Government Largesse – Worth the Price?

So how did we get into this mess?  A lot has been written, but I think some of the most relevant and poignant observations did not come from an economist.  They did not come from a financial expert, or a government official or a business icon.  They did not come from a financial advisor, or a hedge fund manager or a financial journalist.  They came, against all odds, from a Catholic Priest.  But this is no ordinary Priest.  Co-founder of the Acton Institute, he is an expert in areas not just of Catholic Christian doctrine, but also of business and sound economic policy.  In one of the best commentaries on the situation we are in and the things to avoid coming out, he addressed the annual dinner for the Acton Institute.  The entire text of his talk is worth taking time to read, and you can get it by clicking here –> http://www.acton.org/commentary/486_the_way_forward.php.

An overriding issue that must be dealt with for any government to function long term is the propensity, as Lord Acton put it, for ‘power to tend to corrupt, and for absolute power to corrupt absolutely.  No government that gives absolute power to any one person will long survive.  So the government must embrace principles which, at their core, determine whether people will be controlled by might or by right.  In the USA, the founding Fathers determined to use both.  They limited the power of the government by putting in checks and balances, and they allowed for free enterprise among the citizens, believing that being mainly grounded in Christian moral values, they would be guided by a higher power and would seek to do right of their own volition.

It was, and for two centuries continued to be, an incredibly successful formula.  Now, however, we are starting to loose our grounding.  Government is growing and encroaching inexorably into the free enterprise arena.  We are perilously close to the day when our government uses tax dollars extracted from us to compete against us in the marketplace.  Meanwhile, we have largely lost our moral grounding, foolishly believing that we know better that God what is right and wrong.  These two things are at the root of the current economic morass, as well as the latest manifestation of greed unbridled by morality – namely Bernie Madoff.

Faith and freedom are inseparable as the basic ingredients for our kind of success, both in economic terms and in terms of quality of life.  We value and protect the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Those inalienable rights require that people are free, and that government cannot grow so powerful that it denies those freedoms.  Fr. Sirico, in his remarks at the dinner mentioned above, said that he was “convinced that the Acton Institute stands at the right place and at the right historic moment with precisely the right ideas to propose. And what are those ideas?”

That when one divorces freedom from faith both freedom and faith suffer. Freedom becomes rudderless (because truth gives freedom its direction). It is left up for grabs to the most adept political thug with the flashiest new policy or program; freedom without a moral orientation has no guiding star. Likewise, without freedom and the ability to make moral, economic and social choices, people of faith have restricted practical impact. Theocracy is the destruction of human freedom in the name of God. Libertinism is the destruction of moral norms in the name of liberty. I say a plague on both their houses.”

Notice that he emphatically does not endorse the idea of a theocracy, such as is the ideal of Islam.  History shows that the church is every bit as capable of absolute corruption as is the government.  So what is needed, again, is a system of checks and balances.

So I say that as a people, we sow the seeds of our own destruction when we reject the absolute authority of God to define morality. By the same token, libertarian policies destroy one person’s freedom to protect another’s.  

So we are in a heck of a mess right now, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We are going to have to reap a rather paltry harvest for a while.  But as we do, we must be vigilant against the encroachment of government into areas of both church and economics.  We must retain our freedom of religion, even if we choose the wrong ones.  At the same time, we cannot allow the religious beliefs of one group to take away the rights of another.  And we must advocate for non-government solutions to social problems wherever possible.  After all, while the government frequently acts to protect us against the evils of a monopoly in business, it is willing and all-too-able to set itself up as a perpetual monopoly, and all monopolies end up stinking like the rotting corpses they are!

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