Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not dead yet

Naturally, the latest economic collapse is proof that the free market must be regulated, that the lack of regulation was the cause of collapse, and that, anyway, libertarianism is dead. Writes Jacob Weisberg of Slate:

We have narrowly avoided a global depression and are mercifully pointed toward merely the worst recession in a long while. This is thanks to a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas. I don't have much patience with the notion that trying to figure out how we got into this mess is somehow unacceptably vicious and pointless—Sarah Palin's view of global warming. As with any failure, inquest is central to improvement. And any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.

Ignoring the fact that we have not avoided a global depression, having merely postponed it, I have no idea what libertarian ideas he's talking about. This isn't a matter of pragmatically ditching Bush and the Republicans now that the economy has gone sour; that alliance had been jettisoned long ago, back when it became clear that Bush's “compassionate conservatism” was hard to distinguish from big government liberalism. What Weisberg means, I think, is that the market was unregulated, and still managed to get all screwed up anyway. The basic flaw with this analysis is that it is untrue. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for instance, were regulated by 200 government bureaucrats; these dutifully looked the other way instead of doing their job.

There is another rather large flaw in his attempts to pin the meltdown on libertarians—as if a group with such insignificant power and influence could ever do such a thing. Libertarians, or at least the Austrian economists among us, believe firmly that fiat currency, liable to inflation at the whim of a central bank, undermines the market: indeed, Ludwig von Mises blames this inflation for generating the business cycle. When Weisberg writes that: “the libertarian apologetics fall wildly short of providing any convincing explanation for what went wrong” he is completely mistaken. Libertarians have such a theory, which is more than can be said, say, of the neo-Keynesians. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has been inflating the currency—though they hide this fact, at least partially, by calculating the CPI in a dishonest fashion—which would seem to serve to vindicate von Mises. At the very least, it is patently absurd to argue that a crisis anticipated by a fair number of libertarians undermines their very existence.

The basic flaw behind all of this clamoring for more regulation is that it fails to understand the relationship between Big Business and Government. Most people seem to believe that the relationship is a fundamentally antagonistic one; but it is not so. As Patrick Denseen writes in the November 17th issue of The American Conservative:

The mortgage crisis has highlighted the tight bonds between a large central government and large centers of financial power... At least now we have seen the end of the idea that there is some fundamental antipathy between big government and big business.

Weisberg has apparently drawn a different conclusion from recent events. It's difficult to see why. The nepotism of the Bush administration was so extensive and flagrant that it is hard to see how anyone could have missed the obvious lesson: Government may chose to reward its minions in the private sector and vice versa. As Cheney was hooking up his pals at Haliburton with the spoils of our Iraqi misadventure, was it really surprising that other areas of the bureaucracy were likewise engaged in allowing their cronies to benefit from the hands who held the reigns of power?

The reasons I support the free market are twofold. First, a generally unregulated market respects property rights. Regulation undermines these rights, primarily, by telling me what I can and cannot do with my property, and secondarily, by taxing me to provide for those who violate my rights. The larger the bureaucracy, the more frequent and obtrusive will be the violations. Second, prices must be either dictated by central planners, or allowed to fluctuate as per the invisible hand of the market. The folly of central planning was demonstrated by the Soviet Union, even as the central planners of the Socialists in Washington decide who to bailout and who to let fail, and what stipulations the former must endure.

Libertarianism will continue to make sense as long as humans remain fallible. If men were omniscient angels, we could trust them to plan the way the entire economy worked. But absent these elusive attributes, it is wise to keep power from concentrating too greatly in too few hands.

The Recovery of the Catholic Apologetic

This was a "talk" I put together some time back that never materialized. Since it's been written, I figured I may as well post it here. Enjoy.

The title of my talk comes from a book written by Hilaire Belloc titled Survivals and the New Arrivals. Though penned in 1929, it is as prescient as ever. I do not know how many of you are familiar with the man and his work. Much of it is, regrettably, out of print, although his influence, not only on Roman Catholics, but on much of the English speaking world, was, and is, profound. Historian Jacques Barzun, in his marvelous From Dawn to Decadence, notes: "In England during the decade before the war, the quartet who stirred the reading public into thinking were Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, and Shaw." (p. 683) Unlike Chesterton, Belloc was a cradle Catholic, and a fairly militant one. He spent a good deal of time and ink seeking to rectify the biased Protestantism that dominated much of written history. He is a masterful writer, both of prose and poetry, and is too infrequently read; nonetheless, his appeal will be chiefly to Catholics who are already certain of their Faith.

There is a good reason for this. Apologetics does not imply an apology; the word is derived from the Greek apologia, which means defense. Unfortunately, the apologetics of those who have only known the Faith can come across as an attack, and lack the tact and charity without which the most brilliant exposition for the Faith sounds like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”, in St. Paul's phrase. This is not to say that converts always make excellent apologists, anymore than cradle Catholics may be wholly insufficient to the task. Instead, while his unique experience doesn't prevent the convert from identifying with “born Catholics”, it allows the outsider to empathize more readily with him. Theoretically speaking, the “born Catholic” may only be defending the prejudices with which he entered the world, but the convert is a different animal entirely, and cannot be as easily brushed aside.

Arguably the most influential of the modern Christian apologists is C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity is still widely read, as well it should be; and while the appellation of the adjective is appropriate given the subject matter of the work, it is also a bit frustrating. Any work which advances the cause of Christianity is to be applauded, but it must be admitted that the idea of mere Christianity makes little sense to those who belong to a Church who claims fullness of truth. Though he never became a Catholic, the great apologist was prodigiously influenced by at least two members of the Roman Church: his friend and literary acquaintance J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton. The latter's The Everlasting Man, written as a reaction to Wells's Outline of History, presented a cogent case for Christ to Lewis, and to many others.

Chesterton deserves much credit as an apologist—his book Orthodoxy helped me come back to the Faith—and is probably the only one who can rival Lewis himself, not only in ability, but in influence. There is something of a Chestertonian revival going on presently, led by the charmingly obsessive Dale Ahlquist, president of The American Chesterton Society, and buttressed by people like Joseph Pearce, a modern biographer, not only of Chesterton, but of Belloc, Lewis, Tolkien, Shakespeare, and even Oscar Wilde. Ignatius Press, which puts out a number of wonderful books, is currently reprinting all of Chesterton's collected works, ensuring that another generation can enjoy the wit and wisdom of “the apostle of common sense”, in Ahlquist's phrase.

Although Chesterton and Belloc wrote some novels, with the exception of Chesterton's excellent The Man Who Was Thursday, their non-fiction—and their poetry—was of higher literary merit. There is often an implicit assumption that apologetics must be works of non-fiction; but I am not certain that this is that case. While a well-reasoned defense of the faith can be propitious, a story which, though it may deal with things that never actually happened, nonetheless confirms a Catholic truth may work just as well—or perhaps even better. We will examine the reasoning for this a little later.

But first, to give an illustration of what I may mean, we have already mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien. A fact which is too little appreciated by those who read The Lord of the Rings is that it was, in the words of its author, "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work". The fertile imagination of Tolkien was directed at and stimulated by Jesus Christ; the careful reader should be able to detect this in his masterpiece.

I will briefly give just two more examples. The Roman Catholic poet Francis Thompson is best known for his poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” It should be read more often. Thompson, who was an opium addict, was well aware of suffering, and the poem describes vividly God's pursuit of man's soul, as man struggles to fend Him off. It is at once a frightening and wonderful poem, with which any sinner may readily identify.

Another English fellow, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, himself a Catholic convert who was influenced—yes, by Chesterton—wrote a number of excellent books. Brideshead Revisited is perhaps his best; it happens to be my favorite work of fiction. It is also a thoroughly Catholic novel. Like Flannery O'Connor, Waugh illuminates God's grace, working almost imperceptibly throughout the background of his novel, as the characters find themselves making their way slowly toward Him. Writing about conversion is just as difficult to do in fiction; Waugh's accomplishment lies in the authenticity of the experiences of his characters. Here are real people, being pursued, albeit subtly, by the loving hound of heaven.

So far I have merely traced an incomplete outline of some of the Catholic apologists of the twentieth century. At the very least, I should like you all to come out of this talk with an increased knowledge in the subject matter; I sincerely hope you all read Belloc and Chesterton—and Waugh. If they should aid you in your faith journey, as they have me in mine, I shall count this talk a success. Indeed, hearkening back to St. Francis of Assisi who counseled us to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary used words,” the influence of apologists may be most pronounced as it causes those already convinced to become more steadfast, with increased charity, in their Faith. In this way, the Church may be known by the love which we have for one another. All are not called to apologetics, any more than all are called to the consecrated life, but anyone should be able to benefit from them, in one of their varied forms.

We turn now to a bit of a personal application. While no one would deny that all men long for God, no one likes to be preached at. I do not suggest that all of you go running out of here handing out apologetic tomes. In your conversations with non-believers, you may find the time to reference a work of apologetics you have read; it may even be good to recommend a book. Overtly apologetic tomes have the potential to produce the most fruit, but it does no good to scatter seeds unless the ground is fertile for growth. On the other hand, recommending a novel or a poem which is written by someone who happens to be Catholic may prove more beneficial than we would suspect. While not everyone needs to read all of Chesterton, there is little excuse for literate people avoiding Evelyn Waugh.

Those of you who know me are perhaps aware that my outlook on life is largely polemical, and occasionally obnoxiously so. I argue both because I enjoy it immensely and because it is one of the most effective ways I have found at arriving nearer the truth. A friend and I were once engaged in a discussion about the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and how his youth pastor had been wholly unable to answer his question about why the pagans were wrong. St. Augustine handles this beautifully in the first two parts of The City of God, but, being aware of this at the time, I recommended to him The Everlasting Man. He pronounced it good but unconvincing, and expressed no interest in discussing the matter further.

This is perhaps the most frustrating thing, not only to the apologist, but to those of us who rely on their work. Once inside the Church, one begins to study the multitudinous treasures which She has secured for two thousand years. Almost any question one may have has not only been asked, but it has been thought on—and answered. The Catholic Church possesses a complete philosophy for man; thus a Catholic can go about reinforcing his views to better equip himself to combat the modern world. In my mind, The Everlasting Man demonstrated best what was suggested by hundreds of other influences in my journey. It would be unreasonable to suggest that one exposition of a fraction of the Church's philosophy would be enough to convert a man. The only thing more unreasonable would be to suggest that he attempt to experience all that we ourselves have; for though all roads lead to Rome, we often travel there on diverse routes. God alone knows the human heart, and the process by which He calls souls to Himself often strikes us as strange—or worse. As Job says, “I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.” (Job 42:3) But like Job we can take comfort in the fact that, though we are often estranged from the way of the Lord, He very much knows what He is doing.

As with my friend, the effect of apologetics is rarely overt conversion. Instead, good apologetics paints the Church in a truer light, forcing the reexamination of a previously accepted falsehood concerning Her. In the previously mentioned The Catholic Church and Conversion, Chesterton discusses the “three stages of conversion”. In paraphrased form, first the convert wishes to treat the Church fairly, to discover out who She really is. Often he is still opposed to Her, but his intellectual honestly leads him to disbelieve falsehood directed at the Church. For instance, he may hear that the age in which the Church ruled were the Dark Ages—only the Dark Ages never existed as he thinks they did. And anyway, how dark could an age be that produced the Gothic cathedral and the awe-inspiring poetry of Dante? In the second stage, he begins to see that the Church does contain some truth. Perhaps the poetry of Dante suggests the common sense theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps the Just War Doctrine of St. Augustine allows him to make sense of the awful conflict in Iraq.

The third stage Chesterton describes as the most terrible. He writes, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it.” (Collected Works Volume III, G.K. Chesterton, p. 92) I think it true that once one arrives at this stage, there is no more for the apologist to do. At this final point, each man must confront God; it is the goal of the apologist to move the almost-convert to that point.

Now, a few things are required to get there. First, a certain degree of intellectual honesty is required on the part of the non-believer. When reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, I was impressed by two things: first, his faith in things far less reasonable than the Resurrection—from the infallibility of the incompetent Sam Harris to the certitude with which he holds the highly dubious claims of Darwin and his disciples—and second, his ability to arrogantly defeat the claims of Christianity based on caricatures. Nonetheless, the popularity of the books written by not only Dawkins and Harris, but also Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, to say nothing of the irate and woefully ignorant minions that faun over every pronouncement of the so-called New Atheists, suggests that there is a good deal of work for apologists to do.

A number of Christians have risen to the challenge. Since I was so unimpressed by Dawkins's work, I neglected to read any of the other books by his fellow atheists; and I have only read one of the responses to their books: The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day, which, in addition to being rather good, is also available without charge on the author's blog. Some of the books, like Day's, such as Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, written by the Catholic apologist Scott Hahn, aren't defenses of Christianity at all; instead, they deal with specific arguments of the new atheists, who are almost as sloppy with logic as they are ignorant of Christianity. Others, like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity, and a number of Lee Strobel's books, are closer to the works of Chesterton and Lewis, both in subject and tone. The New Atheists have remained nonplussed, as have many of their followers; Dawkins denigrates anyone who writes a book in reaction to his as a flea and ignores him completely.

Still, it seems that the New Atheists have gotten a good deal more than they bargained for. Although this may come as a surprise to Christopher Hitchens, he was utterly decimated in his debate with Dinesh D'Souza. And while Dawkins can insist that he has no need to debate the man who ousted Hitchens, one strongly suspects cowardice on the part of the Archbishop of Oxford.

Most of the reactionary books have received far less attention than have the five which started the recent fiasco, but the combination of the unimpressive performances by the New Atheists—with the partial exception of Daniel Dennet if Day is to believed—and the far more substantial case presented by the defenders of Christianity should turn the tide against the latest wave of atheism, and allow for the possibility of conversion.

More importantly, as both Chesterton and Belloc pointed out long ago, atheism is but a way station on the weary road back to paganism. This is a point that is too little appreciated by those who follow these sorts of things, and merits some detailed exposition. One of the first things that one notices about atheists, at least of those who bother to write books or hang around blogs talking about it, is that their atheism does not really stem from a skepticism towards the evidence presented to them about why God exists. They will insist otherwise of course, but their comments betray this too well; the claim of not enough evidence is enough to make one agnostic—a perfectly reasonable position which Chesterton claims is the natural attitude of man—but militant atheism is always a reaction against something in the religion they have rejected.

Rebellion in adolescence seems to be a partially pathetic phase through which most people pass. But after rebelling to exert one's independence, hopefully one grows up to become a mature adult; it is the height of irresponsibility to be forever engaged in rebellion for its own sake. The atheist eventually must cease rebelling against his former faith and embrace some set of beliefs, however he derives them, about the world and his place in it. If he does not return to Christianity, he will probably lapse back into paganism.

Now, by paganism I don't mean the Greek and Roman gods and all of the beliefs that concern them. I primarily mean “natural religion acting upon man uncorrected by revelation” (Survivals and the New Arrivals, p.133) as Belloc puts it. This usually means, first, sexual license. The new pagans won't put out anything coherent in the way of philosophy or ethics; they'll remain essentially parasitic, taking what they like about the Judeo-Christian ethic, and removing all of that nasty stuff about suppressing one's desires. They will also add, because man cannot live without it, a widely implausible myth, or series of myths. For instance, they will insist that we are poisoning the earth, and that we need to take drastic measures to save her. Moreover, because such a myth does not depend on reason, it will invariably fall on government—that is, force—to compel men to partake in the new creed.

Here enters The Opportunity, of which Belloc speaks, and at which my long and rambling talk was directed. Unless it summons much better spokesmen, thinking people will reject the claims of the New Atheists. They will then pass over to a variety of mostly silly—but by no means necessarily innocuous—forms of paganism. Now, the Church has converted the pagans before, so it's possible that She could do it again. But whereas the old pagans understood that without revelation, man could not save himself, and thus were receptive to the new religion, today's pagans will have a preconceived notion in their heads whenever they hear Christianity mentioned. This makes the task substantially more difficult.

The role of the Catholic apologist, I think, it to present as thorough a case as possible for a religion which is in no way inimical to reason. Our case is harmed by a number of things. As always, the misbehavior of Christians is a determent to conversion; one cannot, I think, overestimate the effects of the priest scandal and the subsequent cover-up by cowardly bishops, though one may add, as an edifying postscript, that Benedict XVI has addressed it, and seems to be making progress. Second, and ironically, the champions of reason, like Dawkins, are rather lacking in this particular department; and while it behooves us to present a logical case, it is unlikely to be appreciated in an intellectual atmosphere such as ours. We can hope that, as the prophets of secularism plunge headlong into unreason, the Church stands out as a bastion of light and truth, as it did in the barbaric world it once conquered, and which, in due time, it shall conquer again.