26 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 6 (The Penultimate)

(Earlier Parts on "Labor, Dominion, and Alienation" here"‘You Are Not Your Own,’ Exposing the Limits of Libertarian Self-Ownership and the Non-Aggression Principle" here"Christ and Liberty: Retrieving the Freedom of a Christian in an Age of License" here and here, "Monetary Realism, Gold, Federal Reserve Notes, Credit, and Usury" hereand "Why Do We Work? The Role of Economic Freedom" here and here.)

I've waited nearly to the end of this series to post about the remarks of this year's keynote speaker, Brian Dijkema. Dijkema's day job is as Program Director at Cardus, a Canadian faith-based think tank. He spoke on "The Parameters and Practices of Social Justice."

One reason why I've held off on posting about Dijkema's presentation is that he did not also submit a paper. He assigned a variety of materials to read in advance and at the Convivium combined lecture and a guided discussion. His lecture was recorded and you can listen to it here.

Summarizing only two of Dijkema's remarks from my notes, he first elaborated on Abraham Kuyper's notion of sphere sovereignty and re-framed it in terms of fields of differentiated authority. In other words, the effectively unitary authority of Adam (and Eve) at creation has over the millennia been differentiated among the authorities of the family, the university, organized forms of capital and labor, religious institutions, social organizations, civil government, and, of course, the individual-in-the-market. The power of each now-differentiated field of authority is the legitimate means by which it can bring about its unique end.

Second, social justiceaccording to Dijkema, has to do with the relationships within and between the fields. Not all social justice, however, is a matter of public justice. Notably, within an authoritative field the scope of public justice is minimal. Families, clubs, churches, etc. are largely free to implement (or not) what justice requires of and for their members. 

This brief summary does not do justice to Dijkema's remarks and so I encourage readers to listen to his full lecture. He is an engaging speaker with many more valuable insights.

20 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 5.2

(For Part 5.1 in which I summarize Hugh Whelchel's paper and raise a question go here. For the first in this series of Convivium 2019 posts go here.)

Both Whelchel's biblical-theological account and my Aristotelian one reached a similar conclusion: "Neither individuals nor corporations exist for themselves. Rather we and our tools (including corporations) are called to glorify God in growing His peaceable Kingdom [shalom]."

But: "both of us face a similar objection: Sure, on a Christian account shalom is the goal of human activity but corporations ain't human. So why should an artificial person aim for the same end as a natural one?"

In other words, is a corporation a person or an instrument? Does a corporation have a final cause or is it merely an efficient one? Is the level of the moral licitness of profit measured at the corporate level or that of its shareholders?

The answer is moot for most corporations. Closely held (by an individual or a family) corporations (e.g., Hobby Lobby) or LLC's are morally indistinguishable from their shareholders/members. Most corporations exist only as a means of limiting individual or family liability or other state-created utilitarian ends. Except as reinvested, all profits go to a small group of persons whose use of them must be evaluated in terms of their contributions to shalom. In such cases corporate "personhood" is fully fictional. 

Second, whatever moral status I will argue attaches to publicly-traded corporations is not a legal standard. With all due respect (and notwithstanding its origins eight centuries ago as an instrument of the king's conscience), no one should expect the Delaware Court of Chancery to judge the virtue or vice of corporate profitability.

Finally, I'll start by sending readers here where in another context I argued that
If (since) humans can create moral obligations out of thin air, so to speak, by promising, then so can certain human instrumentalities. Unlike, say, rocks and clouds, corporations are moral agents. They choose ends and means; they exercise agency. Consider the following theological analogy: just as God created human beings in his image (which, whatever else the imago dei entails, includes moral agency) so too humans can create non-biological entities in their image that likewise are moral agents. I suspect most people believe that corporations are moral agents and, although moral intuitions don’t prove much, they should count for something.
But is this true? in other words, can a "person" created by human agents through legislative means itself be a moral agent? Is even characterizing a publicly traded corporation as possessing agency a bridge too far? Not if Nicholas Wolterstorff is correct. You can go here to read my full post "Corporations and Rights (And Duties)" but I'll quote the substance of it below:
Even though corporations are not capable of causal agency, i.e., apart from human agents they can do nothing, corporations nonetheless are capable of rational agency. In other words, a human's acts on behalf of a corporation are those of the corporation and in turn the corporation's agent's acts are counted as that of the corporation, which Wolterstorff calls double agency (p. 364). Quoting from the following page:  
Human persons are living organisms capable of rational agency. Social entities [like corporations] confront us with the curious phenomenon of entities capable of rational agency that are not living organisms. Shall we say that such entities do not have lives, on the ground that they are no living organisms? Or shall we say that they do have lives, on the ground that they are capable of rational agency?
Wolterstorff opts for the later. In the case of corporations, it is the power of the state that confers this sufficient simulacrum of living organisms to enable them to acquire rights. Thus, indirectly, and certainly not without human agency, corporate entities have sufficient non-instrumental worth to ground rights. If rights, then duties of others to respect such rights and, equally importantly, the duty to properly regard the rights of others.
Apropos to the current conversation, if publicly traded corporations are agentic enough to enjoy rights then they are sufficiently persons to commit wrongs. And once that conclusion is admitted, we see that corporations are more than purely instrumental hammers. In other words, such corporations have a final cause that is more than profitability. Derived as they are from humans whose duty it is to seek shalom, such corporations should likewise be morally evaluated on the extent they advance the goal of God's peaceable kingdom.

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 5.1

(Previous Parts starting here through here ... and more in between)

I attended the breakout session where Hugh Whelchel, Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Works, and Economics, presented on "Why Do We Work? The Role of Economic Freedom." First, I was attracted by the opening paragraph of his paper. And second, I wanted to see how someone could "translate" sophisticated concepts into something for the average "person in the pew." The second reason is apropos because the mission of the Davenant Institute, sponsor of the Convivium, is centered around a project of retrieving the insights of the classical Protestant tradition and making those tools accessible to contemporary academics, pastors, and lay persons. The final step--making this trove of wisdom accessible to non-academics--has proved especially challenging.

Whelchel's attention-grabbing first paragraph:
In a New York Times article in September, 1970, Milton Friedman emphatically stated that the purpose of business was to maximize shareholder value. This quote was picked up by business leaders and the media and has been so often repeated it has become an established corporate mantra. Yet we, as Christians, must reject it; we are called to work for a higher purpose. What that purpose is and how we achieve it is the subject of this short white paper.
What support does Whelschel marshall in support of his contention that Christians should reject the wealth-maximization thesis for corporations? In short, humanity's purpose to glorify God through shalom:
Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. This was God’s original design for his creation—without scarcity, poverty, or minimalistic conditions. He desires that we enjoy the fruits of his creation and the fruits of our labor because by doing so we bring him glory.
Building on the goal or end of shalom, Whelchel goes on to find in humanity's power to "sub-create" by using the material of creation and working together to be the program for human activity. Of course, sin has clouded the picture but it hasn't changed the ultimate goal of human activity: "Restoration of shalom is God’s design in redemption. Understanding shalom is the key to realizing how God intends to use the work of our hands to participate with him in the restoration of his creation."

The remarkable success of the modern market economy in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty is thus connected to the "shalom project." Of course, alleviation of poverty is not equivalent to biblical shalom. Only the eschatological age will see the state of permanent shalom. Thus, the purpose of economic freedom is not found in freedom as such but instead "the purpose of our work, and by extension our businesses, is not just to maximize shareholder value, it is to reweave shalom. We are to bring about flourishing to the communities we serve, seeking to glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom in this current age."

Whelchel's assertion, that maximization of shareholder value is not the final goal of a corporation, should sound familiar for those who have followed my blog. I argued the same point here where deploying Aristotle's notion of four-fold causality I wrote:
The material cause of a corporation is that which it does--build cars, produce drugs, clean carpets, or stream internet porn. The efficient cause of corporate activity is capital, which turns the “stuff” of corporate activity, its material cause, into what folks buy. Capital lasts only so long, however, if the corporate activity doesn’t yield a profit. So it’s here, at the level of efficient cause, that profits fit in an Aristotelian account. Then it’s on to the formal cause, the stuff of law school courses in business associations, like Articles, By-laws, resolutions, minutes, and so on. Finally, the final cause.
Before suggesting a corporation’s final cause, however, we should note that it won’t be the same as the corporation’s efficient cause. In other words, profit is not the goal of corporate activity; it is simply one of the “causes” that permits the corporation to achieve its goal. Many probably intuitively recognized this when I listed steaming internet porn among the material causes of a corporation. It strikes most folks that something other than profitability should serve as the corporate goal. But the leading contemporary theoretical accounts of the firm in fact stress profitability--shareholder return--as the corporation’s only goal, at least for publicly traded ones.
An entity without a final cause or goal is like a powerful chainsaw spinning out of control: it can do a lot of damage. ... Only profit directed toward an end that is good is profit worth earning. (Emphasis added.)
Whelchel and I have taken different tacks to reach a similar conclusion. Neither individuals nor corporations exist for themselves. Rather we and our tools (including corporations) are called to glorify God in growing His peaceable Kingdom.

But both of us face a similar objection: Sure, on a Christian account shalom is the goal of human activity but corporations ain't human. So why should an artificial person aim for the same end as a natural one?

This is a fair criticism. After all, we don't hold other tools like, say, a hammer, to have the same final cause as the human who nails with it. Thus, is a corporation more like a "toolish" hammer or a shalom-enhancing human being? Stay tuned for some brief observations in Part 5.2.

12 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 4

(Previous parts here and here plus a two-parter here and here.)

Brad Belschner's paper, Monetary Realism, Gold, Federal Reserve Notes, Credit, and Usury was a refreshing breath of cool air. Or a jolt to the system of certain forms of received wisdom. Let me start by quoting his opening provocations:
  1. Banks do not lend money. Banks create money by granting credit. And that’s a good thing.
  2. The US government does not print money into existence or spend it into existence, nor should it. 
  3. We do not have fiat money today. We have credit money, which is asset-based and contract-based. 
  4. A gold standard is harmful to households and business because it's far too unstable and too tangible.
  5. Fractional reserve banking is bad idea, but the basic banking structure we have today is a good idea. 
  6. A United States Dollar is not a Federal Reserve Note. But a Federal Reserve Note is one kind of dollar. 
  7. Debt can be very beneficial for family life.
I will amble around only a couple of Belschner's contentions. You'll need to buy the eventual book to get the whole of his argument.

First, as my Contracts students will learn this fall, for centuries the English common law did not conceive that contractual expectations were property. Even today, it's a rare case in which an aggrieved contract party is entitled to a remedy in the form of specific property.

Nonetheless, those same "mere expectations" could be assigned, traded, and circulated in an economy as if they were property. Abstraction and reification. In this field that's called credit. And like other abstractions that we treat as real, credit can be good. Or bad.

Second, I've long suspected that one of two things would happen were we to try to limit "money" to some particular commodity. Either most of us would be eating dirt for without much more money than a commodity like gold could support, there wouldn't be enough to go around and much of what's come into being by virtue of credit would disappear in short order. Or--and much more likely--we'd simply create new forms of reified credit to support the system to which we've become accustomed. New forms of credit could work but it would take some time to sort our which of the issuing debtors was must trustworthy (creditable). Might as well stick with what we have.

Third: of course, even the most creditable debtor--the government of the United States of America--can grant too much credit. In which case no one will want any more of it. In which case we'll be back to my second amble above.


10 June 2019

"Theater of the World: The Maps That Made History"

Theater of the World: The Maps that Made History; Hardcover; Author - Thomas Reinertsen Berg
I received Thomas Reinerstsen Berg's fascinating book as a Christmas gift from Lisa and Attilio. Reinerstsen Berg documents, describes, and explains maps from humanity's cave-drawing pre-history through our current digital format in Google Earth. Printed on very high quality paper with many reproductions of maps, "Theater of the World" took me some months to complete. (And I must admit that I only skimmed some of the sections dwelling on the challenges of mapping Reinerstsen Berg's homeland, Norway.)

Some extracts from the end of "Theater of the World" sum up Reinersten Berg's conclusions about his beautiful and extensive project:
Maps are images of the world -- representations of a world [and life] view. Maps ... represent various ways of seeing the world, from [the contours of heaven and earth on the walls of caves to] the speculations of the Ancient Greeks to the religious faith of the Middle Ages; from the scientific [this saeculum only] experimentation and objective mapping of the Renaissance to the collection of enormous volumes of data in today's digital age.
The kicker: "Common to the cartographers of every age throughout history is that the ways in which they choose to present the world say much about what they [and their patrons/customers] consider important -- and the opportunities that their age affords them." In other words, what we see on maps reflects what we believe is most important about the world(s) around us.

So, what do Google Maps reveal about us?
"Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." Google has understood that maps are primarily everyday tools .. and this is exactly why Google is able to provide us with maps for free -- by selling advertising ... 
More than anything else, we are consumers. Maps ignoring heaven, Eden, or the land of Prester John serve to confirm that, for now at least, we still live in a secular age.

"Theater of the World": a book that I recommend.

07 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 3.2

(Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3.1 here.)

I began my most recent post about Brad Littlejohn's exploration of the concept of freedom in the Western tradition with two questions: What is freedom? And what is freedom good for? After a brief historical recapitulation of what freedom has meant at different times, I ended with two slightly different questions:
Is there a framework or schema that takes seriously the different historical "takes" on freedom? Alternatively, is there a way to correlate freedom from external necessity, the rule of law, reason, pursuit of the Good, and to allow room for moral agency?
What follows is my diagrammatic representation of Littlejohn's four-fold concept of liberty (thus doubling Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts).

                                        FOUR CONCEPTS OF FREEDOM

                                     Individual                                    Social

Negative                 A Non-Interference                B Non-Domination
                                  (Mill; Libertarians)                  (Romans; English Constitutionalists)

Positive                  C  Rationality                         D  Recognition
                                   (Kant)                                     (?)
                                             

                                   CORRELATIVE THREATS TO FREEDOM

Negative                 A' Coercion                            B'  Arbitrariness


Positive                  C' Irrationality                         D'  Alienation

Rather than the common two axes--positive and negative--Littlejohn adds another set of perspectives, individual and social. This makes sense given the inherent social nature of human beings. We often desire our liberty as much as my freedom. And after at last reading Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty in advance of the Convivium, I am surprised that Berlin didn't explicitly account for the social aspect of liberty. He did, after all, spend an entire section of his essay (VI, "The Search for Status") substantiating the following point:
I am a social being in a deeper sense than that of interaction with others. For am I not what I am, to some degree, in virtue of what others think and feel me to be? When I ask myself what I am, and answer: an Englishman, a Chinese, a merchant, a man of no importance, a millionaire, a convict - I find upon analysis that to possess these attributes entails being recognised as belonging to a particular group or class by other persons in my society, and that this recognition is part of the meaning of most of the terms that denote some of my most personal and permanent characteristics. I am not disembodied reason. Nor am I Robinson Crusoe, alone upon his island. It is not only that my material life depends upon interaction with other men, or that I am what I am as a result of social forces, but that some, perhaps all, of my ideas about myself, in particular my sense of my own moral and social identity, are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am (the metaphor must not be pressed too far) an element.
Thus the desire for recognition as a social group is as much an aspect of liberty as any other. Of course, especially in today's ecosystem of what Littlejohn described as "social flopping," the need for an historically principled means to distinguish natural from artificial groups has never been more necessary. In other words, a strong claim for recognition can be weaponized in a way that denies rationality and negates both the negative and positive freedom of others. Yet it should be acknowledged that privileging any of the other quadrants of freedom has led to a similar result.

I short, Littlejohn's lecture was quite stimulating and I look forward to reading the paper that brings all his insights together.

06 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 3.1

(Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Brad Littlejohn originally titled his lecture "Christ and Liberty: Retrieving the Freedom of a Christian in an Age of License." As he explained at the outset of his lecture, his theme morphed into a riff on Isaiah Berlin's famous Two Concepts of Liberty in the days preceding the Convivium. In any event, I'll limit my initial comments to a brief background of the issue and Littlejohn's attempt to re-frame the answers to two important questions: What is freedom? And what is freedom good for?

Littlejohn began with a rapid review of the history of the meaning of freedom in the West through the lenses provided by Hannah Arendt and Oliver O'Donovan. Briefly: freedom for the Greeks = freedom from necessity; for the Romans = freedom as the opposite of tyranny and participation in the life of the commonwealth (rule of law); for Medieval folks = living in a city free from imperial control or in a land with concessions from the king (e.g., Magna Carta); for Reformation-era Protestants = "to serve Him is perfect freedom;" for English constitutionalists = constitutional checks on arbitrary rule plus a dollop of private property (as a means to check arbitrary rule); for Kant = each individual exercising perfect universal rationality (i.e., the categorical imperative); and for J.S. Mill = to experiment with life limited only by the harm principle. Of course, none of these understandings were hermetically sealed from others.

Thence to Isaiah Berlin who famously in 1958 formulated his two concepts of liberty: negative and positive. Liberty in the negative sense is world-centered; no one in the world can act against me. Positive freedom, by contrast, is agent-centered; we are free to seek and serve our true purpose. Berlin did not believe that there is a knowable "true purpose" for all human beings thus leaving negative freedom as the only workable concept. Individuals remain free to pursue their self-identified true purpose of course but no society (and certainly no polity) should seek to "free" itself in a positive direction.

Enter Oliver O'Donovan who as a thoughtful Protestant makes two relevant observations. First, conceptions of freedom vary depending on the nature of the threat perceived by a society. In other words, there is a historically contingent aspect to any understanding of freedom. Second, and more important, whatever one's concept of freedom, it presupposes meaningful choice, i.e., the capacity to take meaningful action. An action, distinguished from a mere act, entails knowledge and moral agency. In yet other words, there must be some good to which a person directs an act for that act to be meaningful (or free). If an act is not meaningful, there's no point to calling it free. Random bursts of undirected activity have no more moral significance than Brownian motion. In such a case there is thus no reason to care about freedom and the sooner we forget about "freedom," the better.

After laying this groundwork, Littlejohn posited the question, Is there a framework or schema that takes seriously the different historical "takes" on freedom? Alternatively, is there a way to correlate freedom from external necessity, the rule of law, reason, pursuit of the Good, and to allow room for moral agency? His answer will comprise my next post.

04 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 2

(Part 1 of my commentary on 2019's Convivium Irenicum here.)

Jared Eckert presented "‘You Are Not Your Own,’ Exposing the Limits of Libertarian Self-Ownership and the Non-Aggression Principle." Or, in my words, what Murray Rothbard gets wrong.

Libertarianism comes in many flavors but two propositions provide the principles of most libertarian ethics and political theory. The first is the non-aggression principle. Quoting Murray Rothbard,
The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. …“Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.
Second is the correlative axiom of individual self-ownership. As summarized by Eckert:
The thesis of self-ownership asserts that the individual’s exclusive use of and lack of interference in her person implies a natural and complete ownership of herself. Self-ownership is thus comprehensive: it extends to the entirety of one’s own person—body, capacities, skills, and labor.
From these two propositions hang all that follows including natural rights (notably the natural rights to life and property). (Note: some libertarians disclaim its ethical pretensions, referring to libertarianism as a political theory only. Go herehere, and here for my observations on that claim.)

After providing a fair explanation of the moral intuitions that ground libertarianism's suppositions, and elaborating the goods that follow from them -- "human rights, the respect for human dignity, and the maximum individual freedom" -- Eckert asks, “What's missing?”

In Eckert's analysis, the axiom of individual self-ownership is problematic: no individual human self exists (or has ever existed) except as embedded in an existing social relationship: child « parents « family « larger social groups. An absolute right to self-ownership cannot be grounded in an absolute self that exists not as a natural fact but only as a heuristic device. Embedded as humans are, they owe duties as well as possess rights. This gap is a serious problem for "insofar as they depend upon self-ownership, human rights, private property, and the non-aggression principle are left vulnerable."

Insofar as ...

On what can human rights and the respect for human dignity as well as the individual be grounded if not self-ownership? Eckert expends some effort to reach two conclusions with a limiting corollary. First,
Any Protestant account of human rights or ownership or dominion must acknowledge this reality: that the world belongs to God. For only God can be said to own the world in the truest sense. Necessarily, this means that man’s dominion and possession is only ever secondary and derivative. Indeed, because everything belongs to God, man cannot be an owner in any real sense at all. Rather, he is a steward.
Second, 
God gives man dominion [not absolute ownership] over the earth. And this dominion enables humanity to make use of the world according to their needs. Private property may be established on this basis. Because man is given dominion for his survival and for his flourishing, property enables him to achieve those things. ... This dominion, though it does not produce a natural right of self-ownership, is the natural corollary to man’s being able to create private property. This would mean that private property is not “socially constructed” in the sense that it is totally artificial and arbitrary. Rather, though it does not exist in nature, private property is a social reality that is derived from a natural ability found in man—namely, his God-given dominion and ability to make use of things.
On the other hand, "mankind’s circumscribed dominion has significant implications. First, it implies that there are limits on private property and ownership. Private property does not exist for its own sake, as something intrinsically good." In other words, property has an end or purpose, which may limit its licit (and legal) use.

Yet, as Eckert observes, 
The individual is not left without rights and/or vulnerable to aggression because he does not own himself by nature. For the individual does not simply lack ownership in herself; she belongs to God. So there are still limits on aggression. Neither the state nor others have a right to treat a person as if she only belonged to them. For a person belongs not to himself, nor to any other, but principally to God.
In short, an ethical and political philosophy grounded in the truths of the Christian religion gives the anthropological foundation that libertarianism lacks. (Shameless plug: such is the conclusion for which I argued in Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here or here).)

I'm confident that most Christians who lean libertarian would agree with Eckert's critique of libertarianism. What is more important, however, is that two of the virtues of libertarianism -- it's simple, intuitive premises and "clean edges" when it comes to limits on civil government -- aren't quite as easy as folks might like. Which means, as if anyone needed to be reminded, that ethics and politics stand in need wisdom.

03 June 2019

Convivium Irenicum 2019 Part 1

A week earlier than usual, Laureldale Cottage (a/k/a Davenant  House) was the site of the seventh annual Convivium Irenicum. (Concluding  posts on the previous Convivia I attended can be found herehere, here, here, and here.) Sponsored by the Davenant Institute, these annual events bring together academic and non-academic scholars, pastors, and assorted others around the project of retrieving of the wisdom of the Protestant catholic tradition and translating it to the current situation.

The theme this year was "Reforming Justice: Protestant Wisdom, Economic Freedom, and Modern Injustice." "Justice" in the West is part of a long and well-developed tradition of biblical, philosophical, theological, and political reflection. The current emphasis on "social justice" both inside and outside the Church added a note of timeliness to this year's Convivium. What will follow in this and subsequent posts will be a series of my reflections on some of the papers that were presented. This year set a record for break-out sessions so I won't comment on all the papers but they will eventually be published, as have those of previous years. (For my comments on one of the earlier collections go here.)

The airline connections of a number of folks, including our keynote speaker, were delayed so the Covivium began with a presentation of a work-in-progress by Joe Minich titled "Labor, Dominion, and Alienation." Joe's paper began with three preliminaries (on what he was not aiming to accomplish), thirteen reflections ramifying the title, and ending with eight "Reflections on an Economy of Love." I found the latter most interesting because I've given some thought to the same topic, at least as it pertains to the social practice of contracting. In my words, what factors would have characterized exchange in an Edenic economy? (My thoughts here and here.)

Minich's eight reflections began with the "limited claim that the societal project that dawned in the coming of the Lord Jesus, to the extent that it moves us toward a restored vision of human relations, makes the Christian church (in the broadest sense of that term) a key site for testifying to how human communities may treat one another." In other words, he was not looking to change contract law or even the social practice of contracting as a whole but to give Christians insights into how they might re-frame their participation in the market.

The framework for Minich's analysis of the economics of love includes the following, rather startling, observation:
The New Testament--written in a context of plenty of social injustice--makes an uncomfortable move for modern persons. It is precisely in the task of loving that we find a dimension of the human calling (its most essential form) from which we cannot be alienated by the workings of other men--a task for which we are each individually gifted. And while Paul encourages those who can get their freedom to get it, he encourages those who cannot get their freedom to love their masters. But why? It is not just to “be good,” but precisely as a mode of dominion relative to the master!
For all the sense of alienation experienced by those with "bullshit jobs," no one can be alienated from loving those whom they so uselessly (or even oppressively) serve. As Minich elaborates, the Christian call to live other-directed lives of love undercut the moral warrant for the institution of slavery. Dominion through love, in other words, doesn't reify unjust relationships, it subverts them. (Which does not, Minich also observes, exclude other, more direct assaults, on injustice.)

Minich could only gesture to how a dominion of love might redirect the moral imaginary supporting the contemporary distended, alienating economy toward one in which participants recognize their mutual birthrights to administer the resources of the world as stewards of the creator God (in accord with their particular gifts). I can hope that the final version of this paper will provide some examples. In the interim, Minich gives grist for the mill of reconsidering how the material flourishing of the contemporary world order can also provide greater space for human flourishing.

28 May 2019

A Perla of Great Price?

Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy--one of my perennial topics (try here, here, and here for some samples)--is at long last back in the news.

Go here to read a news story in Bloomberg (may be behind a paywall) for a brief account of the filing by a tiny (population 245) Arkansas town named Perla.

Whatever ails Perla is likely a one-off. There will be no widespread rush to Chapter 9 as long as interest rates remain low and the economy continues to grow. But come the next economic downturn ...

02 May 2019

Earning My Keep

As most readers of this blog already know, I have been in India since early January as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar. (Backstory and some posts of interest here, here, here, and here.) The topic for my grant was broad: To research the implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016. With help from my National Law University, Delhi colleague Risham Garg and interviews with insolvency professionals, we refined the scope of the project, created and circulated a questionnaire, analyzed the responses, conducted further interviews, presented an early working draft of a paper, and now, at long last, have published a working draft of our paper. You can download it by going here.

Quoting from the abstract:
Pryor and Garg have undertaken a multi-pronged project to understand certain aspects of the implementation of India’s new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (“IBC”). Their efforts have included a questionnaire as well as interviews of resolution  professionals, other insolvency professionals, representatives of several of the Insolvency Professional Agencies, and officials of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India.
Pryor and Garg have identified several problematic developments as a result of their research that in turn have led them to three preliminary conclusions:
1. Vesting near-plenary control of the Corporate Resolution Insolvency Process (CIRP) with a Committee of Creditors composed of only financial creditors leads to a perception of inequitable distributions between the class of financial creditors and the class of operational creditors.
2. The CIRP provisions of the IBC may be inconsistent with public policy because they have been construed in a way that fails to protect vested charges that secured creditors may have against the property or assets of the corporate debtor.
3. The CIRP provisions and accompanying regulations fall short of the standards of procedural fairness.
In addition to conducting additional empirical research to test their preliminary conclusions, Pryor and Garg suggest that the CIRP Regulations be revised to provide that: (i) the any resolution plan provide for payment the value of the secured claims of holders of registered charges in assets of the corporate debtor; (ii) any resolution plan disclose the bases for the allocation of value within the class of financial creditors and between the classes of financial and operational creditors; and (iii) the Committee of Creditors provide reasons for any deviation from the norm of equitable distribution of any residual enterprise value among financial and operational creditors.
I hope that releasing this draft will generate helpful comments, necessary corrections, and thoughtful critiques. If the IBC interests you, please read the paper, and share the link to it with like-minded folks.

Cass Sunstein on "Ism-ism"

More fully: Ismism, Or Has Liberalism Ruined Everything? (only 11 pages, download here).

Sunstein's piece was occasioned by the recent remarks of Yoram Hazony (see my thoughts on Hazony's recent book, The Virtue of Nationalism, here) at Harvard Law School. But Sunstein's essay has a much wider aim than Hazony. He observes that of late a variety of folks have identified "liberalism" with a whole host of contemporary pathologies:
There has been considerable recent discussion of the social effects of “liberalism,” which are said to include (among other things) a growth in out-of-wedlock childbirth, repudiation of traditions (religious and otherwise), a rise in populism, increased reliance on technocracy, inequality, environmental degradation, sexual promiscuity, deterioration of civic associations, a diminution of civic virtue, political correctness on university campuses, and a general sense of alienation.
Sunstein notes some issues with claims of this sort. First, rarely do the folks making them pause to define carefully the term "liberalism". And then, when they proffer a definition, it is often one that many self-described liberals would reject. And for a simple reason:
Within the universe of "isms," liberalism includes such a wide range of positions. John Locke thought differently from Adam Smith, and John Rawls fundamentally disagreed with John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Raz, Milton Friedman, Ronald Dworkin, and Jeremy Waldron are not easy to put in the same category.
While he does not deny that there might be such a set of ideas as "liberalism", Sunstein concludes that the multitude of forms of liberalism in most cases make its ascription an act of interpretation, not one of identification.

But there's more. Simply identifying a thinker or policy or program as "liberal" is rarely the purpose of its ascription. Instead, liberalism often is presented as the cause of something bad: "These are often styled as empirical claims, with the apparent or implicit suggestion that 'liberalism' is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for an assortment of what are taken to be negative outcomes or trends." In other words, liberalism has agentic powers.

Yet, merely asserting the causal power of liberalism on the part of its critics doesn't fully describe the nub of Sunstein's essay. Instead,
The problem is that liberalism is not a person or an agent. It is a constellation of ideas. A causal explanation of negative outcomes or trends must depend on the identification and investigation of competing hypothesis and an encounter with the evidence. In the abstract, we cannot rule out the possibility that in some sense, liberalism is responsible for one or another trend, just as we cannot rule out the possibility that the real culprit is misogyny, racism, feminism, capitalism, atheism, rock music, political correctness, television, economic growth, modern birth control, the iPhone, Facebook, or the Internet. Even so, the idea that “liberalism” is responsible for lower marriage rates, the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, the stalling of Brexit, same-sex marriage, high rates of economic growth, low rates of economic growth, or speech codes on university campuses is puzzling and even reckless.
In short, it seems Sunstein agrees with what I've written here, here, and here in the context of "worldview thinking." Without a genuine and recognizable definition of liberalism, and a careful historical account of how we got from there and then to here and now, the assertion of a contemporary malady to liberalism may be little more than virtue-signalling to a particular audience.

Yet, just as I've challenged the easy dismissals of liberalism, those that fail to account for the many goods liberalism (by any definition) has delivered, I think Sunstein has cherry-picked from among liberalism's naysayers. There are, in other words, thoughtful writers who have done what Sunstein says hasn't been done. Consider, for example, de Tocqueville from the nineteenth century and more contemporary folks like Charles Taylor (here), George Marsden (here), Alasdair MacIntyre (here), Roger Scruton (here), and Oliver O'Donovan (various posts).

There are trenchant, historically detailed accounts of the genealogies of contemporary pathologies that should persuade a thoughtful reader that yes, liberalism of whatever flavor bears a measure of responsibility. Don't be taken by Sunstein's hand waving. The constellation of ideas associated with liberalism--not alone but in significant part-- have grown some bad fruit.