Sunday January 10, 2021, was Lord Acton’s 187th birthday. This difficult era of a global pandemic ([link removed] ) , a crisis in institutions ([link removed] ) , and civil unrest ([link removed] ) seem strange times indeed to look back on the life and legacy of a Victorian historian of ideas – but, as Lord Acton himself remarked ([link removed] ) , “if the Past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and surest emancipation.” The freedom of the historian is the freedom to look beyond our own times to see the root causes of our current crises. The historian of ideas in particular is uniquely positioned to show us a path forward ([link removed] ) through a crisis of institutions. “The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away,” he wrote.
Many of the most contested and contentious questions of our social life are centered around the nature of liberty, a problem Lord Acton spent his life as an historian seeking to understand. He believed ([link removed] ) , “No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching on the nature of liberty.”
Questions of the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic ([link removed] ) , civil upheaval ([link removed] ) , burgeoning public debt ([link removed] ) , corruption ([link removed] ) , and resurgent socialism and nationalism ([link removed] ) can only be answered in the context of a proper view of freedom and responsibility. This proper view is at the center of Lord Acton’s definition of liberty ([link removed] ) : “By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, customs and opinion.”
This notion of liberty as the unfolding of the idea of the dignity of the human person and his rights of conscience in history and politics is deeply Christian. With roots in the Hebrew prophets of old and the classical tradition, it is revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ ([link removed] ) :
The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.
This is what I like to call the liberal tradition, a tradition which locates ultimate sovereignty in people who are created in the image of God and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. It puts people, particularly individual consciences, at the center of our conception of the social order:
Our conscience exists and acts for ourselves. It exists in each of us. It is limited by the conscience of others. It is enough for oneself, not for another. It respects the conscience of others, Therefore it tends to restrict authority and enlarge liberty. It is the law of self government.
Acton draws out the political implications ([link removed] ) of this view beautifully:
The more conscience comes to the front, the more we consider not what the state accomplishes, but what it allows to be accomplished. Not the action of the state – its powers of action, and its use of them, but the limitation and division of those powers. The Society that is beyond the state – the individual souls that are above it.
This is not simply a naïve individualism. Power is limited, but that does not mean there is no place for institutions and community in shaping the consciences of individuals:
Conscience: Do I decide or the community? If I, there is not authority. If they, there is no liberty. Some mediator wanted. That is the Church. Sustains alike liberty and authority.
We see Lord Acton’s vision in the guiding principles of the Acton Institute ([link removed] ) , whose mission statement reads ([link removed] ) , “The Acton Institute is a think-tank whose mission is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” We are a think tank, dedicated like Lord Acton, to the proposition that ideas are fundamental. We promote freedom, as Lord Acton argued, as the highest political good. We realize that freedom is central, because it is necessary to virtue, to people fulfilling their duties of conscience. In this sense, when we speak of individual liberty, we are speaking of the reign of conscience. Authority, best embodied in religion, is necessary to form consciences, sustain liberty, and promote the common good.
We often think of Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the First World War as the age of liberalism, and in many ways it was. But these ideas were contested in Acton’s day as well as our own. The twin horrors of nationalism and communism ,which dominated the greater part of the twentieth century ([link removed] ) , had their seeds sown in Acton’s own nineteenth century. The twenty-first century – which many, following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, believed to be the end of history and the beginning of a neoliberal order – has seen the reemergence of statist ideas in the form of nationalism and socialism.
We must realize that distinctions between both church and state ([link removed] ) , as well as power and authority, are important. If those distinctions collapse, it will inevitably crush those unique individuals who bear the image of God beneath them. God created man, and no state can recreate him better ([link removed] ) . It can only twist, distort, and destroy human nature. Acton’s vision is the liberal vision, a vision of a society that is beyond the state. It sees individual souls above the state and that God rules it all through his providence. Acton’s vision is still worth defending and offers hope to us now in these polarized ([link removed] ) and troubled times. Take and read! ([link removed] )
Acton Line Podcast
Anne Bradley & Iain Murray on socialism and poverty ([link removed] )
January 13, 2021
20210112 ([link removed] )
In this episode, we’re bringing you another conversation from our recent Poverty Cure Summit.
The Poverty Cure Summit provided an opportunity for participants to listen to scholars, human service providers, and practitioners address the most critical issues we face today which can either exacerbate or alleviate poverty. These speakers discussed the legal, economic, social, and technological issues pertaining to both domestic and global poverty. Rooted in foundational principles of anthropology, politics, natural law, and economics, participants had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of poverty and identify practical means to reduce it and promote human flourishing.
In this conversation, moderator Scot Bertram talks with Anne Rathbone Bradley, the George and Sally Mayer Fellow for Economic Education and the academic director at The Fund for American Studies, and Iain Murray, vice president for strategy and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of the recent book, “The Socialist Temptation.” They discuss the reasons why socialism is not an effective method for reducing poverty and helping the poor regain their dignity.
Highlighting the inconsistencies in thought that prevent it from ever working in practice, the panel addresses why socialism seems to be an attractive option to some young Americans and how economic freedom can point the way toward a more prosperous country for all.
Listen to the episode
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Business Matters 2021 [Virtual]
Certain Principles for Uncertain Times ([link removed] )
Business Matters2021_1680x730-2 ([link removed] )
We are in the midst of volatile times. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, and political turmoil, we have seldom seen a more uncertain time for our businesses and for the world. Business leaders are being tested by switching to remote work, closing and reopening offices, adjusting to the changing needs of clients, laying off employees, and preparing for policy changes under a new presidential administration.
In such a time, what principles should we turn to? And rather than sacrificing ethical standards, how can leaders fulfill their responsibilities while holding fast to their ethical principles?
On February 25, join a virtual audience across the globe as leading experts and CEOs discuss the current challenges for businesses and equip you with principles to lean on as you navigate these uncertain times.
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Rev. Robert Sirico: Reject ‘moral relativism’ over the Capitol riot ([link removed] )
Rev. Robert Sirico, the president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, discussed how Christians should respond to the Capitol riot in a segment of EWTN’s The World Over dedicated to “political protests and lawlessness.”
“Why are we seeing more frequent, violent political protests here in the U.S., and what needs to be done about this rioting?” host Raymond Arroyo asked his guests, Rev. Sirico and Catholic League President Bill Donohue.
“We need to be outraged – morally outraged – by what we saw in D.C.” for “the same reason that we were morally outraged by what we saw in Seattle, and Portland, and Minneapolis,” said Rev. Sirico. “We can’t be tempted to a kind of moral relativism.”
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