The White House may be fighting COVID-19, but it is also in a heated skirmish with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Both sides accuse the other of obscuring the facts. The White House has released documents ([link removed] ) suggesting that Dr. Fauci has erred in his statements, while journalists at The Atlantic write ([link removed] ) that the White House is conducting an “anti-science campaign” to undermine Fauci. (Whether it is advisable to equate “science” with “fact” is a discussion for another day.)
At first blush, such a clash comes as no shock: Most political relationships are volatile these days. However, the COVID-19 debate masks a deeper and more significant dialogue that lies at the heart of every public policy debate: the way facts interact with values. Politicians contest the facts, because they have implications for policy. The truly controversial part, where the rubber meets the road, is what we should do about the facts once they are established. In other words, the most significant question facing us is: What ought we to do about what is?
The distinction between what is and what ought affects every discipline, particularly economics. The argument generally sounds like this: Economists are primarily in the business of pointing out the world as it is (or the “positive,” in economics parlance), leaving how that information is used up to the chosen ends – the morality of individual choices, or the ought – of individual actors. Economists only make normative statements and advise on economic policy in light of exogenous ends, based on what they have observed positively. In his Nobel lecture “The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior,” ([link removed] ) the late economist Gary Becker reiterated this distinction:
The economic approach … is a method of analysis, not an assumption about particular motivations.
The analysis assumes that individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it.
Since I received a degree in economics, I am used to these sorts of arguments but recently, when I re-read this Becker quotation, it gave me pause. I had just heard Acton Institute Co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico, alluding to the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, say that “there is an ‘ought’ embedded in the ‘is’ of our existence.”
Christians are particularly fond of the idea that order is embedded within nature. Because we are created in the image of a divine Creator, each person ought to be treated with dignity ([link removed] ) . Of course, this principle is not exclusive to professing Christians. Nearly everyone instinctively understands some relationship between the “is” and the “ought.” For example, we all generally understand that we ought not kill an innocent person, because our sense of justice does not permit it.
The problem emerges when our moral radar goes haywire. Because men can walk away from the responsibility of a pregnancy, we conclude thata women ought to be able to walk away from it, as well – even if their only means of walking away is through abortion, the taking of a separate, unique, and innocent human life ([link removed] ) . Or if spouses are unhappy in their marriage and would be happier if divorced, they ought to separate, regardless of the impact it will have on their children ([link removed] ) . Or because same-sex attraction exists, we assume there are no moral implications to its free exercise. On issues that are not so clear-cut, we as a society tend to assume that reality as it is also represents the way things ought to be. These contentious topics raise the question: Which is-ought relationships are true, and which are false?
Natural law reasoning – properly undergirded by philosophy, science, and individual conscience – may illuminate the nature of these relationships. But when we disagree about natural law, we are left with reason and revelation as the only arbiters of the debate. And we know that reason and conscience can be as faulty as the “facts.”
This realization places incredible, and uncomfortable, pressure on the customary economic paradigm. Because the “ought” is so frequently embedded in the “is” – or, in other words, the positive so often implies the normative – economists cannot escape moral culpability as easily as they think (or wish).
This is why economists’ “simply positive descriptions” of human nature or “purely empirical” policy proposals are not as simple or innocent as they seem. In fact, they can be quite dangerous. If economists mistake or misrepresent the nature of the positive, intentionally or otherwise, they upset the normative. They muddy the waters. And even if they correctly characterize the “is,” it is incumbent upon them to recognize that their “positive descriptions” have a pedagogical impact. The fact that certain human behavior is customary does not make that behavior morally right. But society cannot flourish without a firm and widely dispersed virtue. We cannot step outside questions of moral values in economics, or for that matter, in any other aspect of life.
Acton Line Podcast:
Socialism as religion with Kevin Williamson ([link removed] )
August 19, 2020
20200811 Acton Line Williamson ([link removed] )
From accusations of embracing socialism leveled at the Obama administration by the Tea Party movement to the rise of self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders as the second highest vote-getter in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Party primaries, socialism has been an emerging movement and topic of conversation in the American body politic.
While polling data suggests that socialism is generally still viewed far less favorably than capitalism or free markets overall, the younger Millennial and Gen Z generations are more embracing of socialism than generations before. Similarly, those younger generations are more likely than their forbearers to be among the Nones: those who proclaim no religious affiliation and no religious or spiritual beliefs.
Is socialism filling in for the human religious impulse, allowing people to feel a part of something larger than themselves without embracing the concepts of God and church?
On this episode, Kevin Williamson, roving correspondent for National Review and author of the 2010 book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism,” discusses the emergence of socialism in American politics and the spiritual role it seems to play now, and has historically played, for its proponents.
Listen to the Episode
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Livestream Tomorrow: A Conversation with Janus v. AFSCME plaintiff Mark Janus ([link removed] )
On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in favor of Mark Janus in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This landmark case was a victory for first amendment rights, ruling that government employees can no longer be compelled to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service.
In a slight departure from our normal lecture format, Mark will join us for a moderated conversation on this historic case and his subsequent move from public sector employee to advocate for worker’s rights.
This lecture is livestream only. The livestream will be available to view @ 12 noon Eastern on August 20.
Sign up for the free livestream
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Rev. Ben Johnson discusses Black Lives Matter on ‘The Lars Larson Show’ ([link removed] )
Why would a movement dedicated to black advancement want to dismantle the family, when fatherlessness is associated with every social malady from poverty and crime to delinquency and low self-esteem? Is the racially tinged socialism promoted by Black Lives Matter compatible with the U.S. Constitution? And why does BLM demand that America pay reparations to nations where terrorists have attacked U.S. soldiers or civilians?
Rev. Ben Johnson discussed these issues and more on Tuesday, August 11, on “The Lars Larson Show.” The nationally syndicated talk radio host graciously called Rev. Johnson's Acton article “one of the best reviews” of Black Lives Matter’s political agenda.
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