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Don’t Confuse the Common Good with Statism
Michael NovakOctober 3, 2011
The following is a transcript of a lecture by IRD emeritus board member Michael Novak delivered at the Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture on October 3, 2011 at The George Hotel in Washington, D.C.
I remember so well the founding days of IRD. We were such a small and humble organization, so few of us, so lightly funded. Yet we had strong hearts, bold ambitions, and lots and lots of good information. As anyone can guess, Richard John Neuhaus (from New York) was the leading spirit, the intellectual guide. He was still a Lutheran then and loved to nail manifestoes on Cathedral doors. So he nailed up the founding manifesto of IRD, telling how the key democratic ideas of human dignity, equality, fraternity and liberty flowed from Christian roots and Christian understandings. And he expressed shock – SHOCK – at how many of our local parishes were using materials that attacked democracy, coming out of the National Council of Churches on Riverside Drive, New York. Anti-Democratic materials, such as:
This flagrant anti-democratic program did not belong in Christian preaching in the Churches, IRD strongly felt, first because it was so overtly and purely political and, second, because its politics were so out of keeping with the Christian inspirations that gave birth to democratic institutions and ideas. Many congregants in the pews did not at all appreciate the national offices of their churches, clustered in New York City around the NCC, expending Church donations from the pews to promote so violent and so misguided an agenda.
Well, IRD got started with a bang. One of our earliest doggedly documented reports was a description of the actual deeds and practices of the violent forces the church elites in New York were nurturing. Suddenly, before we even had a fully functioning office, one of the great television networks – CBS on 60 Minutes -- reported on IRD’s efforts, using the information on these anti-democratic movements that we had marshaled. A huge explosion went off in various New York offices of the churches.
It struck me in those days – remembering my Virgil – “Mountains trembled, and out ran a little mouse.” I have always thought that the symbol of IRD ought to be a mischievously grinning mouse, because as an organization we were so tiny, and so squeaky-voiced. Whereas, the huge buildings in New York we so squeakily called to account were massive, well-funded, and elegantly equipped with all the instruments of propaganda. This little mouse did its best imitation of a roar, and those buildings shook.
Well, not literally. But an awful lot of the nation’s denominations decided rather quickly to pull their national offices out of New York City, and bring them back closer to their members in Minneapolis, Columbus and St. Louis.
We hadn’t intended it this way, but at our birth, national support for democracy came from a surprising direction. Most of us there at the founding of IRD were lifelong Democrats, with considerable service to the internationalist, human rights, left wing of our party – in the AFL-CIO, the Social Democrats USA, the McGovern campaign, and on the staff of that courageous fighter for human rights Henry “Scoop” Jackson. But in 1980 a Republican President turned against his party’s traditional isolationism, and pivoted forward with a torchlight of support for universal human rights.
In his very first few weeks, President Reagan announced at a White House dinner for Margaret Thatcher that Communism was even then about to be swept into the dustbin of history. Pigeons at the opinion pages of the New York Times fluttered noisily into the air, others in the mainstream media called Reagan an ignorant and dangerous man. But then, within ten short years, the Berlin Wall came down, and a little later the whole Soviet Union crumpled into dust. Russia announced that it was beginning to build democracy and capitalism.
Thus, our little Institute for Religion and Democracy, founded in 1981, hit a note of unexpected international resonance. We watched with joy a decade-long and marvelous blooming of new democracies: from the Philippines to Chile to Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Hungary. Not to mention Russia itself.
Things were so heady in those days, we had to warn ourselves against GLOATING. This little mouse, those trembling mountains. We didn’t cause the upheaval, but that great upheaval was fulfilling our dreams, beyond all expectations.
Will you forgive me if I read for you the warnings I wrote for IRD on the tenth anniversary of our founding, October 8, 1991. Diane Knippers was at IRD from the beginning, and was there at that dinner when I warned against the eighth deadly vice, the new one, GLOATTONY.
Against The Sin of Gloattony
The least of deadly sins, old Dante said, is lust
(A vice of Democratic presidential candidates: not winners.)
The second sin is avarice—more serious
Is this vice, that led the pitying Lord himself
To stand among
Republicans and sinners.
The third deadly sin is gluttony
Not a single time committed
At any church-related dinners.
The worst of all deadly sins, old Dante said, is pride
The sin of those who go on ego trips --
Then take credit for the ride.
The fifth of deadly sins is envy
Which possesses all who hate the rich
To accuse of greed
Those who have
What they would like to snitch.
The sixth deadly sin is sloth
(I don’t really care enough to find a rhyme for sloth.)
The Right’s most deadly sin is gloattony
Against which the IRD must firmly set its mind;
For gloattony is our worse blight
A pest attacking people of our kind
When all the world is going right.
So this my message is to IRD
On this most happy night:
“Resist the sin of gloattony
When all the world is going right!”
And going right it is, since 1981
When IRD was born.
In 1980 all the world was torn
When Soviet tanks attacked Afghanistan.
Angola, Ethiope’ -- poor Yemen felt the lash --
And poor, poor Salvador was chosen for the clash
That had betrayed Managua’s revolution—
Which the Sandinistas stole,
And all the Sandalistas
But IRD was born, stood firm.
This tiny office, this little mouse,
Brought down the house
The left had built.
We did our job
And fought for right
And so I warn again tonight:
When all the world is going right.”
Forgive the NCC!
For falling of the Iron Curtain, sing!
Enjoy the victory!
Let freedom ring!
Enjoy the triumph of the West!
Democracies now come to power.
Religion met the test—
This is democracy’s best hour.
We fought for this!
But too much bliss
And so, my friends, I warn again
On this most happy night
“Resist the sin of gloattony—
Democracies on earth are few.
Religious freedom is as scarce as oil.
There’s much to do
And much for which we still must toil.
So ah! my friends, and oh! our foes!
We all will sing this happy night:
In Praise of Diane Knippers
Two years later, Diane Knippers, that great woman whom we now honor, became the President of IRD, in 1993. She was the leader who took IRD through its transition from fighting those who were destroying democracy from outside, to fighting those sickly growths that cling to democracies like barnacles to ships, and steadily spread rot through democratic virtues from within. Even capitalism itself, Diane took from Tocqueville, thrives when it is supported by a culture of virtue, a culture open before the judgment of a transcendent God. Capitalism’s corruption erodes the pillars of democracy.
The necessary condition for the forward thrust of a successful democracy is a thriving, inventive, creative economy. Capitalism is not a sufficient condition for the strength of a democracy, but a necessary one. And so Diane turned IRD in the direction of defending and nourishing a democratic culture, through its religious and public culture. What are the primary supports of a free and creative system of political economy? Diane diagnosed them as the suffusion of Jewish and Christian commitments and virtues within them. Without those, she thought, democracies grow sickly. So she hated the “watering down” of Christian convictions, habits of the heart, and culture which she saw occurring among elites in so many Christian churches. This “betrayal of the clerks” (trahison des clerques), she thought, undercut not only Christian and Jewish orthodoxy themselves, but the Republic that stands on them.
In other words, Diane turned IRD towards “cultural ecology,” an “ecology of the human.” The physical earth itself depends on a favorable ecology. But so does the inner life of the human race. An invisible gas of relativism, the dry gas of nihilism, chokes off the air supply to human morality, incapacitates it, suffocates it. Without a morality suitable to human upward striving, democracy will slowly die.
Diane’s emphasis explains why for the last fifteen years so many of IRD’s efforts have been in the direction of restoring American culture to a health that can sustain human dignity and liberty. And in the direction of restoring the Jewish and Christian culture that is the wholesome earth and air and sun of our democracy.
Even at Diane’s too-early death in 2005, a new attack was already being launched on the free world’s free and inventive economies, even within the United States. Some people still (so many years after the ignominious collapse of socialist ideas after 1989 – oh glorious and memorable year -- a year that school children forever more will be asked to memorize along with 1066, 1492, 1776, and 1789) -- so many people still do not recognize that when prosperity is constricted by economic recession or depression, divisions and bitterness seethe. Let me ask the older ones among you. Was this country happier in its democracy under Reagan’s “springtime in America” or during today’s recession? Was there more partisan bitterness now, or these past months? Is there more class warfare on the lips of our leaders now, -- or then?
Under economic bad times, Envy, that most deadly of all the deadly sins, multiplies like a virus. Region is turned against region, class against class, neighbor against neighbor. By contrast, under conditions of prosperity each citizen of a democracy pursues her own happiness, according to whatever path she chooses, without envying those who choose otherwise, or who happen to gain more wealth. Wealth is not the only way, or even the best way, to happiness. Only socialists seem to think so. Depressions and recessions breed envy – the poisonous green gas of bitterness and striking out at others. The best social cures for envy are opportunity, choice, creative work and prosperity.
Fighting envy is the IRD’s main task today. Some of our religious rivals wish to replace democratic capitalism with social democracy. And to that end, they badly misconceive of two great ideals: the common good, and social justice.
3. On What Evidence do Our Rivals Entrust the Common Good -- to the State?
Our rivals claim that Americans must now make “the common good” the central concern of our society. But into this cry they slip a hidden and deadly poison: they mean by “the common good” more new spending by the federal state, more new regulations by the federal state, and the imposition of ever higher taxes by the federal state.
And yet never in the history of this Republic until now – our rivals’ glorious hour -- has the federal state spent more trillions of dollars, dollars it does not have, dollars that it must borrow from our children and grandchildren. Never before has the federal state dreamed up more intolerable, even irrational, and corrupt regulations – paying off this group by tying that group down with silken regulatory ropes.
For example, the NLRB now prohibits a private company, Boeing, from building a huge, badly needed factory in South Carolina, on the grounds that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. Why does a democracy today play politics with democratically arrived at right-to-work laws in 22 states? The answer is obvious and embarrassing. They do this as a favor (in return for partisan votes) to those unions that do not wish individual workers to choose whether to reject union membership, or to accept it.
Our Federal Government says its current first priority is jobs. Then in a highly partisan way, it forbids Boeing’s new jobs in South Carolina. Does this serve the common good? Or does it serve a partisan interest? Let our fellow citizens decide.
What evidence do our friends have, our friends who shout “the common good, the common good,” that the massive “spend and spend” of the last few years has lifted the common good? There is on the contrary a great deal of evidence that it has deeply damaged the common good. Most Americans think our rivals – our good friends on the religious left -- are not on the right track toward the common good, but on the wrong track. In fact, most Americans think the religious left is leading us toward moral and economic disaster.
Our dear friends truly need to bring forth the evidence for their moralistic claims. Overwhelming evidence shows that the pursuit of the common good does not entail statism. It entails a liberated and booming private sector: initiative, invention, and creativity among all our citizens. That is way toward the common good, the common prosperity, the common growth and common happiness.
4. The State as an Instrument of Good
The state can be a very good tool of the common good. It was so when Abraham Lincoln put his powerful moral weight behind the Homestead Act and the Land-Grant College Act. By these laws, the federal government gave a title to so many acres of public land to private citizens – but on condition that they work that land for five or more years. And thus improve it, and multiply its value, by their own individual creativity in their own unique circumstances. Not according to a federal plan.
Then the federal government insisted that no new Territory join the federal union unless it set aside a prescribed number of acres for the founding of state universities, as well as of agricultural and mining universities. Lincoln’s insight was that wealth is generated by ideas, by experimentation, by intellectual creativity. (See his address at the Wisconsin State Fair, in 1858). If America were to become a developed nation, Lincoln saw with early genius, it would do so by way of intellect and invention. Not as a slave culture, but as a free culture, becoming prosperous by the creative minds of free individuals.
Please pause to note the beauty of these interventions by the federal state at the behest of President Lincoln: Neither in the Homestead Act nor in the Land-grant Universities Act did the federal government set out to manage the decisions of the recipients. On the contrary, the federal government set American citizens free, and trusted their creativity, the creativity of ordinary American people. In the old days, our government trusted the American people. Today they do not trust us with anything. They regulate everything, down to the tiniest detail of our daily lives. We are the least free “free American citizens” in our nation’s history.
Our friends who shout “the common good, the common good” seem to think that the common good entails giving our resources to government, and letting government manage our quest for energy independence, and command us to wear seat belts (setting off a harsh buzz in the car if we do not). They seem to think that the federal government should tie us up with thin silken cords until we cannot move without supervision. And they think all this – this statism – will benefit the common good.
Where is their evidence?
Our friends also seem to think that the way to achieve “social justice,” that is, to help the poor, is to give more money to the state to distribute (or whatever it does with the money, once it flows into Washington’s coffers). Our friends equate social justice with turning over to the state the project of “fighting” poverty.
Where, dear friends, is your evidence that this dependence on the state actually helps the poor?
The 2011 Census Report on Poverty and Income, put out just last month, displays contrary evidence. After pouring out three trillion dollars (going on four trillion) during the last three years, in the name of helping the poor and creating jobs, the federal state’s failure is breathtaking. The ranks of the American poor have swollen to the highest number (46.6 million) since poverty figures first began to be recorded, 52 years ago. The percentage of Americans who are poor (14.1 percent, or nearly one in seven) is the highest in seventeen years. Is giving so much of taxpayers’ money to the state helping the poor?
As for our vast transfer of taxpayers’ money to the state, in the name of creating jobs, how many jobs does the country have today, after the spending party gained majorities in both houses and a President in the White House?
In 2007, in the penultimate year of President Bush, the number of Americans employed was 146 million. In his last year, 2008, the number of the employed, undermined by the collapse of the bad loans issued by Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, which over more than ten years refused to accept reforms to avert this collapse of their house of cards, utterly predictable (and well predicted, in book after book by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute)—the number of the employed fell to 143.3 million.
By the end of 2010, after spending almost a trillion dollars on a stimulus package that did not work, the current Administration had only 139.2 million workers, 4.1 million fewer jobs than in President Bush’s last year. That was predictable, given President Obama’s economic ideas and policies. And it came at the cost of four trillion dollars of new deficits. Does that, too, help the common good?
Those who insist that the only (or the best) way to achieve the common good is to give more resources (and control) to the federal state, had better go looking for some evidence somewhere, that undergirds their self-righteousness. They insist that others of us, who do not support the expenditure of more state money, are immoral.
Yet the first moral obligation, Blaise Pascal wrote, is to think clearly. And with evidence.
What is true for the common good is also true for social justice. Those who insist that the test of social justice is giving more tax revenues to the state need to display their evidence.
For myself, a mountain of evidence convinces me that Thomas Sowell is right: Giving money to the state in order to help the poor is a little like trying to feed the swallows by feeding the horses. The swallows get very little out of it.
More Americans moved out of poverty in the fifteen years before the federal state’s War on Poverty than after it. Freedom, enterprise, and work did that.
The defense of the common-sense ideas that make our Republic work is still the raison d’etre of this humble but amazingly successful organization, IRD. For IRD’s focus even today, we owe so much to Diane Knippers.
Three months before Diane’s much too early death in 2005, Time magazine named her one of the twenty-five most influential Evangelicals in America, up there with Billy Graham, the great Chuck Colson, and that tiny band of others.
With IRD’s tiny budget of about one million dollars per year, Diane rocked the religious world. She also helped to rock a good many decayed dictatorships, some of which are still tumbling to the dust, by the month, even as we meet here. The social ideas of Judaism and Christianity (liberty, fraternity, equality, for instance, and mercy, justice, love and second chances), once suffused through the liberties of a genuine democratic republic, are today even more potent forces in the larger world, even more so than in earlier times.
Our hats are off to you tonight, Diane.
Watch over us!
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