Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com Christian ethics. Poverty. Political theology. Thu, 10 Aug 2017 17:53:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Notes on Locke http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2017/08/10/notes-on-locke/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2017/08/10/notes-on-locke/#comments Thu, 10 Aug 2017 17:53:20 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=968 I stand accused of misrepresenting Locke on two fronts: first, I’m charged with wrongly alleging his “secularity”; second, I’m charged with wrongly crediting him with the development of an absolute theory of property rights. (Perhaps more generally, I stand accused of being: insufficiently enthusiastic about the United States, “woke”, and too Catholic. I won’t bother disputing these latter claims because they are all true.)

Instead, let me address the two claims about Locke. I am quoted at this Acton panel, wherein I argued against (inter alia) child labor, payday loans and Christian libertarianism, saying the following:

“It’s really by the time we get to liberal property theorists like Locke that you see them moving away from this medieval tradition of property and from the patristic tradition and they move to an intentionally secular theory of what property is—to an ontology of property: that it is a thing with a metaphysical relationship to a person that can be absolutely owned, dominated, controlled, and that though you may have moral obligations or whatever to do different things with the property that you absolutely own because of that metaphysical relationship it becomes immoral and unallowable for a civil authority to intervene, so this is a big transformation in the way we think about property.

And it really gets going at the Reformation and then it’s fully realized in people like Locke and other liberal property theorists from these liberal property theorists we get where we are today and thinking about absolute ownership, absolute rights to property—a property right that suggests a metaphysical relationship between people and things that is inviolate in terms of civil authority and perhaps even separate from civil authority.”

1.) On whether Locke is “secular” 

I don’t claim Locke “was secular”; I claim he was part of a transition away from thinking of property rights in (the teleological) terms of Christian doctrine and toward thinking of property rights in the modern liberal way. This is true, and it’s true that the modern liberal way of thinking of property rights is secularized. Let me explain.

“N’a jamais fini de se débattre contre Dieu,” said Proudhon, the struggle against God is never finished. No one is entirely secular, because we all owe our intellectual origins to a tradition steeped in theology. Indeed, secular property theories have religious origins, as I have argued, and even Hobbes, who my interlocutor Shelton cites as the true Enlightenment secularist, was a profoundly theological thinker, as Matthew Rose argues eloquently here. To quote Rose: “The politics of Leviathan is the politics of the Bible, and the Bible, Hobbes insists, is all about politics.”

That we find much Biblical quotation in Locke is, therefore, no reason to assume him an automatic ally of Christianity: At least, not if we stipulate that Hobbes isn’t such an ally, since his writing is also full of Biblical quotations. Now that we have Hobbes and Locke on the same side of the equation, it’s easier to see what I mean when I point to Locke as a thinker who participated in the secularization of property talk.

Locke reasoned with pieces and parts of scripture, sure, but not in a necessarily Christian way. His reasoning did not follow the logic or narrative arc of scripture, especially where anthropology was concerned. Per William Cavanaugh:

“The crucial point here is that the Fall simply does not apply. Locke derives the right of private property through labor from God’s command to subdue the earth — which comes from Genesis 1:28, pre-Fall — but combines it with God’s command to labor and till the earth, which is…a post-Fall curse, given to the man as God’s punishment in Genesis 3:17. Thus does Locke combined to passages from Genesis — one pre-Fall, one post-Fall — into a kind of seamless argument for what is the “natural” condition of humankind. Unremitting toil, inequality, and the enclosure of the commons is not a symptom of the Fall, but simply the way that God and Nature have arranged to make the best use of the creation.” 

Locke is thinking with scripture, but he is ignoring what scripture itself thinks about the human condition. No longer does the prelapsarian state reflect the true nature of man; neither does the postlapsarian state. The difference between them is obliterated altogether, and the Fall itself, crucial in Christian theology, is elided. From here, Locke goes on to construct his theory of private property.

Was Locke “secular”? No, and neither was Hobbes. Why are there incoherent pieces in Locke’s thinking about theology and property? To quote A.P. Martinich: “The straightforward interpretation of Hobbes’ espousal of odd views is that he held odd views.” I think the same of Locke. He was a conflicted person in a conflicted age, and the same will be said of all of us one day. But the conclusion to draw from the observation that Locke wasn’t entirely secular is not that he was entirely Christian; the passage above is nicely demonstrative of important departures from very meaningful pieces of Christian doctrine. Rather, as I’ve argued, he was part of a transitionary period.

2.) On whether Locke provides for “absolute” property rights

My husband and I are both fascinated by Locke, and before we had our baby, he used to read to me from his treatises. “Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?” he would say. Shelton points out that Locke was really a radical, maybe even a precursor to Marx, because of his Christian-based argument that there are limits to moral property acquisition. This argument took me back to those nights when Matt would read to me, because Matt posed this argument years ago, teasingly, based on our conversations. Here is my husband arguing Locke is really quite Christian, and here he is arguing Locke is no friend to libertarians.

Locke’s argument goes like this: the way unclaimed material becomes ‘property’ is that one mixes one’s labor with it, and yet even if one could mix one’s labor with the whole earth, the whole earth would not then become one’s property, because it’s morally wrong to usurp so much that others lack.

It’s a weird proposition on a couple of fronts. First, it doesn’t make sense. How do you mix your labor with something? Other than my will to believe this is how property is made — that is, my will to believe property acquisition is inherently just — how do I know this is happening? “I know this is mine now, because I mixed my labor with it, which tells me it’s mine now.” This is tautology.

All that aside, Locke creates with this theory a real moral imperative for absolutely private property. See:

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

What you have here is a curious double-movement. When you mix your labor with creation, creation transforms into private property, which by nature of being mixed with your own labor, is a demi-you. (For the record, Augustine himself argued this is silly.) But then there’s a proviso at the end: at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. 

The problem is that there’s no obvious connection between the theory and the proviso. There’s an incoherence: Locke’s first move is to describe in metaphysical terms how creation turns into property: that is, by mixing yourself with it, imbuing it with your own rights. But from whence comes the proviso, and what could it possibly mean? (“Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?”) On first glance, it appears to suggest that one can only truly own what they need, and that what they purport to own that causes others to lack isn’t truly theirs.

But this would be an internal contradiction. The labor-mixing process Locke supplies is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes a metaphysical process. If I mixed my labor with the whole world, I would own it all, if Locke’s process is correct. So perhaps his proviso should be interpreted to mean: you shouldn’t go mixing your labor with the whole world, leaving nothing for anybody else.

But what if I do? Therein lies the rub.

That’s why I go after Locke: Not because he argued people ought to go claiming absolute property rights to the detriment of the poor, but because he supplied a metaphysical process argument that gave them extra-Christian arguments for doing so. In this sense, Locke does originate property rights arguments that would take on an absolutist character, regardless of what he intended. Thus he wound up quite far afield from Augustine and Thomas, contra Shelton.

On the subject of whether I read charitably or not, I certainly think I do. But in love and caritas, truth comes first. Locke himself never minded a row; on the contrary, he made Robert Filmer famous with a deliciously brutal smackdown of his posthumously published Patriarcha. Far be it from us to deny him the same pleasure.


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On losing faith http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/12/24/on-losing-faith/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/12/24/on-losing-faith/#comments Sat, 24 Dec 2016 03:32:35 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=946 A week before my daughter was born, my husband lost his job. It was unexpected. I came home from work just a little early one day because I thought I had felt a contraction — I didn’t know what they would feel like, having never given birth, and so I thought every pain could be a sign of labor.

When I came inside, I saw my husband’s shoes by the door. It wasn’t time for him to be in yet. I looked up and there he was, sitting in the rocking chair we had bought for me to nurse our baby in. And he was slouched with his head in his hands, so then I knew.

I don’t remember much else about what happened then, other than that at some point I pulled so hard on the medal I was wearing — a miraculous medal, imprinted with an image of the Virgin Mary — that the clasp broke.

When I gave birth a few days later, the pain was unmistakable.

My husband and I came home from the hospital and looked for jobs for him. I nursed our baby in the rocking chair we had bought. It was hot and still, and sometimes when a job seemed especially promising I would go to church and light a candle and pray, though I still hadn’t fixed the clasp on my medal, and didn’t wear it. It laid on the surface of my dresser and was buried in short order under towels and rags and baby clothes.


I had felt, maybe due to all my prayers, that things would soon look up. And I thought so, too, aside from feeling. It made sense that things would get better quickly.

In late June, while my husband was out shopping for a suit to interview in, he received a phone call from his father in Texas. My husband’s sister, he said, had been murdered. She was 29 years old.

When my husband came home, I was in bed with the baby. Both she and I were glazed with sweat. Our bed is near a window; outside there are only the staggered roofs of other buildings, plain and tan, some of them sometimes crested by birds. I had fallen asleep watching crows rising up in the shimmering heat.

When he woke me up all I could hear through my daze was that she passed away.I looked in horror at the baby — her? And then, no: I realized.

It was only later that he used the word murdered. A man had attacked Heather in the trailer she shared with two other women, a mother and her adult daughter who had previously lived out of their car. She was engaged and looking forward to her impending marriage. She had sporadically studied accounting after high school but spent most of her time waitressing at Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster. She had always been poor; she had never known anything other than being poor.

Red Lobster helped pay for her funeral service. Dimly I thought of God’s love for the poor. Where could it have gone? Where was He now? I thought these things dimly.

My husband flew to Texas, and I slept with our daughter, only a few weeks old. She woke up often then, hungry, and I would nurse her. In between I drifted in and out of a fitful twilight sleep, still aching from birth and worry. I wanted to see my husband but I had run out of encouraging things to say. We were both exhausted. I would try to pray only for my mind to wander into broken thoughts. I had a strange dream.

In my dream, I wandered down the aisle of some kind of noisy, crowded theater. At the front, where a stage should have been, were confessionals. I went inside one to repent and there was no priest there, only a screen with the face of a priest. I said to him: “Father, I’ve lost my faith.”


I should tell you the story of my medal.

In 2014, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery, and my mother visited her in the hospital often. It was a long recovery.

One evening my mother came home from the hospital and showed me something.

“I spotted this in the parking lot,” she said. There was a dull nickel-colored oval in her hand. On one side I could make out the image of the Blessed Virgin, but the other side was coated with chewed gum and dirt.

I am a convert. My mother, a Methodist, wasn’t sure what this pendant could be. Neither was I.

I cleaned it up with dish soap and tweezers. It had been scraped on the asphalt, but I could read the words: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. 

The next time I was out, I took the medal with me in a plastic bag. I brought it to a jewelry shop and had it put on a simple black cord with a lobster clasp, and from then on I wore it very often, thinking as much of whoever had lost it in the hospital parking lot as of my mother who picked it up out of the filth for me as of the Blessed Virgin herself.


At length the police were able to tell us that they had caught Heather’s killer driving her car, which he had stolen. She had been stabbed in the neck. There was very little more they were willing to say.

A couple of job opportunities seemed very likely. I would pray and ask all my friends to pray. I trust that they did.

But nothing came through.


For a while during the long, hot summer I entertained the superstitious idea that things would not look up for my family until I had the clasp of my medal repaired. I did not think I was being punished for breaking it, but I thought I had damaged some trust by doing that, and that I couldn’t fix it until I did some penance by way of cost and trouble.

But things got in the way. There is so much to carry when you go out with a baby. I would always think of taking it with me when I thought we might pass by a jewelry shop, but some other thing — a bottle, a rattle, a just-in-case bundle of socks — would always occupy my hands instead.

Summer stretched on. Our baby grew; she did not wake up so much in the night anymore, and she could smile and laugh. I prayed for the soul of my sister-in-law, and for my husband’s family and my husband, who occupied himself with our baby so as not to dwell to much on everything that was lost. I didn’t rush to light candles for possible jobs anymore. It didn’t seem to be any use, and I thought I had made my hope on that front clear enough. God would listen or He wouldn’t.

I had days of greater and lesser certainty. Mostly I thought God was listening. That was the fact that made me feel so restless: Why are You listening so quietly? I know You’re there. A whisper of doubt sometimes passed through my thoughts: You’re only thinking like this because it’s likely another job will come along. If it were something less likely, you wouldn’t feel so sure. 


In August I visited my gynecologist’s office for a postpartum checkup. Everything looked to be in order. She asked me if I had felt sad since the baby had been born, or hopeless or lost. She asked if I had spent many hours crying.

I lied to her. But on the way home, in the still midday street with sun flooding upward from the pavement, I impulsively stopped my taxi short of my apartment building.

Instead I departed from the road into the cavernous darkness of a church.

It wasn’t time for confession but there was a priest in the sacristy who I asked, when he emerged, if he would hear my confession. He led me by the shoulder to the confessional where I knelt down and rested my forehead on my folded knuckles.

I don’t have any more faith, I told him.

But you’re here, he said. He was patient. It took a long time for me to say anything. Slowly I recounted everything that had happened over the last few months, though I didn’t tell him about my medal — somehow even then I was still too cowardly to tell him about my medal.

He listened. He said, at last, that while faith can be a comfort, it can also torture you. It can tear at you in times like these, he said, with his hand fixed like a claw. Because you know everything could be made better. But it isn’t. 

The line between religion and magic, I learned in school, isn’t clear. But many scholars of religion agree that one important division is that while magic is private and crisis-oriented, religion is public and its rituals have no specific, short-term, earthly goals.

Christianity has no magic, and that may be just as well.


Eventually a job came along. The way that it happened was very prosaic, the way most jobs are. Nothing about it felt miraculous. I couldn’t discern any sign in it, but I know there must be one. It isn’t always important, I now think, to feel moved. Sometimes faith is an act of will. Maybe it mostly is.

What can I say: That my faith wasn’t injured? It was wounded.

But wounded things heal.

By the fall our baby had grown so much she could no longer fit into her first baby clothes. I decided to put all of them away for the next baby, and so went through our apartment gathering up every sock and onesie marked for a baby up to three months. In doing so I uncovered my medal, still looped on its broken cord.

I was never going to have it fixed, I realized. It wasn’t realistic. Having the clasp of a cord repaired was no longer possible in the scheme of the life I had now.

Nor did I have to. I slipped it from the cord and onto an unbroken silver chain I’d bought someplace a long time ago. It looked different, but wore just the same.

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Speech for the Yale Political Union — “Religion has no place in government” http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/11/16/speech-for-the-yale-political-union-religion-has-no-place-in-government/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/11/16/speech-for-the-yale-political-union-religion-has-no-place-in-government/#comments Wed, 16 Nov 2016 13:16:43 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=942 This speech was given before the Yale Political Union on November 15th 2016. The resolution was “religion has no place in government,” and I was asked to argue the negative position. Dr. Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, argued the affirmative position.

I first want to thank you all for inviting me here to discuss politics and religion, two of my favorite subjects, and perhaps incidentally, the two things you shouldn’t discuss in polite company. I like to think that’s part of why these topics retain such an air of tension and mystery — because it isn’t often we share our thoughts about them in conversation with our friends, colleagues and peers. And that’s a shame. Being that these two categories comprise many of the contours of our public and private lives, it’s worthwhile to give them thorough consideration, both apart and together. And so I’m happy to be here, and hope I can help bring some clarity to all of our thinking on the question of whether religion has a place in government.


First, I’d like to take a moment to thank Dr. Lindsay for joining us here. Dr. Lindsay has done so much in the way of thinking on these topics and has contributed a great deal to our shared understanding of them, and I so appreciate that contribution, and wanted to express my gratitude for him putting aside the time to talk with me here today.


*** *** ***


That religion has no place in government is both a positive and normative statement, by which I mean it can be read both ways: as either a statement of fact, that there simply is no place for religion in government; or as a statement with moral intention, that there ought to be no place for religion in government.


These two readings are related but not the same. They are related both because whether something is so is no argument for its being so, and because, things that are nonetheless often carry moral inertia, and justify themselves by their being. So it’s worthwhile to consider the two propositions apart.


I’d like to begin by considering the definition of religion.


The etymology of the word is contested. By the time of Saint Augustine, roughly the fifth century, the Latin word religio was in use with regard to Christian practice; Augustine himself used the term from time to time, though in City of God he expressed dissatisfaction with it, writing: “The word ‘religio’ might seem to express more definitely the worship due to God alone…yet both the uneducated and best educated use the word to express….the observance of social relationships. (X.1)” Augustine approved of an etymology of religio common to Latin grammarians which attributed it to the root ligare, ‘to bind.’ (Consider our English ligament.) But other ancient sources, including Cicero in De Natura Deorum just as credibly connect religio with relegere, a Latin verb meaning to go over again and again, as in reading, thought, and so on. In this case religio would anchor itself not in a sense of being bound, but in a sense of having an overwhelming central concern.


This perhaps shines some light on how religious came to indicate in the Middle Ages clergy who belonged to orders as opposed to diocesan clergy who were attached to particular regions of church administration. There were therefore religious priests and secular priests — a very strange concept to modern ears! — because some had adopted the special concerns of specific groups, as Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and so on, and some were only associated with geographical areas.


But everyone was, in the sense we now employ the term, religious.


With modernity religio assumed its present meaning, a “universal genus of which the various religions are species (Cavanaugh)”; this generic usage of religio was essentially unknown to the medieval and ancient worlds, where even religio Christiana was used not to designate everything related to Christianity, but only a distinction between the practice of the Christian faithful and the Roman pagans, who were said to have only superstitio, which was idolatry (Feil.)


In fact, some cultures — notably the ancient Greeks — had no expression to match our ‘religion’, and apparently didn’t need one. This background is helpful in that it reveals that the term itself is doing some rather hefty work, that is, relegating certain modes of thinking, certain behaviors, certain ideas, certain images and words to membership in a genus shared by other species which, upon further inspection, they might have precious little in common with. Religion is an inherently tendentious concept.


Our best scholars, in fact, can’t agree on what it might mean. “Religion is a belief in spiritual beings,” writes Edward Burnett Taylor, the first cultural anthropologist; “by religion,” writes George Frazer in The Golden Bough, “I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to be direct and control the course and nature of human life”; “religion is,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine”; Emile Durkheim, an early sociologist, considers religion to be “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, and all those who adhere to them,”; Durkheim also says, in the very same The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that religion is “the self-validation of a society by means of myth and ritual,”; for Paul Tillich, religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence,” and for modern sociologist Clifford Geertz, “[Religion is] a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long lasting moods and motivations…. by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”


Oftentimes you’ll hear, in popular culture, various things not typically called religions described as such to critique them; most recently, Harvard scholar Harvey Cox argued the market itself, and free market economics more generally, constitute a kind of religion. To which I say: sure, I guess. Religion is a loose and expansive term and not a very revealing one, I think; in fact, I tend to suspect it occludes more than it illuminates by likening fundamentally unlike themes and practices conceived of by radically different people in entirely different places and times.


So then: does religion have a place in government? Obviously it does, as a descriptive matter. Consider all its constituent parts: its symbols, words, virtues, experiences and, yes, its ethics — they’re all evident in our own government, from the mentions of God on our money to the silent prayers of politicians facing down crisis to the private mixture of moral considerations made by voters on their way to the booth. Governments are made up of people, and people incorporate the symbols and ethics of religion into their reasoning and interior lives whether or not they articulate especially religious reasons for the political choices they come to.


Further, and again as a descriptive matter, we’re surrounded by a thoroughgoing civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah writes:


“What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion – there seems no other word for it – while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”


This civil religion is the reason stepping into a stately government building or listening to an impassioned presidential address can be a genuinely moving experience. It’s why burning a flag is anything more than the concern of a fire marshal, and why we can reckon our lives as much by national holidays and anniversaries as by liturgical calendars.


It’s why Abraham Lincoln said in an 1861 speech that he could “recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”


The discovery of civil religion is one of those interesting consequences of the contemporary definition of ‘religion’ as a relatively broad category. There’s no construal of ‘religion’ in the modern sense that would include, say, both Daoism and Judaism but not the veneration of our American martyrs, from Kennedy to King, or the mythic creation story surrounding our founding. And this isn’t a unique fact of American public life.


Religions are often described in terms of experiences of the transcendent or transformative, or in terms of temporal practices or actions which refer to the eternal. And so, it seems, are states — as in Lincoln’s address. This is not just an indication of a particular American civil religion, but a general fact of modern nation states: They bear, as Hegel argued, a sacral quality. States call us, at times, to die for them — for the very idea of them — and it’s hard to imagine someone offering that sort of eternal sacrifice for a purely contractarian purpose. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:


“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”


Which most of us would, I think, be loath to do. AT&T does not strike me as transcendent or transformative. But at my old college at Cambridge I remember a wall outside our chapel (and noticed this afternoon that you, too have such a wall on your beautiful campus — you, too, live with these ghosts, and love these dead) where the names of those alumni killed in the first World War were inscribed, and the inscription address announced that the monument should:


“call to remembrance those brothers of ours, who in the studies and playing-fields of the College, and in worship in this Chapel, learned those lessons of self-devotion which – at a call as Christian and English gentlemen they could not disobey – led them to surrender their lives and all that in life was beautiful and hopeful and dear.”


It seems to me that — as a descriptive matter — religion indeed has a place in government.


*** *** ***

I have said this positive statement has a relation to the normative one. I’ll now turn to the idea that religion ought to have a place in government.


I don’t mean to argue for theocracy; I think it’s sufficient to maintain that the religious should, when engaging in political life, feel free to articulate publicly their religious motives and reasoning.


There are several reasons why. The first is that law both expresses and enforces certain moral truths which cannot be divorced from broader moral systems, and for the religious — those sharing communities of some overwhelming concern — it’s disingenuous nigh impossible to deliberate on what truths the law should express without citing their religious priors.


And this, secondly, allows their co-religionists to hold them responsible for their claims. The tendency of liberal societies to bifurcate religion and politics into two separate spheres — one private, one public — encourages religious participants in political deliberation to equivocate somewhat about their motives and beliefs, as it’s not really possible in that political context to interrogate them. Yet it should be. As long as the religious are going to participate in governance, it’s going to be better, not worse, to argue out the legitimacy of their claims on their own grounds, rather than accounting for all religiously motivated argumentation as both void and unassailable on the grounds of its privacy. Politics are already religious, as I have argued, and are intrinsically so; in that case, it’s better that we be clear and direct about our convictions than cloak them in a flimsy veil of privacy.


Thirdly, the language of religion often renders legible phenomena that are illegible to the rationalist lens of the modern nation state alone. Consider, for example, evil. In The Death of Satan, historian Andrew Delbanco writes in order to document the “incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back” due to his conviction that “if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” The Augustinian conception of evil as privation — a lack, a deficiency, a receding toward non-being — requires an ontology that acknowledges in being some good, and here again we have strayed into the stuff of religion. But this conception of evil is especially important, Delbanco argues, because by locating the source of evil in our own deficiencies, “it offers something the devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves.” A lesser explanation of evil couldn’t necessitate such an absolute offering up of one’s own humility and vulnerability, which is, incidentally, exactly the kind of participation that ensures the best of politics.


Lastly, when religion is entirely privatized and politics dominates the public realm totally, there is little with sufficient moral weight to check political hegemony. There is a reason totalitarians seek to swiftly snuff out religious dissenters, and there is also a reason that religions nonetheless endure. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were able to resist hegemonic — and unjust — political exercise not out of reserves of private religious virtue, but because they produced religious objections to the evils of their respective states and pressed these cases politically, in public. From this perspective it is easy to imagine why the modern nation-state might insist that religion be privatized and ejected from the public sphere; it should be equally easy to imagine why we should resist that effort.


And this doesn’t apply only to fringe cases where extreme resistance measures (as against fascist regimes or racist violence) would otherwise be excused even by garden variety liberals. Indeed, destructive ideologies exert hegemonic control over our everyday, ordinary lives, and in many cases seek to exclude religious reasoning much to their benefit. Eugene McCarraher argues, for example, that in contemporary society religion has been displaced by a kind of Mammon-worship precisely o facilitate the dominance of global capitalism: “Far from being ‘secular’ modes of economic and political rationality,  the nation-state and the capitalist market are unmistakable forms of fetishism, sacral orders which captivate and mobilize our perverted celestial desires.” McCarraher cites the Freudian “money complex” and Marxist “commodity fetishism”, in which the value of objects is imagined to inhere in their material substance rather than in the relationships between persons; Marx himself observed that in this sense commodities are “very strange thing[s], abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”


Since this is the case — that a perverse form of religion dominates our politics and political imagination — then it would be better, as well as orthodox (from my Augustinian perspective) to replace it with a positive, superior religious imagination. This is why in my political writing I argue for as much, and why I do so from an openly Christian position. Some of the most powerful religious forces in politics indeed belong to capital, an unfolding made possible largely by the liberal effort to vacate traditional religion from the ‘sphere’ of political economy in order to, among other things, obliterate formerly limited understandings of property and ownership and replace them with more absolute rights (Ellen Meiskins Wood.) Secularity has thus far done a pretty poor job of resisting this; in fact the rational liberals of the enlightenment are the root cause of it, and for that reason I would resist them not with their own devices, but with open, forthright and robust theology.


Thank you.

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Johns Hopkins Talk — Christianity, Poverty, Welfare http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/04/27/johns-hopkins-talk-christianity-poverty-welfare/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2016/04/27/johns-hopkins-talk-christianity-poverty-welfare/#comments Wed, 27 Apr 2016 19:13:08 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=938 I gave this talk at Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday the 26th. I was asked to both lay out my view of a Christian response to poverty, and to rebut NYU Professor Lawrence Mead’s book “From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor“, published by the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Mead is an advocate of welfare reform and advances a Christian theory of enforced workfare

I. Christian Economic Principles

The word economy comes to us from the Greek oikonomia, meaning (roughly) household management – or more broadly, the right ordering of tasks, resources, the proper procedure of things. The Church fathers use the term to think about divine economy, or God’s methods of dealing with the world in its imperfect state; the Orthodox Church uses the term in a similar way, to refer to the application of Church canons to the daily life of the Church. These uses, though different than our contemporary use of the word, are illuminating for two reasons: firstly, because they remind us that economics is a matter of household management, that is, a matter of rightly ordering the use of our common home; secondly, because they help situate the place of economics in the common life of humankind. For the theologian interested in politics, economics is a matter of determining how best states should manage a particular set of affairs – those having to do with the regulation and use of their resources.

So it’s best to start a sketch for that plan by laying out first principles: in this case, the nature of resources themselves. Understanding what kind of a thing material creation is will help us determine, in Christian terms, what kind of a thing property – not so much a subset of creation as a theory of its fallen state as we’ll see – must be. To get there, I’m going to walk you backward in time through Christian thought.

Pope Francis, in keeping with the vast majority of Christian tradition, views creation as intended for humanity. “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us,” he writes in Laudato Si; humankind was made for stewardship of the earth, a task that belongs to all people in common. Accordingly, all of creation is given to humankind in common. The sentiment that the earth and all its abundance is made for the flourishing of humanity is so utterly common in Christian history that even our liberal philosophers often found themselves submitting as much before Christianity (or, cynically, the veneer of Christianity) became less necessary to advancing liberal thought. From chapter four of Locke’s first treatise on government:

God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.”

This is a gentle formulation of a conception of creation that is expressed less forgivingly by Aquinas, and even less so by the Patristics – among them Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and so. Locke is saying that no legal rendering of property can be just if it allows a person absolute control over resources to the point that others would perish at their whim; such an arrangement would be no more just than allowing a person a claim to the air on their property so absolute that they would be blameless for shutting your windpipe to keep you from inhaling it.

So Locke admits property rights are, within a Christian schema, limited by the nature of property itself: it’s wrong to use a thing contrary to the purpose God intended for it. If the earth was made for human flourishing, manipulating resources to guarantee human demise is straightforwardly sinful. Simple enough.

Two revelations arise out of this reasoning: first, that property is not a metaphysical quality of things; second, that the laws and customs we use to regulate the use of property are provisional qualities of human societies, meant to recover some hope of flourishing in a fallen world. Per Aquinas (ST II-II q 66):

“[It is] not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above. Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”

Aquinas, ever the realist, conditionally agrees with the institution of private property because human beings, due to their sinfulness, have a hard time managing resources otherwise. He observes that private property is a creation of human reason premised upon human agreement: it functions not necessarily contrary to but in accordance with the original intention of creation, so long as custom and law are set up to promote rather than destroy human flourishing. Here he mostly echoes Augustine, who put a finer point on it.
Augustine supposed the introduction of governance, though ultimately a result of sin, was a gift from God meant to remedy a situation in which men could no longer rightly regulate their own impulses. Good governance had, he thought, a better shot at preventing constant antagonism between neighbors than some ill-fated anarchic utopianism. In Augustine’s view, the regulation of private property was one such just function of government:

“God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors. Why? Because God has distributed to mankind these very human rights through the emperors and kings of this world.”

Augustine’s insight here helps us finally distinguish between what the right intent of the institution of private property is, and how the institution itself works – the why and the how, if you will. The intent of private property is to maintain the kind of order that leads to flourishing: that is, to allow all persons the security and stability we need to flourish. Meanwhile, the institution itself functions through various pieces of governance, regulation, and social controls. Taken together, the why of private property tells us the moral parameters within which the how must operate.

We have, in other words, control over how our resources are distributed, via our control over how our governments set up property laws. In fact, property is nothing more than the agreement of law and custom, both (as history demonstrates) entirely within the domain of human control. Having established that much, the question we’re left with shouldn’t surprise you. It stumped the crowd in Luke 3. It troubled Tolstoy.

What then must we do?

II. A Christian Economic Solution

Perhaps now you’re thinking to yourself: that’s all pretty vague. If so, I agree with you. If our holy scriptures, scholastics, and philosophers had succeeded in laying out detailed plans for the management of economies in all places and times, I would be out a hobby, and all that writing would be vastly useless. A good way to think about it, as philosopher Linda Zagzebski points out, is to think about maps.

“Given the limitations of the human mind, we are not able to understand a domain taken as a whole unless we ignore part of the domain we want to understand. The bigger and more complex the domain, the more we have to leave out if we want to understand it…This is a general point about understanding that applies even to the understanding of something as simple as the layout of a city. If every feature of the city was on the city map, the map would be as complex as the city is, and the map would not help us understand the layout. So the map leaves out many things. (From “Exemplarist Virtue Theory.”)”

What we strip out to best make practical use of the principles we’ve discerned are broad, hulking categories. If we want to understand how to apply what we’ve established to the politics of poverty in our country, we can’t imagine “the poor” as they exist all over the world and throughout history; and we can’t imagine our country as an abstract model of a country. Instead we have to come to grips with who the poor really are, and who we are as a nation. Let’s start by meeting the poor.

A. The American Poor

In 2014, according to census data, 22.9 percent of Americans – 72.4 million people – had incomes below the federal poverty line, before taking into account various government programs that lend them aid. This group was not, contrary to popular thought, comprised mostly of non-working, able-bodied adults.

Of this set, 24.2 percent were children; 27.7 percent were elderly; 15.7 percent were disabled; 5.7 percent were students; 7 percent were fulltime caregivers; 6.5 percent were unemployed; 7.8 percent were fully employed but still impoverished; and 5.4 percent were none of the above.

Taken together, children, disabled, and elderly people make up the lion’s share of America’s poor. The remainder, students, caregivers, and the unemployed, all ‘work’ in some sense – they are perhaps not doing labor market work, but they are either looking after others – work that, were it not done by them, would have to be done by someone – or preparing to enter the labor market at some point in the future. Compared to all of these people, the number who might be willfully non-working is a mere 5.4 percent, only about 3.9 million people.

B. The United States of America

So these are our poor: the infirm, the old, the young, those in search of work, those looking after family members, those in some form of school or training, and a small remainder whose exact reasons for being in poverty are unclear.

Who are the rest of us? Members, for one, of one of the richest nations on earth; citizens of a country, for another, which is remarkably successful at reducing poverty when it so chooses. Consider the very populations we’re looking at.

Per the 2014 data: before government programs, 23.8% of children lived in poverty; 43.7 percent of elderly people did; 49.9 percent of disabled people; 27.6 percent of students; 31.2 percent of carers, 30.8 percent of unemployed people; 4.9 percent of fully employed people, and 31.4 percent of those in the ‘other’ category.

After government programs, the landscape is entirely different. While more than 20 million elderly people are poor prior to social security, only 4.59 million are after; for disabled persons on SSDI the number drops from 11.3 million to 6.9 million, with lesser benefits for children, carers, students, and the unemployed – all of whom enjoy programs less robust than the elderly and disabled, who receive – perhaps unsurprisingly – checks in the mail.

The problem of poverty, aside from limiting the participation of the poor in American society and democracy, comes with its own host of objective harms: Poor people are known to suffer higher rates of several diseases, including asthma and diabetes. 42.4 percent of women who had abortions between 2000 and 2008 lived below the poverty line, according to the medical journal Obstetrics & Gynecology; indeed, some 73 percent of women, per a 2005 Guttmacher study, said they sought abortions because they did not have the money to raise children. And, while life expectancy is rising for those Americans with high incomes, a 2014 analysis of the US Health and Retirement Study found that the poorest Americans’ life expectancies are either stagnating or declining. The report found that while a 55-year-old man in the wealthiest decile could expect to live 34.9 more years, a 55-year-old man in the poorest decile could hope to see only 24.2 more years. For the wealthiest versus poorest women, the differential was similar: at 55 years old, a difference of roughly ten years divides women’s life expectancies.

Everyone dies. But when even life itself is in better supply to the wealthy than the poor, and it’s evident from reviewing numerical data that we are capable of reducing poverty through relatively simple programs, it is hard not to be reminded of Locke’s proviso, inherited from Aquinas, inherited from Augustine and his Patristic cohort, inherited from Jesus Christ, whose own wisdom is simply and wholly the truth: there is nothing more precious than human life, for which the Son of God himself laid down his own; and you are your brother’s keeper. Based on these thoughts, it makes sense to me to use all the tools at our disposal – including the state, with its rightful dispensation to manage its resources – to remove the poor from poverty in the simplest, most effective ways we can accomplish. To me, this is one of the foremost duties of a moral state.

III. Social Democracy & Christianity

When I lived in the United Kingdom, I was struck by a curious frustration: my inability to do anything that felt quite like paying for use of the NHS. The system was outstanding in my experience – I never waited more than a day or so to see a doctor, and paid little for prescription medications that are, in the United States, worryingly expensive after insurance pays its dues. I wanted to give something back, but aside from dutifully paying the VAT, there wasn’t anything for me to do. So I donated blood. At the drive cite on one occasion (a Methodist church, incidentally), I chatted up the nurse drawing my blood. Her favorite thing about the NHS, she said – for whatever problems it might sometimes have – was that “whether you’re well-to-do or not very fortunate, it’s there for you.”

What a novel idea I thought then, happy that my blood would be soon flowing through somebody else’s veins, no longer clearly my blood or theirs – part of a community stock of goodwill, really. These kinds of programs invite the participation of the community, and in their formulation make an informative statement about their states’ view of humanity: that we are all equal and equally worthy of living, and that we all have a role to play in the life of society. That’s a strong endorsement of a Christian sentiment that underscores the importance both of individual life and community; for that reason, I find myself supporting several universal-style programs to promote equality.

You might be surprised how many such programs we already have here in the USA. We have, for instance, universally available public school for kindergarten through high school; we have social security and supplemental security income, which, taken together, blanket a significant portion of the elderly – and have been fabulously successful at reducing the scourge of elderly poverty.

Were it left up to me, I would invite more of the same. Consider, for example, a universal child allowance (in lieu of proposed tax credits, which tend to favor the well-to-do, small families): at a rate of $300 per month, such a program would have reduced child poverty by 51 percent in 2012, lifting 6.8 million children out of poverty along with 4.7 million parents. Per my husband, Matt Bruenig:

“A flat benefit like this would have cost around $265 billion in 2012. But recall that I am saying we should get rid of the Child Tax Credit (saving $57 billion) and the personal exemption for children (savings unknown). Thus, the net cost of the total reform is considerably lower than that, and would amount to somewhere a little above 1% of GDP. This is unbelievably cheap. The U.S. tax level in 2012 was 24.3% of GDP according to the OECD. This is one of the lowest in the developed world (UK – 35.2% of GDP; Canada – 30.7%; Australia – 26.5% of GDP; Austria/Sweden/Denmark/Norway/Finland – >40% of GDP).”

I would advocate some form of national health coverage, preferably single-payer; and I likewise support expanded parental leave benefits run through the state, with perhaps proportional benefits worked out with employers as well. These sorts of programs seem to me most supportive of families and children, and are thus often popular with European Christian parties. There is always room to adjust policies as circumstances evolve, but for promoting equality and the good of American families here and now, that slate of programs is at the top of my personal list.

REBUTTAL: An adjusted vision of reciprocity and work

In a revised introduction to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ classic epistolary novel of the bureaucracy of the underworld, he wrote that it isn’t possible for a person to have no good left in them, because in that case there would be nothing left. To me, the same is true of arguments. The ones richest and most fruitful to engage, whether or not one agrees, are fertile for thought because there is good in them.

You have probably gathered by now that Dr. Mead and I do not agree on everything. Dr. Teles would have arranged a very dull debate if we did, and that’s simply not the kind of thing he would do. But I want to preface my response to Dr. Mead’s thoughts with a reassurance that we do agree on very much.

We agree, for instance, that poverty is a problem and something ought to be done to reduce it; more importantly, we agree that there should be goals higher than a simple reduction in poverty; that the state and its laws play a pedagogical role for its citizenry; and especially that the inclusion of all classes of persons in the life of society is integral to any Christian project. Each of these are essential Christian aims, and I am very happy and very much honored to debate how best to go about achieving these aims. That our institutions of higher learning are hosting these kinds of conversations and that the best minds in our country (far more a remark on Dr. Mead’s than mine) are engaging them are, to me, signs of a healthy political imagination.

To begin, I’m going to talk a little about historical Christian welfare activities, and intend to draw a distinction between the maintenance activities performed by the Church and state over the years and charity; then, I’ll take a look at how Christians engaged in both activities have traditionally imagined reciprocity and inclusion; next, I’ll propose problems I see with the forms of reciprocity and inclusion currently on the table in our debate.

I. Historical Christian Perspectives on Welfare

How have Christians historically viewed poverty and poor relief? The answer is of course: many ways, in many places. But some themes are persistent enough to be instructive to us: they bespeak the wisdom of centuries of church teaching, and in many cases reflect times when Christianity had a much stronger presence in governance than it does here and now. They can, in other words, give us a good picture of how Christians coordinate and conceptualize poor relief (to the best of their abilities) when they’re running the show. Here, I’m first going to consider how medieval Christians thought of poor relief and reciprocity, contrasting these views with those Dr. Mead has advanced.

A. Is it charity?

From the medieval perspective, sometimes poor relief is charity, and sometimes it is not. When it is charity, the intent isn’t poor relief per se. There is at the very least something more to it than that. Contrary to conceptions of charity as not-other-regarding – that is, as a purely obligatory function, blind to outcome, entirely ordered toward box-checking for the Lord – medieval charity was, at least in the popular imagination, highly relational. In Medicine and Charity Before the Welfare State, Miri Rubin writes: “What is most striking in popular religious instruction in the later Middle Ages is just such broadness and variety of demands for charitable action, within a powerful idiom of charity and brotherhood.”

Charity could take many forms because love has many expressions and people, in all their difference, have many needs and many preferences. Popular charitable activities in the medieval era ranged from the funding of weddings for poor couples to the coverage of prisoners’ debts to payment for the funerals and burials of paupers. Given the locality of all these events – marriage, imprisonment, death – they were often carried out between people who lived in some proximity to one another, and had reason to think of themselves as part of the same communities. John Bossy writes in Christianity in the West 1400 – 1700:

“It would be idyllic to suppose that medieval charity was a relationship into which money did not much enter. But it was not relevant to the majority of the situations where charity was in question, and all the ‘corporal works of mercy’ (feeding, clothing, hospitality, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead) could perfectly well be carried on without any money changing hands. This was in keeping with the sensible if unheroic view expressed in the canon law that charity was better directed to those with whom one was in some actual relation (that is, one’s kin or neighbors) than to perfect strangers.”

But there were also forms of poor relief that were more strictly that: efforts at alleviating the privations associated with poverty. This system, theoretically parish-based, was imperfect and often exploited; nonetheless its originators, recipients and historians took a somewhat different view of aiding the poor than popular religious instruction aimed at individual lay Christians. Consider John Gilchrist, in The Church and Economic Activity in the Middle Ages:

“The economic revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries created new problems, involving proportionately larger numbers than previously. Also, and this fact is often overlooked, the early Church’s provision for poor-relief had been radically upset. The ancient system no longer held.[...] The papacy circumvented the problem in terms of ecclesiastical administration by encouraging the parish system, and it used the same foundation to provide poor-relief during the rest of the Middle Ages. In addition, there was the charitable work of the various monastic orders and houses and of the religious guilds who tithed their income for that purpose. A useful source of income came from the restitution of ill-gotten gains, the incerta of the usurer, as well as of excessive profits made from trade….Nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it the way that we treat state maintenance today.”

So there was charity – there certainly was charity – but there were also apparently poor relief activities undertaken by the Church and other organizations which functioned in a markedly distinct way from the more relational acts of charity; these acts of ‘state maintenance’, as Gilchrist calls them, were more obviously oriented toward the relief of poverty and maintenance of order. So integral to the establishment of some basic order were these activities that states eventually began to enforce them. (Outcomes varied tremendously across Europe, with poor laws in the north more notoriously punitive than the institutionalized philanthropy developed in the city states of the south.)

“It has usually been maintained that the first activities of the state in the field of poor law were almost entirely negative and repressive, and revealed scarcely a hint of the need for some public relief of the destitute…[Yet] fourteenth-century parliaments were quite aware that a system of public poor relief was necessary, but they did not seek to create one by statute because they assumed that such a system already existed and was adequately defined in the canon law of the Church. When it became evident that the canon law was being broken too flagrantly, the Parliament acted to ensure its more effective enforcement. (Tierney, Medieval Poor Law.)”

The point here is that Christians have, can and should recognize the necessity of two different sets of activities which are both motivated by Christian ethics and involve, at times, overlapping behaviors: charity, which should express our love of God and neighbor, indeed, it should express our love of God through our love of our neighbor; and then forms of poor relief which reflect our duty to order our use of resources rightly, in accordance with the intent of creation. Both forms of behavior are obligatory upon individuals, but the latter is especially obligatory for institutions, like (at some points in history) the Church, and now the state. These entities may also reflect charitable sensibilities, but are less able to carry out actual acts of charity: states don’t have souls, they have duties; they cannot love, but they can appropriately carry out their dispensation to maintain just order.

B. What about reciprocity?

Did the medievals expect reciprocity for their charity? And did that reciprocity help establish community with the poor? Well – yes and yes. But their reciprocity was often of a very different character than that which has been advanced here, and their concerns about so-called able-bodied-beggars should also be illuminating for us.

On the subject of reciprocity, for instance, medievals might have expected – maybe even requested quite forcefully – that the objects of their charity pray for them, on account of the special place the poor seem to occupy in Jesus’ teachings. (It occurs to me that this is the most obvious way to exact some kind of reciprocity from the poor for one’s charity; demanding anything more borders on, well, simply paying someone for regular labor, and perhaps at a cut rate.)

That went on, too, especially after the black plague:

“The first reaction to the Black Death was the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349. Its main purpose was to prevent laborers wandering away from their work to seek higher wages, and, to render this provision effective, it forbade the giving of alms to able-bodied beggars under pain of imprisonment “so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.” (Tierney)
Without presuming bad faith, it does disturb me that the imposition of work as a price for so-called charity results in a not-coincidentally favorable circumstance for the benefactor: a dependent workforce, perhaps paid too little by either employer or state alone to actually build wealth, who are compelled into continued loyalty to employers – despite the conditions of employment – for fear of loss of benefits. One can imagine this prospect was as tantalizing to medieval lords watching the rapid recession of feudalism in the wake of the black plague as it is to employers now.”

II. Mater et Magistra

Ultimately, though, the state does have a pedagogical function, and work is, by many measures, healthy and beneficial. This is a good reason to mount educational campaigns about the social and psychological goods of work. But I would hesitate to premise aid on the fulfillment of work requirements for a few reasons. First, as Cambridge theologian John Milbank points out, to do so would actually be to apply a different standard to the poor than to the rich:

“But if money given to the poor must sometimes require that they give something in return, then this rule must apply also to the rest of us. For if the poor are us, then we are also the poor, at bottom entirely dependent on the bounty of nature and the gifts of other human beings.

It follows that the wealthier should also receive as reward, in terms of salaries, bonuses and state benefits, only what can be justified in terms of both their needs and their social contribution…if workfare invokes mutual fairness then this implies that such a principle should be applied all the way up. And that would be both radical and Christian.”

Any requirement that the poor reciprocate aid with work should be matched with reciprocity for the rich, surely; for the owners of capital, who own but do not work; for the children of the wealthy who receive but do not contribute; for landlords and renters and so on. And yet we don’t often see any such plan advanced – indeed, even the radical left isn’t all that interested in seeing the wealthy non-workers work as much as it is in seeing their wealth redirected to a more just distribution.

Here it’s crucial to recall that the state, through its property laws and economic regulations, controls both market income and transfer income; it sets up the rules of both games, indeed, there’s only one game. If we’re going to use transfer income as a tool to modify the behavior of non-work in the poor, then it’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t use market income as a tool to modify the behavior of the wealthy – or everyone, really.

The possibilities are endless, and needn’t stop at non-work. Why not refuse market or transfer income to any person who has a child out of wedlock? Maybe that sounds too tempting to some. We could as easily refuse transfer or market income to those guilty of having premarital sex, committing adultery, entering into irregular marriages, lying, keeping other Gods before the God of Christianity – you get the picture. Once we’re up for using material privation as a behavior modification tool in a Christian framework, the question becomes: why stop at non-work, a behavior not even listed among the Ten Commandments? Surely our aspirations could be greater.

This is especially the case because non-work itself seems a relatively minor and provisional issue within Christianity; especially when a) we conceive of ‘work’ as contemporary labor market work, quite alien to the ancient world; and b) we suppose that work, through a moral good, must be distributed pretty arbitrarily to able-bodied men and women. Children in the ancient world certainly worked – children in our world today work – yet it’s taken for granted here that they should be excluded from this ostensibly morally worthy endeavor. Conversely, there also arises a demand that so-called welfare mothers work, though work is originally a punishment for Adam, while Eve’s concomitant curse is the pain of childbirth. (The writer of 1 Timothy echoes this provision, saying that it’s through childbirth women are justified.) It is hard to derive from the Bible a general prescription that all persons work because work is an intrinsic good; it is even harder to derive the view that only some persons (not, for instance, the children and elderly) work because work is an intrinsic good for some and not others.

It must also be noted that, as hinted at above, if the issue is, say, sloth or isolation, why labor market work (a relatively modern condition for most people) is the type of work we should assign to everyone. Women who care for their children are doing work: if you doubt it, see what happens when they enter the labor market – they end up paying someone else to do what they were doing previously. Since the very first community is between mother and child, and because Christian tradition places such emphasis on the moral good of motherhood, it’s difficult for me to discern why, exactly, labor market work is herein being valued above mothering; likewise, I can’t understand from a Christian perspective what the point of marriage is in a framework that values labor market work over raising one’s own children, as the bringing forth and raising of children has traditionally been understood to be the point of marriage. If both bearing children and marrying are therefore good only insofar as they submit themselves to labor market work – well, I can barely identify anything Christian in that: it seems rather like a baptized capitalism.

Thus it’s hard for me to work out the Christian ethical obligation to inflict poverty upon those of us who don’t work, in an effort to force them to work.

It seems rather to me that Christianity offers the best guidance when it is allowed to guide in full. When it comes to teaching virtues, it’s best to temper those lessons with love and mercy, as Jesus does, rather than to morph them into punitive measures that put some at a conspicuous benefit over others. Augustine is quick to observe in City of God that one can’t inculcate goodness into others, even when a rule or punishment can produce a behavior that appears, superficially, the same as that motivated by actual goodness. One can teach – and by all means, the state should fulfill its pedagogical role here – but teaching is only one duty, and for states the duty to maintain some equitable order toward flourishing is just as pressing, and, I hope I’ve demonstrated, simply and safely done.

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Portsmouth Abbey Institute Summer Conference Talk — In Defense of Pope Francis’ Economics http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/06/22/portsmouth-abbey-institute-summer-conference-talk-in-defense-of-pope-francis-economics/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/06/22/portsmouth-abbey-institute-summer-conference-talk-in-defense-of-pope-francis-economics/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 22:25:29 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=914 Last weekend I spoke at a conference in Portsmouth, Rhode Island devoted to understanding the Francis papacy. I spoke for 20 minutes and then answered questions, which I think there is video of somewhere. The purpose of my talk was to offer an explanation and defense of Pope Francis’ economics. Here are my remarks in full.

* * *

Portsmouth Abbey Talk: Pope Francis’ Economics

 Hello, and thank you so much for joining us tonight to consider Pope Francis’ contributions to our understanding of economics. I’m thrilled to be talking with you all tonight, and I’m especially grateful to Chris Fisher and the Portsmouth Abbey Institute for putting this important conference together. Chris has been especially indispensible – I suspect at least half of the huge number of emails he must have answered in the past several weeks came from me – so, I wanted to recognize all he has done and to thank him for putting in such an amazing effort.

I hope you have all enjoyed your time here – I expect the contributions made here will help advance dialogue about Pope Francis’ papacy both inside and outside the Church. I know I’m honored to share a speaking schedule this weekend with colleagues and mentors I respect tremendously, and I trust at the end of this conference we will all go forward with a developed and nuanced set of insights into Pope Francis’ tenure as Pope so far.

With this talk, I’m aiming to establish two ideas: first, that there is an extraordinary misunderstanding of Pope Francis’ economics that is largely the result of peculiar American historical tendencies in politics; second, that Pope Francis’ economics represent the most faithful, reasoned approach to contemporary global problems. I will begin with the first effort: that is, untangling the confusion surrounding Pope Francis’ economics.

I. Confusion in Terms

There is a good amount of legitimate controversy surrounding Pope Francis, most of it relating to tone and delivery, which are not small matters. But there is also equally, in my view, a huge amount of controversy surrounding Pope Francis that is totally illegitimate. What controversy am I referring to? Let me share a few headlines with you from the past couple of years.

“The Economist Accuses Pope Francis of Following Lenin” – from Religion News Service.

“Marxists Celebrate Pope Francis” – from Breitbart.

“Is the Pope a Communist?” – from the BBC.

“Pope Francis: a Socialist by Any Other Name” – from Beliefnet.

“Pope Francis: a Liberal Machiavelli?” – from The American Conservative.

Well, there you have it: the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is not only a socialist but a communist, not only a communist but a Leninist, not only a Leninist but a liberal one, and perhaps Machiavellian to boot. This is an extremely perplexing set of labels to settle on the shoulders of a man who John L. Allen estimated would call himself a moderate Peronist if asked, and an even more befuddling litany of charges for someone who has shown no signs of any such affiliations. And yet, I doubt this odd media habit will cease any time soon.

It is the result of a confusion in terms that has situated itself in the marrow of American partisan politics. The American political imagination is deeply confined by our political parties: we imagine one party to be liberal, and the other conservative. Any idea that integrates economic principles typical of the Democratic party is automatically described as liberal, and any idea – heaven forbid! – that integrates economic principles more radical than those typical of the Democratic party are automatically described as some form of Marxism, communism, or socialism. Because we have only two parties, and thus no socialist or communist partisan presence (as is common in some parliamentary democracies) Americans tend to have a very weak understanding of what socialism actually is. The term is therefore applied pretty loosely, to any political tendency to the left of Democrats.

The reality is that both the Republican and Democratic parties are fundamentally liberal: they (let me emphasize: theoretically) seek to maximize citizens’ liberties, and disagree mainly on how best to go about that. Both highly esteem self-determination, individual rights, and personal freedoms. These inclinations play out in a variety of spheres. Without getting into the particulars of liberalism, and with the intent to restrict my comments to economics, it will suffice to say that economic liberalism is a modern innovation with a modern view of the human person, while the Catholic Church is an institution that maintains much continuity with pre-modern thought, and has a very different view of the human person and his place in creation. Where liberal economic thought centers individual freedom, the Catholic approach to economics embraces ‘Personalism’ – a philosophy that considers the human person the primary unit of moral concern, and aims to promote human flourishing. (Pope Saint John Paul II was, incidentally, one of the great architects of Personalism; Pope Francis’ continuation of his work therefore represents anything but a radical rupture with the Church’s recent past.)

Freedom and liberty are a part of our consideration of human flourishing. But they fit into a matrix of values that support people as we journey toward flourishing, which is living oriented to God. It is this central interest – to live lives oriented toward God – that preoccupies Christian ethics, and, accordingly, Christian economics. This sets our approach apart from the liberal approach, and explains – as I hope to demonstrate – the points of departure between Pope Francis and his American detractors.

II. Christian Economic Principles

 The word Economy comes to us from the Greek oikonomia, meaning (roughly) household management. The apostle Paul uses the term with some frequency in his letters to refer to his carrying out of the tasks God has assigned him; the Orthodox Church uses the term in a similar way, to refer to the application of Church canons to the daily life of the Church. These uses, though different than our contemporary use of the word, are illuminating for two reasons: firstly, because they remind us that economics is a matter of household management, that is, a matter of rightly ordering the use of our common home; secondly, because they help situate the place of economics in the Church’s social teaching. Robert K. Vischer explains:

“Catholic social teaching is, by nature, ill-suited to abstract formulation. It can be understood only through exploration in the context of pressing social problems, as underscored by the Church’s consistent and deliberate recitation of relevant real-world circumstances in tandem with invocations of the theoretical principles on which the social teaching is based.”

With regard to economics, then, Catholic social teaching aims to provide moral guidance on the question of how we should manage our resources in our present circumstances. “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion,” Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “yet we cannot help but be concrete…lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one.” To understand the contributions Pope Francis has made along these lines, we must consider the broad principles underlying his thought in the context of the real-world problems facing us today.

First, the broad principles. Pope Francis, in keeping with the whole of tradition, views creation as intended for humanity. “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us,” he writes in Laudato Si; humankind was made for stewardship of the earth, a task that belongs to all people in common. Accordingly, all of creation is given to humankind in common. From sin comes the Fall, and from the Fall, scarcity and, more crucially, the human inability to reliably treat common goods as such. Augustine supposed the introduction of governance, though ultimately a result of sin, was a gift from God meant to remedy this situation: where men could no longer rightly regulate their own impulses, fair governance had a better shot at preventing constant antagonism between neighbors. In Augustine’s view, the regulation of private property was one such just function of government: “God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors. Why? Because God has distributed to mankind these very human rights through the emperors and kings of this world.”

Augustine’s insight here helps us distinguish between what the right intent of the institution of private property is, and how the institution itself works – the why and the how, if you will. The intent of private property is to maintain the kind of order that leads to flourishing: that is, to allow all persons the security and stability we need to flourish. Meanwhile, the institution itself functions through various pieces of governance, regulation, and social controls. Taken together, the why of private property tells us the moral parameters within which the how must operate. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:

“The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone .These are strong words.”

These are very strong words, though perhaps less frightening than certain corners of the political commentariat would have you think: what Pope Francis is emphasizing here is that the institutions governing property relations must orient their work around the principle that all persons are inherently valuable and worthy of flourishing. It is on this count that Pope Francis has called for governments around the world to repair their broken systems of distribution.

III. This Economy Kills

In applying these principles to our current economic situation, Pope Francis has found that poor people around the world are presently victims of “an economy of exclusion,” an economy that kills. “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium, going on to say that “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.”

Pope Francis views the opportunity and prosperity available only to a rarified few as an example of our mismanagement of resources, a failure of our oikonomia. In Evangelii Gaudium he makes as much clear, writing that the sufferings of the poor are a scandal in a time of such abundance. Pope Francis’ vision for redress is not simply to attain “nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people,” he writes, “but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”.This means education, access to health care, and above all participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

This is what Pope Francis means when he calls for “a just distribution of goods.” As we have seen, the Christian ethics of private property are entirely consonant with these projects, and our current circumstances require us to seek them. Since the 1970s, wages for the lowest-income workers have stagnated, and jobs have disappeared. The top 1% of American earners have received 95% of total market income growth in the last several years. Moreover, the top 1% of American families now hold 40% of total wealth, while bottom 50% hold just 1%. Along with a variety of social ills – mistrust, crime, poor health, and declining marriage rates among the poor – inequality on this register is also associated with corruption in government and pervasive unrest. It is a cancer, in other words, that results from our failure to rightly manage God’s gifts to us, and it echoes through every dimension of our lives.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis identifies one source of our ongoing dilemma: “Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. [They show] no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations…Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”

On the other hand, intelligent policy can go a long way towards improving the lives of our poorest, many of them children. Consider the disparities between child poverty in high-inequality countries, like the United States, and low-inequality countries, like the Scandinavian states: The US 21% child poverty rate under the OECD is 5.3x higher than world leader in child poverty reduction, Denmark, with 3.8% child poverty. The level of child deprivation in the US is found not just in relative measures such as poverty rates, but also in absolute measures about how much disposable income they have access to. According to the Luxembourg Income Study, the poorest US children (children at the 5th percentile) have absolute disposable income levels that are near the bottom of rich developed countries. In the mid-2000s (the latest comparable data available), there were 14 countries whose poorest children had more income than our poorest children. Topping the list, Norway and Denmark’s poorest children had 2x and 1.8x the amount of disposable income as US children. These realities are the result of policies aimed specifically at establishing an equitable distribution of resources, for the common good.

It is notable that these countries are not full blown state socialist countries; there is private capital ownership aplenty in Scandinavia. Nor are the policies that ensure their just distribution of goods culturally flattening: Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that he values the diverse cultures of the world, and policies aimed at reducing inequality and achieving an economy of inclusion need not have any impact on the aspects of our American culture that make us unique and vibrant.

We have the resources, therefore, and we know what our obligations are. This is not merely a matter of state governance; it involves the social order as well. Nor should these charges be confused with the wholly separate matter of Christian charity, which concerns caritas, not oikonomia, matters of resource management. (Indeed, Pope Francis emphasized in a sermon last Tuesday that charity is an entirely different moral obligation than humane resource management, where he praised both institutions while distinguishing between them.) What Pope Francis has brought forth is our moral imperative to properly order our loves: it is good to value freedom, self-determination, liberty, and all the rest – but these values must fit into a matrix that ultimately exalts the person, and seeks universal human flourishing. Therefore they cannot be idolized to the exclusion or harm of human persons, which is the situation we now find ourselves in. In Laudato, Pope Francis writes:

“This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus.”

Pope Francis is correct in his analysis and in his moral theology. His message is a gift to our hearts, and I pray it will be a light for our path. Thank you.

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Property-Based Ethics: Environment Edition http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/01/12/property-based-ethics-environment-edition/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/01/12/property-based-ethics-environment-edition/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 02:05:17 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=906 I recently wrote on Dissent’s blog about what property-based ethics look like; namely, people being more upset about looting than shooting. I didn’t think I would have another occasion to provide an example of what property-based ethics are like so soon, but I had forgotten Pope Francis is due to release an encyclical on the environment soon, which has US conservatives positively seething.

In Forbes, Steve Moore accused Pope Francis of advancing a “modern pagan green religion,” and proclaimed that the encyclical will, through circuitous routes, “make the poor poorer.” On a December 30th edition of Fox’s Special Report, correspondent Doug McKelway surmised the letter would put Pope Francis in line with “environmental extremists who favor widespread birth control.” Crisis Magazine, a hard right Catholic publication, featured a piece by Rachel Lu suggesting the unpublished encyclical “smack[s] of intellectual faddism,” while Maureen Mullarkey opined in a First Things post that Francis’ letter is evidence that “he is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.”

Part of the outrage about this unpublished letter is tribal. ‘Climate’ anything just ruffles right-wing feathers; there’s a partisan divide in which Dems tend to buy climate change theory more than Repubs, and more to the point, an internal GOP division in which regular Repubs tend to buy it more than Tea Partiers. The harder right you are, the more you resist the idea of climate change and its attendant political questions.

I’m sure most of these people have no idea why they reject this stuff strongly enough to accuse Pope Francis of being a narcissist, pagan, and supporter of eco-terrorism based on an encyclical they haven’t read a word of because it hasn’t been published yet. However, it is pretty clear to me why the issue is such a nightmare for rightwing thought-generators.

The liberal story on property is that civil society, and thereby the flourishing of all, is premised upon a kind of absolutized system of property rights, in which the self-sovereignty of each person is guaranteed by their right to self-ownership and ownership of goods. So says Ellen Meiksins Wood, of Locke:

“Locke states unequivocally that the ‘chief end’ of civil society ‘is the preservation of property.’ This seems unambiguous enough, and at first glance appears to leave no room for rights that inhere in the person as distinct from property. Yet, in his chapter on property, Locke often uses a broad definition which includes ‘life, liberty, and estates.’…His reasons are complex, but one clear objective is to strengthen the inviolability of property by making it independent of, and prior to, civil society: if men have a right to property before and apart from civil society, which belongs to them by nature and not by grant from government or community, that simply reinforces the principle that no government can interfere with property unlawfully.”

Locke’s conflation of person with property is, as I have argued, a chief element in the atomization of individuals, and it comes along with the fantasy that what we all do with our property is as much our personal business as what we do with ourselves; this not only reinforces the myth of the atomistic ‘self’, but suggests that we can all carry out whatever operations we want upon our property without affecting anybody else. It also means property rights are as pre-political as the right to live, and therefore that state ‘interference’ with property is as wrong as states randomly killing their citizens. Autonomy means, literally, governance of the self; and the idea of a billion tiny kings and kingdoms is the liberal ideal.

But climate change, and crucially general destruction of the environment, reveal what a ridiculous fantasy this all is. If the operations I perform on my property destroy the quality of the air, water, or atmosphere, leaving other people at risk for bodily harm, then it is empirically false that what I do with my property is strictly ‘my business.’ More tantalizing yet, if the protection of human flourishing is actually best ensured by the regulation and mass cooperatization of behaviors related to property, then the whole story about everyone being best off when property rights are treated as pre-political and tantamount to human life is shattered.

Of course, as I have repeatedly shown, the Christian theory of property has always been premised upon the good of humanity and the flourishing of all people; the Lockean-liberal story on property, on the other hand, “includes a neat justification of gross inequality,” as per Wood. If Pope Francis’ encyclical says we are obligated to use all our tools (states included) to regulate the use of property so that future generations and persons outside our immediate geographic zones don’t endure the runoff of our carelessness, then his statement will be entirely in keeping with Christian tradition.

Which is precisely why the rightwing should be afraid.

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Logic Problems in Christian Libertarianism http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/01/04/logic-problems-in-christian-libertarianism/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2015/01/04/logic-problems-in-christian-libertarianism/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 09:55:58 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=897 I was inspired by Mike Konczal’s (@rortybomb) appearance on Stossel, wherein he discussed the unlikely possibility of strictly voluntary charity replacing social welfare altogether. At roughly 7 minutes, Mike quotes me on the topic of charity versus welfare, which is something I think about a lot. But this particular conversation got me thinking about what the role of the state is, in the mind of the Christian libertarian.

One of the things a person encounters when they argue against libertarianism is the notion that no two libertarians think exactly alike, and that there are in fact as many versions of libertarianism as there are libertarians. This makes the school of thought virtually impossible to argue against, as you would have to deal with each individually, one at a time. So I will get this out of the way early: this argument deals with libertarians who think in the Rothbard, Hoppe, and Von Mises stream, not libertarians who could also be described as ‘socialists’ or ‘social democrats.’

The logic problem in Christian libertarianism has to do with the role of government and the nature of property. Christian libertarians typically maintain these two things:

I. Property rights are pre-political, that is, human beings are entitled by nature to property ownership prior to the existence of the polity.

II. It is the role of the state to recognize and protect people’s rights, including their right to own property.

Based on these premises Christian libertarians argue they should suffer no interference with their property, either by state or individual. Assume both of these premises are true.

In this case, pre-political property rights are attached to all people, because they arise from human nature, i.e. the way God made people and things. In this case, the question is: how do we know who gets what? Remember, this has to all be pre-political; we can’t say ‘let market exchanges determine who gets what’, because those institutions are post-political and presuppose property. So we look to the telos of material creation to determine how it should be allotted.

Creation was made, so say the church fathers, for the sustenance of all people. It came to all men in common, but to make orderly use of it, we institute regimes of private property. So we know all persons are due ownership of what resources they need to live. So far, so good.

But this means that when people, through post-political institutions of acquisition, manage to extend ownership over more than what they need, and meanwhile others have less than they need, those with excess do not actually own the excess. Consider Basil of Ceasarea:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

This is very typical of the Patristic view on property, and it springs from the notion that all people have some kind of pre-political relationship with creation (though whether or not this should be called ‘ownership’ is another matter.) Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom certainly agree: excess belongs to the poor. They don’t mean this in the poetic sense of, say, ‘my heart belongs to my paramour.’ They mean this in the most literal sense: by the same decree you’re due what is not excess, they are due what is. You’re both due what you need to sustain you; that is what you are entitled to. If the poor are not entitled by right to the excess, then you are not entitled by right to any of it. God made the rich and poor of one clay, says Augustine, and he’s right.

Now we come to how the state should respond to these circumstances. It seems pretty clear. If the state is here to recognize and protect property rights, then the state must recognize that the excess of the wealthy quite literally is the property of the poor, and act accordingly. Just as the state would work to retrieve a stolen article, it must retrieve the hoarded wealth being stolen from the poor, and deliver it to them. If it’s not obligated to do this, it’s not obligated to protect property rights whatsoever: after all, why yours, and not theirs?

So a state that fits within these parameters of Christian libertarianism would be involved in redistribution for the protection of the vulnerable. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis refers to when he imagines a just redistribution of wealth. Sounds good to me.

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Year’s End Review http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/31/years-end-review/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/31/years-end-review/#comments Wed, 31 Dec 2014 06:08:06 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=893 2014. What a year! Looking back, it’s hard for me to believe how much everything changed. I wanted to round up a few essays I read throughout the year that shaped my thinking, inspired me, or weighed heavily on my mind. I also thought you might like to see my favorite picks of my own work. Not all of the pieces I’ve chosen from around the web are from 2014, but I read them in 2014, and in some way or another, they’ll stay with me as tints and flavors of this particular trip around the sun.

Tops from the Web:

Rich Parents Planned This When poor kids become poor adults, what happens to the concern for their well being?

Do What You Love? The labor politics of chasing your dream.

Evangelii Gaudium A tour de force in Christian love.

Ferguson is our Libertarian Moment But in a purely foreboding sense.

Madame Matisse’s Hat  Modernity is outwardness.

The Voluntarism Fantasy Did we ever take care of ourselves strictly voluntarily?

On Not Going Home On the choices you make that seem small until it’s too late.

Nothing Left of the Left Adolph Reed runs up a red flag.

Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain Really excellent look at women in lit.

The Shame of Our Prisons Unmissable consideration of how we treat those in our care.

Death Penalty versus Human Dignity Can one society value both? No.

What Will Happen to All of That Beauty? Gorgeous contemplation of faith, doubt, praxis, community.

Charles Taylor, Saint of our Age. And another one on modernity!

Tops from my Stuff:

Pope Francis’ 2014: Francis had a better year than all of us, I think we can agree. I’ll be discussing this piece on HuffPo Live today at 11:50 EST.

Pro-Life, Anti-Poverty: The more I think about a universal child allowance, the more I support it. Look for another piece on this topic in early January.

Mysticism & Empathy: My contribution to Boston Review’s forum on empathy. Have we lost a place for mystics in our modern world?

Mothers Work: Yes, mothers work. No, we should not create an EITC threshold to force poor moms to work more: they’re already working.

On Being Vulnerable: Life on the internet, as a writer.

Huckabee & Exemplary States: Theories of exemplary statecraft, from medieval kingship to Mike Huckabee.

Mourning in the Age of Skype: Saying goodbye. Related:

Grief for a Friend: Shortly after I left Cambridge, my friend and advisor Father John Hughes passed away unexpectedly, at a very young age.

Child Allowance = Strong Families: Gonna stump for a child allowance until you like it.

Property-Based Ethics: John Locke and the long shadow of liberal property ethics, in the context of post-Ferguson rioting.

Stories we Tell: For Jacobin, a consideration of what went wrong in the reporting of the Rolling Stone UVA case.

Rationalizing Vocation: Motherhood under capitalism.

Thanks so much for being such a stellar set of readers and thinkers. I’m so grateful to write, and so glad to share it with you. I hope everyone has a lovely New Year, and again, thanks for all your support and encouragement over the last year. You’re the best.

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Businesses & Moral Obligations http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/17/businesses-moral-obligations/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/17/businesses-moral-obligations/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 13:33:14 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=869 Back in the day, the push among those who did not much like the idea of state welfare was to argue that benefits should come through the employer. This was pretty popular in a lot of Catholic worker rhetoric. It is not a stupid idea; businesses pretty much run their own miniature welfare regimes in a lot of cases, providing for illness, vacations and leisure, pensions in old age, compensation in certain circumstances of injury, etc, not to mention wages themselves. If you’re the sort who wants to see benefits like these come through the employer, you’ll probably like what Dorothy Day had to say about that here:

“We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity…It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement, on the part of the employer. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since the employer can never be trusted to give a family wage, nor take care of the worker as he takes care of his machine when it is idle, the state must enter in and compel help on his part.”

Day’s complaint was, in part, that if states step in with their own welfare regimes, then employers are free to turn their backs on their employees, refusing them even basic benefits. This certainly doesn’t do much in terms of cohesion among employer and employee, and surrounding community, which is something I would presume you would be worried about if you were generally interested in averting widespread class antagonism. And, further, it doesn’t do much to prevail upon businesses that they do, in fact, have a moral purpose, and that like all elements of human sociality they should perform a positive function toward human flourishing. It allows them to exist in a twilight zone of false moral neutrality, wherein they sometimes weakly protest that they’re generating profit and products which is helping everyone, so we should all hush. (That’s a lie, by the way.)

But, alas, it seems the vision that would have forgone state welfare in favor of responsible behavior on behalf of employers is finally destroyed, and conservatives have killed it. A couple of prime specimens from the last few days include Matt Walsh and Olivia Nuzzi, with the former arguing against employment protections for pregnant women, and the latter arguing in favor of Uber price gouging during, among other calamities, terrorist attacks.

Exhibit A, Walsh*:

“We need to stop crying about our ‘rights’ every time something doesn’t turn out the way we wanted. We need to stop crying ‘discrimination’ every time our employer doesn’t give us the special treatment we desire. We need to stop trying to turn everything into a federal regulation. If you think employers have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women — fine. I agree, to a certain extent. But it can’t become a legal obligation.”
Exhibit B, Nuzzi:
“The fact that Uber allowed surge pricing during a hostage crisis may lead you to believe that the company doesn’t care about you, and you would be correct. But Uber does not have a responsibility to care about you. Uber is not a government entity, and it is not beholden to the general carless public during an unwelcome drizzle of rain or even a time of great distress.”
There you have it: a total dismissal of any actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses. Walsh’s proviso that he does think businesses have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women “to a certain extent” is weak and toothless, with the “certain extent” probably correlating pretty nicely with the characterization of pregnant women’s needs as “the special treatment [they] desire.” It’s vestigial rhetoric from a time when people like Dorothy Day really did expect some type of positive innovation in employer-employee relations. The Nuzzi passage is damning on those same grounds, and without any ghosts of bygone years: businesses don’t care about you, they don’t have to, and however you cope with that is your problem, not theirs.
Okay, fine. This directly undercuts current conservative claims that businesses will, if left to their own devices, devise very cushy plans to meet the needs of their pregnant employees. If businesses’ mealy-mouthedly alluded moral obligations can never correlate with legal ones, or if, in fact, those moral obligations never existed in the first place, then pushing benefits through employers is neither actionable nor reliable. In that case, you either have to argue that people — say, pregnant women, people in communities businesses are embedded within, etc — should expect zero protection whatsoever from businesses in times of need, or that there should be protections, and that they should come from someplace else than businesses.
Which works for me. I’m all for rendering paid maternity leave through the state. Other countries do it. We could also socialize Uber, as Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert have argued, if its management is bent on refusing to acknowledge any kind of moral obligation to employee or community. The point here is that if you are going to advocate for an absence of reliable, actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses, then the provisions that would otherwise come through them will have to come through some other system, or not at all.
*Not encouraging him by linking. Easily locatable via google if you wanna subject yourself to the whole screed.
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Property Theories & the Buffered Self http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/12/property-theories-the-buffered-self/ http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/12/12/property-theories-the-buffered-self/#comments Fri, 12 Dec 2014 10:42:29 +0000 http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/?p=865 When you think about how to measure whether or not the institution of private property is functioning correctly, there are two different approaches you can take.

1.) A property rights approach, in which property ownership is an intrinsic good, that is, a good unto itself, because each person (or some persons, as it usually goes) has a discrete right to property ownership. These typically come bundled with theories of property acquisition (how you turn ‘stuff in the world’ into ‘private property’) and in many cases the acquisition theory is linked with the right. One example is the Lockean labor-mixing theory, wherein you metaphysically blend yourself into stuff to turn it into property, and thereby have a right to that property; there are also lots of ‘desert theories’, whereby you work with things and then come to deserve them by nature of having worked with them, and thus have a right to that property. In this vein of theorizing, property is functioning correctly when people’s right to own appropriately acquired property is protected by various institutions.

2.) A social function approach, in which property ownership is an extrinsic good, which means that it is good only insofar as it affects goods outside itself. Another way to put it would be that property ownership is instrumental, and that it is a ‘good’ thing only when it is supporting some higher good. There are a variety of higher goods you can imagine the institution of private property to support — order is a common one, so is human flourishing. This view of property requires no affinity with any particular acquisition theory; it is concerned with what the existing institution of private property is for. In this vein of theorizing, property is functioning correctly when it is maximally serving the good it contributes to, such as human flourishing.

What you have here are two distinct sources of justification for the institution of private property. The trouble with the first is that all that is required for property transactions and the resultant circumstances to be just is for property rights — the right to acquire and own property — to be protected. Operating under this sort of theory alone, you can easily have situations of profound wealth inequality arise which must be understood as ‘just’, because property rights theories are concerned with the process of acquiring and owning property, not the correct use of property.

That would be bad enough. But the greater issue with that form of theorizing is that it makes people indifferent to the terrible circumstances that result from procedurally-just property transactions. Because property transactions are viewed as just based on whether or not individual rights to acquisition and ownership are respected (regardless of how the outcomes effect the community at large), these theories reinforce the idea that justice can be achieved in terms of individual, procedural choices. If everyone has their right to acquire and own property equally protected — that is, if everyone is guaranteed by the state that they can buy and sell and own just the same as everyone else — then justice has been served. All that is required to say that we have a just proprietary situation is that everyone has the same protection of rights. But these theories do not provide for a consideration of the flourishing of whole communities in real, material terms. In other words, heavy commitments to property rights approaches to ownership reinforce the phenomenon of the modern, ‘buffered self.’

The ‘buffered self’ is a form of identity which is closed off from other persons; you are your own sovereign, you are free, you have rights, and your dignity rests upon your invulnerability. Proprietary theories that view justice as a matter of your personal, individual rights being fulfilled play into this isolated self by remaining totally agnostic to the good of the community. They divorce the meaning of property from property itself. Instead, they commit themselves to no meanings, only procedures, and do not view justice as a matter of total community outcomes, only individual ones, and only in terms of particular discrete rights.

On the other hand, property theories that view property as an instrument for the communal good militate against this ‘buffered identity’ by contextualizing individual actions and procedures (such as property transactions) in the impact on the community at large. It’s pretty hard in set-ups like these to think to yourself, ‘doesn’t matter if I wind up with 500 million times the wealth of everyone else in my county due to this transaction, because I did it fair and square, and it’s my right.’ Instead you think, ‘so long as there are a lot of people without much who aren’t able to live good lives because I’ve got all this money to myself, I’m not actually entitled to all of it.’

These are stark explanations of the two different mindsets, but the point is this: the liberal property rights theories you hear in political discourse these days are not only bad because of what they produce materially (see: inequality), but also because of the ideology they factor so seamlessly into: namely, the idea that justice is merely a matter of individual procedural rights and protections, and that we have no need to factor the flourishing of our communities into the question of justice.

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