Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Theodore Dalrymple on Inflation's Moral Hazard

If you haven't already heard of Theodore Dalrymple (pictured right), it's time you did. Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, a retired British psychiatrist and physician, who spent much of his time in practice in prisons in close contact with the "underclass," as he calls many of the people he has encountered who seem stuck at the bottom of society. Appropriately enough, he has gained fame as an essayist writing about societal dysfunction. His essays don't always necessarily make for sunny, upbeat reading (though they are always engagingly written), but they do call attention to crucial problems destroying the lives of a surprisingly large segment of the population. His diagnosis is uncomfortable for anyone accustomed to modern debates about human character that avoid questions of right and wrong and the freedom of the will, because his single-most important concern is individual moral responsibility. Society cannot function if individuals are too lazy to find out what is right and to do it. (For instance, he refutes the claim that drug addicts cannot choose to stop.)

All of this is by way of introduction to a recent (longish) essay of his which appeared in City Journal: "Inflation's Moral Hazard." In this piece Dalrymple discusses what appears to be a less criminal topic--the danger of inflation to the character of a people. After opening with an anecdotal reflection on the prevalence of inflation in the contemporary economy, he concludes:

But asset inflation—ultimately, the debasement of the currency—as the principal source of wealth corrodes the character of people. It not only undermines the traditional bourgeois virtues but makes them ridiculous and even reverses them. Prudence becomes imprudence, thrift becomes improvidence, sobriety becomes mean-spiritedness, modesty becomes lack of ambition, self-control becomes betrayal of the inner self, patience becomes lack of foresight, steadiness becomes inflexibility: all that was wisdom becomes foolishness. And circumstances force almost everyone to join in the dance.
The ultimate danger of inflation, though, lies in its tendency to discourage ordinary people from relying on their own efforts to lead a simple life, and instead encourage them to rely on the government for their livelihood. Inflation, in short, makes individual moral responsibility very difficult to achieve.

And what are the consequences of this lack of individual moral responsibility? Economists and social theorists (Dalrymple among them) may debate the exact consequences in this life, but at least for Dante the eternal consequence was quite clear: Circle 8, Bolgia 10 of Hell.

Photo credit: The Brussels Journal

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Progress Rightly Understood

I do not consider myself a progressive. Progressivism is too often bent on changing man's nature, overcoming by pseudo-science and human effort problems which are far bigger than that. Put another way, progressivism usually involves redeeming man from the Fall through the proper application of politics. Sorry, but I don't go for that.

However, my rejection of progressivism has recently been tempered by reading Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate. He does not, of course, fall into the kind of errors I just sketched out. But he does remind us that a certain kind of progress is not merely compatible with, but integral to, Christianity. This is an important reminder for those of us - like myself - who have become jaded about "progress" and tend to ignore the term whenever we hear it.

Benedict's starting point in Caritas in Veritate is an encyclical by Pope Paul VI (pictured left), Populorum Progressio. Quoting the earlier encyclical, Benedict writes:

It is the primordial truth of God's love, grace bestowed upon us, that... makes it possible to hope for a “development of the whole man and of all men”, to hope for progress “from less human conditions to those which are more human”, obtained by overcoming the difficulties that are inevitably encountered along the way. (Section 8, quoting PP 42 & 20.)

Notice what they are talking about: "conditions", the physical circumstances, as well as the social and the spiritual, in which human beings live. However, that which gives us cause for hope with regards to these conditions is not our own willpower or technological might, but God's love. Elsewhere he writes:

Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him. (Section 11.)

Moreover, Benedict points out that this is not simply the improvement of material circumstances, building bigger, faster and stronger gizmos. There is a kind of progress to that sort of thing, but it is not quite what Benedict is interested in. He writes:

If man were merely the fruit of either chance or necessity, or if he had to lower his aspirations to the limited horizon of the world in which he lives, if all reality were merely history and culture, and man did not possess a nature destined to transcend itself in a supernatural life, then one could speak of growth, or evolution, but not development. (Section 29.)

Thus, human progress (or development, to use Benedict's preferred term) must be oriented towards our true human nature and our ultimate end. Any kind of progress which ignores the fact that we have been made in the divine image and are created for heaven is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: perhaps a nice gesture, even interesting or meaningful in its way, but woefully missing the bigger issue at stake.

How are we to bring about this kind of progress? As with most aspects of the encyclical, Benedict avoids most details, preferring to make sure we have the principles sorted out first. However, he explains:

It should be stressed that progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient. Development needs above all to be true and integral. The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement.... Human knowledge is insufficient and the conclusions of science cannot indicate by themselves the path towards integral human development.... The exclusion of religion from the public square... hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity. (Sections 23, 30 & 56.)

This is no paltry project of social engineering, conducted by technocrats and ignoring the transcendent.

Finally, Benedict, following Paul VI, explains:

Progress, in its origin and essence, is first and foremost a vocation: “in the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation”.... The vocation to progress drives us to “do more, know more and have more in order to be more”. (Sections 16 & 18, quoting PP 15 & 6.)

Thus, progress is not simply about a political ideology or a philosophic arguments: it is a part of the call given by God to mankind, redeemed by Christ and now eagerly pressing on toward the fullness of glory.

Photo credits: The picture of Benedict XVI comes from a mass in Paris, courtesy of Ammar Abd Rabbo. The image of Paul VI was ganked from the Per Christum blog, which no doubt ganked it from someone else.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Importance of Limitations

There is a certain type of empirical judgment [concerning art], which has spread due to the influence of English and French travelers. One expresses one’s spontaneous, unprepared opinion without giving any thought at all to the fact that every artist is subject to many conditions, such as his own special talent, his predecessors and teachers, his time and place, his patrons and customers. None of this—which would of course be required for a pure appreciation—comes into consideration, and so there develops a dreadful mixture of praise and censure, of affirmation and rejection; as a result, every value proper to the works in question is annulled.
—Goethe, Italian Journey, Report for December 1787
Many people, I would venture to guess, unconsciously think like Platonists, at least when it comes to art. They’ve learned from a certain caricature of art critics to talk about art using only abstract nouns starting with capital letters. They speak in grandiose terms about Beauty, as if beauty existed apart from works of art. When they do this, they think they are preserving beauty, and art for art’s sake—but they really don't know much about beauty. (This, of course, excludes the not inconsiderable group of people who think art should be about whatever they feel like, not necessarily about beauty. I won't even bother with them.)

But, as Goethe points out, these amateur art critics do not know much about the individual artist or work of art in question. They have no idea who the artist's teachers were, what his patron demanded of him, or what techniques and materials were available at the time.

This ignorance of history, according to Goethe, is so distressing because it prevents critics from coming to a “pure appreciation.” This is a striking phrase, especially in combination with his initial rejection of a certain type of empiricism. How can Goethe call for more history and reject empiricism? First of all, what he means by empiricism is not an emphasis on concrete, verifiable facts; what he means, rather, is the theory that the human mind is a tabula rasa that can judge correctly about any sense impression it receives, without anything further work required. In other words, Goethe is saying that learning to appreciate art is hard work, and part of that hard work involves learning the historical background about the art we are trying to appreciate.

Second, many people—those everyday Platonists—would argue that what leads us to a “pure appreciation” of art is abstraction from history. The work of art has a value which is independent of the “dirty” complications of history. What does it matter, they argue, what the limitations on an artist were? His work is immortal!

But, in fact, what makes that work of art immortal are the limitations on the artist. Every time an artist chooses to include one type of excellence in his work, he must exclude another type of excellence. For instance, an architect cannot choose both a pointed Gothic arch and a round Baroque arch for the same part of his building. A sculptor must decide whether he wants to use wood, marble, or some other medium for his statue. A painter must decide whether to use oil or water colors. In the end, though, what is really important is how the artist works within these limitations but transcends them. Our limitations are what make perfection possible for us. And--Goethe's point again--only a detailed knowledge and analysis of the artist's limitations will help us come to a "pure appreciation" of the artist's transcendence of his limitations.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Questions in the Dark

Murder mysteries can be fiendishly difficult things to unravel. However, there are certain assumptions we often take for granted: the laws of physics are constant, time moves linearly, the human perception of reality is - by and large - an accurate representation. But what if these basic rules of existence could not be assumed?

What constitutes a human being? More specifically, what makes a human being act? The Marxists tell us that class and the economic realities of society condition our behavior. The chemists, pushed to their farthest extremes, might tell us that chemicals in our brains explain all our actions. Likewise, the psychologists would tell us that past experiences condition our behavior in the present. But are any of these answers fully sufficient?

Do those who possess great power know how to utilize it? This is frequently our assumption, but what if those with superhuman powers could only exercise them clumsily?

These questions may seems quite disparate, but Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) manages to address all of them, and quite artfully. Set in a surreal 1940s-esque future, Dark City might seem confusing or disjointed at first - or even just plain weird - but the loose ends pull together in a way that is quite satisfying. Visually compelling, intellectually rich and narratively satisfying, Dark City is a winner.

(Sadly, I think the trailer fails to quite capture the feeling of the film. Think more noir and less techno.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Benedict & Kirk: On Ideology

In his recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

Today the picture of development has many overlapping layers. The actors and the causes in both underdevelopment and development are manifold, the faults and the merits are differentiated. This fact should prompt us to liberate ourselves from ideologies, which often oversimplify reality in artificial ways, and it should lead us to examine objectively the full human dimension of the problems. (Section 22)

I do not think Benedict is here advocating the "moderation" of the politically lazy or cowardly, who cannot be spared the time or risk involved in choosing sides in difficult questions. No, I think Benedict is advocating a level of nuance and sophistication in our political and economic dealings that surpasses the slogans and phrases that typically characterize our political discourse: progress, change, limited government. As if any of those were sufficient to apply to all situations, in all times and places. And yet, that is what most political ideologues try to do.

On reading the above passage, I was struck by how well Benedict's admonition harmonizes with the writings of another thinker, Russell Kirk (1918-1994). In the the forward to the 7th edition of The Conservative Mind, he writes:

The conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a "political religion," promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. (xv)

An overzealous conservative might be tempted to claim that Benedict is here alluding to Kirk. I highly doubt it. But that need not rule out the possibility of some unknown intellectual connection. Two men as well-read and thoughtful as Benedict and Kirk are likely to have vastly overlapping libraries. Indeed, the most obvious intellectual tradition shared by these two is their Catholic faith. Icons point beyond themselves; idols point only to themselves. Ideologies that oversimplify to the point of losing touch with reality have become idols. Benedict and Kirk, and like-minded Christian intellectuals, recognize this.

One final thought, a disclaimer of sorts. Some might object to my favorable comparison between the Holy Father and the father of modern American conservativism. Am I suggesting that all good Catholics must be conservatives? Hardly. One of my rabbis in the world of conservative thought explained, "I naturally shy away from the term conservative because it has become an ideology of its own in the culture at large." (Which is why many self-identified conservatives have criticized the neocons as being ideologues of the very kind Kirk warned about.) However, insofar as the writings of conservatives such as Russell Kirk harmonize with the teachings of the Church - and I think they do fairly well - I have no qualms about commending them.

Special thanks go out to Maggie Perry and Daniel R. Suhr for their assistance on this post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is Anything in Life Not Economic?

In my Constitutional Law class the other day I came across a rather troubling idea: that nothing in life is not economic in nature, or--if you just shuddered at the sight of a double negative--that everything in life is economic in nature.

Let me back up a second and explain how such a preposterous notion came up in a class on the Constitution. There is a clause in the Constitution called the Commerce Clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 3), which gives Congress the power to regulate "commerce...among the several states." At the beginning of this nation's history, this clause was interpreted rather narrowly. "Commerce" meant essentially only merchant and trading activity, and was usually distinguished from manufacturing, farming, and producing goods for sale. But, over time lawyers started playing fast and loose with the definitions (I know, you simply can't believe that). The Commerce Clause soon encompassed not only commerce but also manufacturing and production.

That's a pretty broad definition of commerce, isn't it? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet. During the New Deal, commerce came to include anything that "in the aggregate might have a substantial effect" on commerce. Pretty soon lawyers and judges were simply using "economic regulation" as a shorthand reference for Congress' power to regulate commerce. And, what's more appalling, these same lawyers and judges were allowing Congress to regulate everything in sight, on the grounds that everything in life is economic.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court appears to have put a stop to some of this insanity in two recent cases (United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison) and ruled that Congress cannot declare everything economic and then regulate it. In Lopez, the Supreme Court held that the federal government did not have power under the Commerce Clause to outlaw guns in school zones. It's not that the Supreme Court was in favor of guns in schools; it's just that it's a simple non-economic criminal matter for the states to handle. But--the government's lawyers pleaded--if you allow guns into one school in Texas, that can affect the way students there behave; and if those students don't behave well, they won't perform well academically; and if they don't perform well academically, they won't get good enough jobs; and that in the long run, repeated thousands of times, will affect interstate commerce. A simple crime by a dumb teenager has been transformed (by crafty lawyers) into an assault on the economic foundations of America.

But, how did we get to the point where many of the brightest people in the land think that carrying a gun in a school is an economic activity? It's more than just a devious tactic employed by lawyers to win cases. On the contrary, it has been theoretically justified by many thinkers, and reflects the course of society in the last 250 years. At first blush, it may remind you of Karl Marx's economic determinism. But this idea has also been advanced by at least one leading contemporary legal scholar, who is usually (though, in my opinion, mistakenly) considered a free market zealot. Judge Richard Posner, the maven of the Law and Economics movement, has defined crime in purely economic terms as the "coercive transfer of either wealth or utility from victim to wrongdoer." The word "utility" is telling. It should remind you of the theory of utilitarianism, first systematically articulated and named by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. What Posner (and many modern libertarians) have contributed to Bentham's and Mill's theories is an emphasis on modern economic analysis as a way of determining the "aggregate social value" of an activity. Economics no longer examines individual choices, but arrogates to itself the right to judge everything in society.

So, is there anything that's not economic in nature? Can we prove the utilitarians wrong? I think many readers of this post (if indeed there are many readers of this post) would automatically name examples of non-economic activities such as art or love. And they would of course be right. But, what about blogging? As one cynical website explains blogging: "Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few." Doesn't that prove that blogging has no real utility, and therefore isn't economic in nature?

I think that we here at the Guild Review should transform this cynical witticism into a joyful affirmation of blogging, and of non-economic activity in general. We do it because it's useless--we do it because it's not economic!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Seeing Beyond the Human

One day, while eating lunch at the National Archives (pictured left), I heard the next table over discussing the Bible. My ears immediately perked up, since matters of faith are hardly normal lunchtime conversation material in such quarters. I was disappointed, however, to realize that the discussion was strictly about translations of Scripture, and not matters of faith or theology.

I have complained before about the inability of contemporary culture to consider the Highest Things. Recently I have observed another dimension of this problem.

Outside the confines of the Quincy House - whose dining room alone contained a dozen religious images at last count - and similar circles, I have frequently observed that the Church is viewed as a strictly human institution. More to the point, even the Church's claims to being more than human are overlooked. This often - though not exclusively - focuses on the Church's failures and the crimes that have been committed in her name. Admittedly, the Church's failures are real and not to be overlooked; aside from historic massacres and torture, in our own day there are many who have been profoundly hurt by injustices committed by the sons of the Catholic Church.

In light of such visible shortcomings, I would expect one of two responses. The first, which you can hear from the Church's adherents, is that the Church is both human and divine, always sanctifying while herself in need of sanctification. Moreover, not all who call themselves Catholic, or are even visibly joined to the Church, are in fact members of Christ' mystical Body and animated by His Spirit (cf. St. Augustine's City of God). The other response I would expect would be to argue that a loving God would never allow such injustices and therefore Christ' presence must not reside in the Catholic Church (or, for that matter, any human institution. If you really want to get picky, you might even call into question the Incarnation or the notion of divine self-revelation, both of which are bound to get mixed up in human messiness).

Oddly, I rarely hear this second response. Instead, the Church's supernatural claims are usually ignored. Rather than denouncing the Church for failing to measure up to perfection, she is simply castigated for being a tad lower than other human institutions, which are thereby deemed better. (By extension, on the days when the Church is perceived as doing good - feeding the hungry, caring for orphans - she may rise to the top of the heap, but it is nevertheless a low heap.) Nowhere is there a consideration of the Perfect, the Absolute, something that might circumscribe all human institutions and activities.

Perhaps this is simply a result of the fact that much of my time is spent with fellow historians, who are some of the more practically-minded members of the liberal arts family. But I think the problem is far more widespread than that, and it has a name: materialism.

Materialism is by no means new. The First Vatican Council condemned it in its First Canon: "If anyone is so bold as to assert that there exists nothing besides matter: let him be anathema" (section 2). Of course, most people would not be so bold as to say that. It is fairly difficult to prove that nothing but the material exists, so most folks are intelligent enough to concede that the spiritual may be out there. But aside from this single concession, the same people will elsewhere ignore the possibility of the spiritual, both in their thought and in their actions.

What then are we to make of this rampant materialism? What are we to do in such times? I am afraid I have no genius answers, other than to throw generous quantities of salt about and pray for the best.

Incidentally, if you would like a tshirt with today's Vatican I quotation on it, just steer your browser over to anathemasit.com.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Anonymity: A Revolt of the Masses?

In the past (here and here) I've complained about the anonymity of modern politics, and I suspected that many people shared this concern with me.

Well, now I know that I'm not not the only one. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal thinks that the voting populations around the world are finally running out of patience for anonymous bureaucrats and irresponsible politicians putting our countries deeper and deeper in debt.

I'm not so sure that we're going to see a "revolt of the masses" any time soon, but hopefully the current financial crisis will inspire some people to reconsider the anonymity of modern politics.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Inglourious History - The German Response

I have a confession to make: I have not yet seen Inglourious Basterds. This may not, in and of itself, be a bad thing. Except that I am now writing a follow-up to my last post on the film.

At first I was worried that Tarantino doing a nominally historical film would be a dangerous thing, blurring the line between fact and fiction in a way that a film like Kill Bill - with its Texas sword fights and anime flashback - could not. The completely over-the-top ambush of the Nazi leadership, seen in the trailer below, seemed to lay my fears to rest: at last, we could sit back and enjoy the show, knowing that this had very little to do with any actual history.

But now the New York Magazine's Vulture blog reports that the film has received an overwhelmingly positive response from German critics. One of them wrote:

This isn't camp, it isn't pulp — you miss the point using such categories with Tarantino — but rather a vision never before seen in the nearly exhausted world of cinematic images.... It took 65 years for a film-maker, instead of bringing Germany's evil 20th century history to life once more to have people shudder and bow before it, to simply dream around it. And to mow all the pigs down. Catharsis! Oxygen! Wonderful retro-futuristic insanity of the imagination!

Perhaps. But if the film is "retro-futuristic insanity," can it really exercise the daemons of Germany's Nazi past? Doesn't "Germany's evil 20th century history" need to first be brought to life, if it is be finally slain?

Some might contend that expecting a cathartic release from the nightmare of Germany's Nazi past is asking far too much of this film; instead, we should be expecting nothing more than a sort of World War II Rambo. Fair enough - except that the German critics think they see more, a film in meaningful dialogue with history.

Yes, I realize that any invocation of the Nazis is, necessarily, historical in some way; but it seems to me that the relationship between a film like Tarantino's and the actual events of history is complex, at best. That so many German critics are raving about the film suggests to me either (a) that they all have great insight, successfully navigating this complex relationship or (b) some of them are missing the point. And that's a tragic, even scary, thing, when we're dealing with the legacy of something as appalling as the Third Reich.

Special thanks to Santiago Ramos for bringing this Vulture blog post to my attention.