle between the naive realist, who believes the historical text through the author provides a window into the objective truth of an event, and the phenomenalist, who believes the historical event is illusory because it is irrevocably filtered through the lens of the author, Wright proposes a third way. On pages 61 and 62 of the 1992 North American edition of The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press), Wright says (emphasis original):

What we need, I suggest, is a critical-realist account of the phenomenon of reading, in all it’s parts. To one side we can see the positivist or the naive realist, who move so smoothly along the line from reader to text to author to referent that they are unaware of the snakes in the grass at every step; to the other side we can see the reductionist who, stopping to look at the snakes, is swallowed up by them and proceeds no further. Avoiding both these paths, I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.

Such a theory might look something like this. We (humans in general; the communities of which you and I, as readers, are part) tell ourselves certain stories about the world, and about who we are within it. Within this story-telling it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we describe ourselves as reading texts; as we have already seen, even deconstructionists themselves write texts which they want others to read to discover what they, the deconstructionists, intend to say. Within this text-reading activity it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we find ourselves, at least sometimes and at least in principle, in contact with the mind and intention of the author. Discussing the author’s mind mat or may not be an easy task; it is in principle both possible and, I suggest, desirable. I for one shall never be convinced that de la Mare did not intend the obvious ‘surface’ effects of his poem, even though the deeper meanings are, as we have seen, a matter of speculation, hypothesis and discussion. He might, for instance, have written about them elsewhere himself. Nor can I believe that the parallel between Leverkuhn and Germany never occured to Mann while he was writing his novel.

At the same time, it is important to stress that both of these authors wanted their readers to think about the subject-matter of their works, not about them as authors for their own sakes. Their work points neither back to the reader nor inside their own heads. They are constructing neither mirrors nor kaleidoscopes. They are offering telescopes (or perhaps microscopes, which are really the same thing): new ways of viewing a reality which is outside, and different from, the reader, text and author alike, though of course vitally related to all three. It this ‘fits’ with the story we tell about ourselves and the world that texts and authors should point to realities in the world, to entities beyond themselves. Only a naive reader would suggest that the only referent of the poem was a horseman and an empty house in a wood, that the only thing described by Mann’s novel was a demon-possessed composer, or that the only reality portrayed in the parable [of the wicked tenants] was a tragic everyday story of grape-farming community…

Wright then goes on to expound a theory which keeps both the naive realist and phenomenalist in mind. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the third way described by Wright, but that’s a topic for another post. The point is that historical inquiry is not simply a matter of reading text and knowing the truth of an event. As Chesterton once quipped, we debate history as much as theology. The interesting question is to what extent can we gain “knowledge” from historical inquiry. Knowledge is gained to be sure, as Wright points out, but what is the nature of this knowledge?

For instance, we can know with a great deal of certainty (or at least probable certainty) that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. but why he crossed the Rubicon, what point was he trying to make, and how this bold move fits in with his psychological makeup are all questions just begging for subjective answers by the historical scholar. But this does not mean we are helpless. There may be other historical texts or archeological findings that help point us toward a conclusion, and this is in indeed the task of the historical scholar, but this does not mean that we will necessarily gain anything like certainty in our historical endevours. Sometimes we will, but not always. And just when probable certainty is reached on any given topic in history is always a matter for debate. For a more in depth handling of this complex topic I really do suggest a careful reading of Part II of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. In fact, while you’re at it, read the whole thing. It’s good from beginning to end.


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Liturgy of the Hours