18 June 2018

"First Reformed"

For those growing up in the Reformed Protestant subculture in the Midwest, going to "First Reformed" at 9:45 AM would seem entirely appropriate. Well, maybe 9:30 would have been better but starting with the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism would have made up for a late start to the service. Of course, we went to see Paul Schrader's most recent film on a Saturday morning, not a service of divine worship.

In some respects "First Reformed" represents the opposite perspective on contemporary American Christianity to that of "I Can Only Imagine" (here). In a more fundamental sense, however, "First Reformed" represents the personal vision of its director, Paul Schrader. To be sure, Schrader has his primary character, the Dutch Reformed Reverend Toller played by Ethan Hawke, assert early on that he has not lost his faith. Yet, pastor Toller's life as depicted loses whatever vital connection it may have had to the truth of the comforting profession of the Catechism he had recited. As is the case with Schrader himself.

Set in 2017 in the burned-over district of New York, former Army chaplain Toller, whose wife had divorced him after the death of their only child in the war in Iraq, now serves as pastor of the eponymous church/gift shop/tourist stop. First Reformed subsists only at the largess of Abundant Life Church, a nearby mega-church lead by an African-American pastor effectively (under)played by Cedric the Entertainer. Coming up on the 250th anniversary of First Reformed's founding, Abundant Life is promoting a politically star-studded reconsecration service. BALQ industries which, according to whether one believes environmental activists or the company's PR flack, either is or is not one of the leading sources of environmental degradation in the US, is providing the money for the event.

I won't retell the story of the downward spiral of Toller's life as he ignores signs of cancer within and becomes increasingly fixated on the human environmental "cancer." I can say, however, that Schrader's conclusion for the film was a let down. For a film that had pretensions of deep thoughts about the environment, God's simultaneous absence and prospective judgment, and a pastor's increasing personal disintegration, the film ends with a long embrace between Toller and the pregnant widow of an activist who had committed suicide. Schrader seems to suggest that interpersonal love is humanity's best hope. Not God. Not even environmental activism. But love.

Love is surely a great power for good in the world but given what came before, Schrader seems to have run out of creative juice and ends what had been a serious film with 1940s schmaltz. Oh yeah, and after the 360-degree embrace, the film cuts to black and we wait five seconds before the credits roll.

I can't really recommend that folks see "First Reformed." The production values, particularly its cinematography, are very good and for significant stretches "First Reformed" invites us to consider hard questions. In other words, geeky Christians might find it a platform for discussion. Yet in the end, "First Reformed" simply doesn't deliver on its promise.

Calvin on the Nature and Extent of Public Authority

Consider the following selections from John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." While far less than a complete statement of Calvin's political theology (or its development over the past 450 years), they go some way toward framing its first steps

4.20.23 Obedience Due ...
From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defence, or in executing any other orders. “Let every soul,” says Paul, “be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:1, 2). Writing to Titus, he says, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Tit. 3:1). Peter also says, “Submit yourselves to every human creature” (or rather, as I understand it, “ordinance of man”), “for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2:13). ... Let no man here deceive himself, since we cannot resist the magistrate without resisting God. For, although an unarmed magistrate may seem to be despised with impunity, yet God is armed, and will signally avenge this contempt. ...

4.20.24 ... Even to an Unjust Magistrate ...
But ... in almost all ages we see that some princes, careless about all their duties on which they ought to have been intent, live, without solicitude, in luxurious sloth; others, bent on their own interest, venally prostitute all rights, privileges, judgments, and enactments; others pillage poor people of their money, and afterwards squander it in insane largesses; others act as mere robbers, pillaging houses, violating matrons, and slaying the innocent; many cannot be persuaded to recognise such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey. For while in this unworthy conduct, and among atrocities so alien, not only from the duty of the magistrate, but also of the man, they behold no appearance of the image of God, which ought to be conspicuous in the magistrate, while they see not a vestige of that minister of God, who was appointed to be a praise to the good and a terror to the bad, they cannot recognise the ruler whose dignity and authority Scripture recommends to us. ...

4.20.25 ... Because He Represents the Judgment of God ... 
But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes... Those ...who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power... We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord’s anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God. But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

4.20.32 ... Yet There Are Limits
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! ... If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. ...The Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. ...  So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that pretence by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves, and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings ... I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. ... But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety.

15 June 2018

The End of the Line for Trinity Western University's Law Program?

As I worried here and here, it turns out that Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Columbia effectively will not be allowed to add a program in law to its curriculum. You can read the news account of the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada here. (Full text of the judgment here.) 

Along the way there had been a sighting of what turned out to be a false dawn (here) but by a 7-2 vote SCOC held that requiring students to agree not to engage in sexual conduct outside of marriage permitted provincial bar councils (the equivalent of state bar associations in the US) to deny admission of TWU law grads to practice law because, after all, such a pledge "would deter LGBT students from attending the proposed law school, and those who did attend would be at risk of significant harm." Of course, it's not like TWU would have been the only law game in town but no matter. Given that most bar councils do not have the backbone to resist the LGBTQ harridans, there seems little point for TWU to go forward.

And folks wonder why Donald Trump won down here.

(Yes, I know that there's little evidence that The Donald gives a personal rip about freedom of conscience or religious liberty. And yes, I know that there were lots of reasons other than anti-elitist bias not to vote for him (which, as a matter of fact, were sufficient for me) but I hope that virtue-signaling Evangelicals will wake up and smell the coffee and appreciate the genuine concerns of those who did.)

14 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 3: Natural Theology

(For Part 1 go here and for the three-parter on Part 2 go here, here, and here.)

Now that I've demonstrated the bona fides of Reformed Catholicism--that it's catholic--let's go on to look at a specific example, natural theology. Many for good reason might believe that Protestantism generally and the Reformed specifically reject natural theology tout court. Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til didn't agree on much but they concurred that we can learn nothing true, or virtually nothing, anyway, about God from either the created order or human reason. But the many who think that Barth and Van Til are representative of their tradition would be wrong. Just how wrong could be seen in the papers of Steven Duby and David Haines.

It would be very hard to do justice to Duby's paper, Reformed Catholicity and the Analogy of Being, so I won't try. I can imagine that vast swathes of twentieth-century Reformed theologians would gag at anyone who argued that there was a place for the analogia entis in orthodox Reformed theological circles. But I would suspect that most of the naysayers would not know how theologians in the medieval and early-modern eras understood the concept of the analogy of being. They would likely think that the analogy of being meant that God "had" being and that we somehow shared in the substance of being. Analogy as substantial participation, if you will. But they likely would not have know the careful work of Thomas Aquinas who distinguished three modes predication generally, including the predication of being. Were I to go on I would merely cut and paste what Duby wrote so I'll let you buy the book when it's published later this year (or early next). Okay, one teaser:
In the commentary of the Sentences [of Peter Lombard], he [Thomas] writes that the unity of Creator and creature is "by a community not of univocation but of analogy." Analogical "community," though is twofold: either by posterior things participating in a prior thing or by one thing receiving its existence and ratio from another. God does not participate with creatures in something prior to both himself and creatures ... Later in this commentary, Thomas remarks that univocity assumes a "community according to the ratio of nature" with diversity according to (individual) existence, which community cannot apply in the case of God and creatures ... Accordingly, ... a predicate like being ... is predicated analogically of God and creatures [only] insofar as creatures imperfectly imitate God and are thus "like God" (even as God is, strictly speaking, not "like" creatures).
Those into theology proper will find this helpful and recognize that Protestant theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries would have agreed. Perhaps had Barth and Van Til better understood scholastic distinctions they wouldn't have steered the generations who followed in the wrong direction.

David Haines's paper, The Role of Natural Knowledge in Biblical Interpretation as Key to Solving the Protestant Problem, was, I think the longest of those presented. It was also a work-in-progress. But in a brief summary, what, according to Haines, is the problem and what's his solution?

First, what is "the Protestant problem" anyway? In brief, and citing Karl Rahner, it is that Protestantism "places priority on individual conscience in response to revelation (i.e., the Bible or the Bible plus the experience of salvation) as its defining characteristic. As such it must create the possibility of interpretive difference in doctrine, practice, and polity." In other words, a catholic Protestant is a happy accident.

Second, what's the solution to the every-Protestant-a-Pope problem? For that, Haines turns to natural theology to sort between those beliefs that are primary (and thus catholic) and those with respect to which interpretive pluralism remains an unhappy fact of life. I must admit that while I appreciated Haines's vigorous defense of natural theology, I didn't quite see how it solved the Protestant problem. Oh well, that gives all of us something to which we can look forward as we await publication of the book.

12 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (3)

(For Parts (1) and (2) of the "Defining Catholic" project go here and here. For Part 1 observations go here.)

This post represents the final one on identifying the "catholic" in Reformed catholicism. Michael Allen, on faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, was the keynote speaker and presented his paper The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity. Together with Scott Swain, Allen is the author of the recent book "Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation" (2015). Drawing on the thesis of his book and the theme of the Convivium, Allen argued for two principal points. First, pace Richard Muller (the preeminent scholar of early Protestant historical theology), the initial generations of theologians in the Reformed tradition actually had a "central dogma." And second, this central dogma was part and parcel with the historical catholic tradition.

Most folks might immediately assume that the "central dogma" of the early Reformed theologians was predestination. Muller has successfully debunked the canard that the doctrine of election was the starting point of Reformed theology from which all other doctrines were in some way deduced. The Reformed certainly believed in God's election of some to salvation but this teaching represented the conclusion of close exegesis of the biblical text and not as the a priori from which other doctrines were derived. In fact, Muller contends that exegesis and not doctrine is the "central art" of the Reformed.

Allen did not dispute the centrality of exegesis to the Reformed project but painstakingly demonstrated that there was nonetheless a central dogma. This dogma was the doctrine of God. This doctrine did not, however, function as an abstract, metaphysical starting point for a series of successive speculative conclusions. Instead, the Reformed doctrine of God first found its origin in biblical exegesis and then functioned as an organic root from which other dogmatic, exegetical projects drew sustenance. Drawing on Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, Allen concludes that "the simple fulness of the triune God is the root [not pre-supposition] of Reformed faith and practice." 

For his second contention, Allen showed how the Reformed doctrine of God did not represent an innovation. "While [the doctrine of God] may well be the root of uniquely Reformed claims, this doctrinal prism is generically catholic." Thomas Aquinas, anyone?

Allen went on to spend considerable time developing the exegetical work done by the reformers in the Reformed tradition in which they fleshed out the content of the doctrine of God. In this respect they built on the catholic root of the doctrine without losing sight of the value of the contributions made by those who had lived and worked in earlier generations. Allen ended his paper in the following words:
But this doctrine does advance the glory of Reformed theology and draws us from the outer courts into the Most Holy Place, for the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is how its thoroughly catholic doctrine of God is applied [ever-more] consistently to the other topics of theology, just as the kingdoms of our thought become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.

07 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (2)

(For "Defining Catholic (1)" go here. For earlier Convivium 2018 posts go here ("It's Ecclesiology, Stupid") and here.)

Mark Olivero titled his paper The Catholicity of Reformed Confessions in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Olivero's thesis is simple: despite differences in national identity, language, culture, and ecclesial commitments in their various regions, the manifold Reformed confessions "display a vibrant catholicity." He considers confessional statements from Reformed churches across fourteen nations and at least five ecclesial traditions over the course of nearly two centuries. Despite this range of resources, Olivero identifies four aspects of common catholicity: a high regard for the early church councils, affirmance of the early creeds and the early church fathers, the principial authority of the Scriptures, and a love for the Church. I won't take the time to develop the support Olivero cites for each of the elements of early Reformed catholicity but suffice it to say that it is extensive.

One might concede that there are significant aspects of catholicity among the Reformed confessions but nonetheless assert that there many discordant, non-catholic elements as well. Anticipating this objection, Olivero observes that the "fact, across the 200 year span ... that there are so few oddities is further witness to their catholicity."

Olivero acknowledged that he could have pursued more aspects of catholicity in these documents (specifically the classical doctrines of God and the doctrine of grace) but what he did goes a substantial way toward establishing that the early confessions of the many Reformed churches were well within the historic catholic tradition.

06 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (1)

If Brad Littlejohn is right (see my summary of his paper here) and Reformed catholicity is "some combination of ... orthodoxy plus orthopraxis--applied with a charitable bent," we are still left with the question of defining the perimeter of orthodoxy. In other words, what is the "catholic faith" that measure the bounds of Reformed Catholicity?

Three papers addressed some aspect of this question. First was Andre Gazal's Reforming Catholicity in Tudor England: John Jewel's Doctrine of the Universal Church. To an extent hard to appreciate today, maintaining England's identity as a "catholic nation" was a matter of national security in the 16th century. Without a credible claim to catholicity on the part of the Church of England (credible at least to a substantial majority of the subjects of Queen Elizabeth I), the stability of the Tudor monarch and the viability of the reformation of England's church would have been exposed to even graver danger than already was the case. If enough folks believed England's church and queen were outside the catholic fold, they might be persuaded to take action to remedy matters in the way the Pope and Philip II hoped.

Enter John Jewel (1522-1571), bishop of Salisbury whose works Gazal ably summarizes to the effect that catholicity was reconfigured from communion with the bishop of Rome to a worked-out version of the Vincentian Canon (catholic belief is that which has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all"). Elaborating on what Vincent of Lerins had written, Jewel first identified four criteria for orthodoxy: Scripture, the first four ecoumenical councils, the writings of the church fathers, and the example of the primitive (i.e., first 600 years) of the church. The reformed Church of England, Jewel concluded, easily satisfied these criteria of orthodoxy (while the Church of Rome did not). The CoE thus remained catholic and the duties of the subjects of England's catholic queen remained unimpaired.

Gazal goes on to develop Jewel's defense of the episcopal government of the Church of England and its concomitant rejection of assertions of papal monarchianism as well as Jewel's revision of late-medieval conciliarism with an eye to undercutting the authority of the Council of Trent. I won't summarize these parts of his paper or the conclusions Gazal draws from them but I can say I found all of them persuasive.

05 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 1: "It's Ecclesiology, Stupid"

I gave a brief preview of this year's Convivium Irenicum sponsored by The Davenant Institute here. Brad Littlejohn, Davenant's president, presented the lead-off paper fully titled It's the Ecclesiology, Stupid: Why Reformed Catholicity Requires a Reformed Doctrine of the Church. The initial part of Littlejohn's paper divided into two parts. First, what if it's not true that the body of Christ, the Church, has been torn into pieces at war with one another? To be sure, everyone talks as if the ever-expanding universe of denominations represents the Church torn asunder. Yet, ultimately that cannot be the case because, as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, there is in fact only one Church of which, as the temporally extended body of Christ, all Christians are members. Empirical appearances cannot destroy the ontological reality of the Church.

Even so, one cannot but help wonder at the place of the extraordinary institutional diversity among the churches. What warrants such diversity and what, if anything, should be done about it? Littlejohn observed that the questions of warrant and response drive us to the question of the nature of temporal being of the Church. In other words, should the Church principally be understood from an objective, institutional perspective, in which case divisions (denominations) represent a decidedly suboptimal state of affairs? Or should we approach the nature of the empirical Church from the subjective side, that is, as consisting of all who assert they are Christians? Or mixing objective and subjective, is the Church all who confess certain core (catholic) doctrines? Or all who engage in certain practices? Or, finally, from a transcendent perspective, is the Church all who in reality are united to Christ?

Each of these variations of what comprises the Church on earth and in time has advantages as well as disadvantages. The final take on how to identify the Church--the mystical body of Christ--while true, promptly evaporates into ephemera because, well, it cannot be known until after the fact and thus presents little with which we time-bound folks can work in the here and now. The first--the Church as institution--finds no warrant in the New Testament and easily slides into sectarianism. The second--I'm part of the Church because I say so--renders meaningful organizational unity almost impossible. Thus, some combination of variations three and four--orthodoxy plus orthopraxis--applied with a charitable bent seems to be about the best we can do. Which, it so happens, roughly describes the approach of the magisterial Reformers. In other words, belief and practice frame Reformed catholicity.

So far I've described only the first half of Littlejohn's paper. He spent the next segment addressing meaningful (and not-so-helpful) approaches to ecumenicity. Given that from the Reformed catholic perspective the Church has identifiable substance, how should we go about making that substance empirically visible? After pursuing some nineteenth and twenty-first century approaches (think Schaff, Nevin, Hodge, and Leithart) at length, Littlejohn frames the ecclesial question in terms of the classical doctrine of personal sanctification:
The Protestant ought to recognize that the task of ecumenism is always a matter of the church's sanctification, not its justification. Our divisions, however, great, never threaten the being of the church, or our standing in Christ, but they do certainly threaten our well-being.
I won't tax my readers' patience (or sate their appetites, as the case may be) with Littlejohn's conclusions for what should be done. Suffice it to say there was much food for thought. What I can say, however, is that you can expect to see a final version of this paper as well as the others published in softcover book form by The Davenant Press sometime in the next year. (And for a reasonable price.)

30 May 2018

Convivium Irenicum 2018: Preview

It's that time of year again, time for 2018 Convivium Irenicum hosted by The Davenant Institute. (For final posts of previous Convivia go here (2014), here (2015), here (2016), and here (2017).)

This year's theme is "Exploring Reformed Catholicity: The Whole Word for the Whole Church." I've worked through several of the papers that will be presented and they look well-suited to explain how (and how we know that) the Reformed tradition of Protestantism is a constituent part of the long arc of catholic Christianity. The veracity of such a claim is especially timely in light of the recently published book, "Christian: The Politics of a Word in America" (reviewed in Christianity Today here), which argues from the fact that there are multiple inconsistent accounts of the meaning of the word "Christian" to the conclusion that Christianity does not--indeed cannot--exist.

I plan to live-tweet (Twitter handle: @profpryor) various of the presentations and follow up with longer blog posts when time permits.

Two more things. We will also enjoy worship and plenty of conviviality in a beautiful setting  so, all in all, it's fair to say that I'm looking forward to a great three days.

27 May 2018

"I Can Only Imagine" "Chappaquiddick"

Over the past two weeks we saw two films in theaters: "I Can Only Imagine," the story of Bart Millard, MercyMe, and the eponymous hit CCM song and "Chappaquiddick," a realistic retelling of the weekend in July, 1969 that saw the end of the life of Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy's presidential hopes.

I can recommend both. "I Can Only Imagine" avoids the moralizing of some Christian-themed movies (here). The life of young Bart Millard and his abusive father Arthur (played by Dennis Quaid) is clearly indicated without overindulging visual presentation. And, while some might dislike any film with a satisfying ending, "I Can Only Imagine" did not cross the line into sentimentalism.

"Chappaquiddick" most certainly did not have a happy ending. A dark movie, in my wife's three-word summary. Especially by sticking close to the facts as subsequently established and presenting the character of Ted Kennedy with a plausible modicum--but only that, a modicum--of sympathy, "Chappaquiddick" dispels any lingering myth of Kennedy-clan moral superiority. It also shows how, at one time anyway, someone with access to enormous power and an enormously powerful retinue of family loyalists, could create "the narrative" that would dominate public understanding of events.

Neither film is a breakout box office success so I can encourage readers to track them down before they retire to the world of streaming.

23 May 2018

The End of Legislation

Go here to download an excellent essay by Georgetown law professor Lawrence Solum, Virtue as the End of Law. The title of my post is a bit narrower because I believe the take-away from Solum's essay is more appropriate to the work of legislators than judges. Cribbing from his abstract we read that "the fundamental aim of law should be the promotion of human flourishing, where a flourishing human life is understood as a life of rational and social activities that express the human excellences."

Adopting a neo-Aristotelian anthropology (humans are rational and social beings) and understanding of the virtues ("dispositional qualities that are partly constitutive of human flourishing"), Solum singles out several virtues and the legislative ends that would enhance them:
Human flourishing requires peace and prosperity, so legislation should aim at the elimination of violence and poverty. Human flourishing requires lives of rational and social activity, so legislation should aim at creating vibrant communities with opportunities for meaningful work and play that engage our rational capacities. Human flourishing requires the virtues, so legislation should aim at creating the conditions for healthy emotional and intellectual development.

Just how legislation could bring about these ends occupies a part of the essay that you can read for yourself. Solum frankly acknowledges that a virtue-centered approach to law is subject to challenges in terms of empirical questions (exactly how should a law go about enhancing the virtue of rational activity?) and of the potentially feckless nature of legislators (who might be more interested in personal gain than the common good). In other words, Solum's is not an ideal theory; it accounts for the reality of a fallen world even if not in that turn of phrase.

Having agreed with the substance of Solum's essay to this point, I was intrigued when he came to his discussion of the virtue of justice itself. Justice is, as even Aristotle acknowledged, an unusual virtue. Exactly what human excellency does the virtue of justice instantiate? I spend some time on this in Revisiting Unconscionability: Reciprocity and Justice, which will appear as a chapter in "Christianity and Private Law" to be published by Cambridge University Press next year. A bit of a preview:
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle used his familiar dialectic method to divide the single virtue of justice into two sorts. The first, what Aristotle labeled general justice, was simply the perfection of all other virtues. By contrast, the second kind of justice--particular justice--addressed the allocation (and potential reallocation) of goods (social, political, and material) within a community. Aristotle in turn divided particular justice into two components, distributive and corrective. Distributive justice addressed the initial allocation of the goods while with corrective justice Aristotle identified the circumstances when an existing allocation of goods was improperly disrupted as well as the measure of its restoration. The existing distribution of goods could be disrupted either by an involuntary transaction (tort) or by a voluntary transaction (contract).

In other words, for Aristotle the virtue of justice was either a capstone of all virtues--and thus well beyond the end of any particular piece of legislation--or a virtue having to do with (re)allocation of the host of goods present in a society. Legislation, then, if it is to enhance the personal practice of justice, can do so in only a secondary way. In other words, justice-oriented legislation is about remedies for injustice. To be sure, a person pursing a life of virtue can draw some lessons from the panoply of remedies for a variety of injustices but those remedies pertain most directly to the vicious among us.

But note Solum's take on the virtue of justice:

the key idea is that justice is a disposition to internalise widely shared and deeply held social norms (or nomoi) that govern human interaction. We can call this conception of justice, ‘Justice as Lawfulness’ (hereinafter capitalised to mark the sense of the phrase that is stipulated here), where the term lawfulness is understood in a wide sense that includes social norms and positive enactments – to the extent that such enactments are recognised as authoritative by the relevant social norms.
It's not to say that Solum's understanding of justice as virtue is incorrect but only that at this point he differs from his guide, Aristotle. Perhaps the extraordinary increase in the number of laws since the fourth century BC(E) explains why Solum recasts the virtue of justice. Or perhaps it is the need for a different notion of the virtue of justice in an increasingly pluralistic West. After all, legislators should take special care to align law and nomoi in modern states no longer represent a unified nation with a common understanding of right and wrong, virtue and vice.

Except, they don't. Current legislators (and their judicial cousins who legislate from the bench) all too often give little regard to the social norms of the people governed by the law they create. There is thus a substantial (and, it seems to me, growing) gap between nomoi and law, which makes the virtue of Justice as Lawfulness ever more elusive. This state of affairs is regrettable and tends to undercut whatever other virtues legislation may cultivate.

When all is said and done, it seems that a virtue-centered approach to legislation has limited value in the contemporary situation. A nation with lack of consensus about the virtues and a legislature and judiciary populated by groups with interests inconsistent with whatever nomoi remain cannot place much hope in a view of law that finds its roots in a classical (and Christian) past. That is not to say there is no place for virtue-enhancing law in a post-liberal political order but only that as much as I appreciate Solum's argument I believe we continue to suffer under the tyranny of a rights-centered approach for the foreseeable future.

17 May 2018

Patterns of Urbanization and Municipal Bankruptcy

A significant number of American cities including its 18th largest, Detroit, filed Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy during the long, slow recovery from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. I blogged about Detroit (here and here) and Stockton (here and here) many times. As I mentioned this past week, I also published a couple of articles on the topic of Chapter 9 bankruptcy: Municipal Bankruptcy: When Doing Less Is Doing Best (download here or here) and Who Bears the Burden? The Place for Participation of Municipal Residents in Chapter 9 (here or here).

I have previously posted about some of the causes of municipal insolvency in America. Featured among them is "debt-overhang," frequently caused when a city's political leadership promises generous retirement benefits to current employees who retire many years later. In other words, city leaders of yesteryear wrote checks that their successors--and current taxpayers--must honor. Demographic matters also play a role.

You can read about another structural explanation here. In a review titled "Suburban Ponzi Scheme" Peter Leithart draws from a book about by Charles Marohn, Jr. Marohn explains that something like the debt-overhang is even more pervasive than that caused by feckless municipal politicians. Specifically, the phenomenon of post-World War 2 suburbanization could not have taken place without federal and local subsidies in the form of highway transportation (think, the interstate highway system), other infrastructure expenditures, and subsidies for home mortgages (an earlier related observation here). We don't often think of roads, infrastructure, and mortgages as examples of governmental subsidies but as Leithart summarizes,
Since World War II, suburbanization has occurred in several phases. First, “transfer payments” from state and federal government funded “local growth initiatives such as new roads, sewers, industrial parks and community facilities.” Then there was spending on transportation, especially the interstate highway system. The third phase was funded by debt, mostly “non-governmental debt including mortgages, commercial real estate loans, credit cards and more.”
What the quote misses is how the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage also represents an federal intrusion into the market. As I wrote here five years ago,
Apparently it's not enough that the federal government already subsidizes home building, buying, and selling with the home mortgage interest deduction. Anything that might bring market discipline to bear on consumer real estate transactions is anathema to big business. (And make no mistake: The construction and real estate lobbies are very big and very powerful. You might read my earlier post on American state capitalism here.)
One might wonder what problem Marohn identifies. Sure, government intervention in the market is far more pervasive then many folks realize (read an excellent review of the history of capitalism here and my earlier comments about capitalisms here) but, given what government could subsidize (say, ethanol), what's so bad about roads, infrastructure, and home mortgages? I'll let Marohn explain:
With each increment of new growth, the city assumes the long-term liability of maintaining all improvements deemed "public." This can only work if one of two things turns out to be true: the city’s growth – specifically, the increase of tax revenues from the growth catalyzed by the schemes – will “exceed the long-term maintenance and replacement cost of infrastructure the public is now obligated to maintain”; or, the city will continue to grow at an increasing speed “so as to generate the cash flow necessary to cover long-term obligations.”
In other words, financing the long-term costs of roads and infrastructure requires that those improvements correspondingly increase tax revenue. Except, they don't: "A suburban road is resurfaced at the cost of $354,000. Marohn asked how long it would take the city to recoup that money from the taxes paid by property owners. The answer is 79 years. But the road’s life-cycle is only a third of that." 

Thus, only by increasing the size of the tax base can cities currently pay for the improvements previously made. In other words, a suburban Ponzi-scheme that one of these days will prove unsustainable and ... suburban Chapter 9s!