We are participating here in Grand Rapids, MI, at the annual meeting of the Acton University sponsored by the Acton Institute. Some 392 people are here for the conference from, I am told, 51 countries.
Acton Institute is a very interesting organization. I got to know it in Rome, where there is an office. Acton sponsored a series of conferences in Rome a couple years ago. I attended almost all of them and each one was gem. I’ll give you reports about this year’s Acton U. It might be something you might be interested in participating in some year, especially if you are interested in the Church’s voice in public square about human freedom and economics.
Fr. Sirico speaking on opening night
There are two tracks for participation. For those who have never been to one of the Acton University events, there are a series of foundational courses, really lectures with lots of Q&A, on principles useful for the rest of the workshops. Even if people have higher degrees in philosophy or economics, everyone takes the same foundational lectures first.
Since this is the first time I have been to the Acton U, this morning I heard a foundational presentation on Christian Anthropology: Freedom and Virtue.
During a meal in the main hall.
In this we explored the nature of man himself. Of particular importance was understanding how true freedom is actually freedom for virtue, for excellence, rather than freedom from various types of limitations. So, we need to understand the proper relationship of reason and will, how we make choices, how we must reason and make choices in light of truth and goodness. We also looked at an opposing view, freedom of indifference, which broke with the Christian virtuous liberty tradition. The one who introduced this is principally William of Ockham (+1354). the consequences freedom simply being seen as a neutral faculty of choice were very destructive: in the final analysis this approach leaves everyone in a conflict, clash of wills. So, in the lecture we made a case for a Christian understanding of virtuous liberty in opposition, or as a remedy these days, to the nominalist view of Ockham, et. al. We must restore right reason to its proper place in anthropology and put reason in the correct relationship with will and also faith.
Folks talking during a break
Then there was a presentation on Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government. In this presentation we looked at the Christian influence on the concept of limited government, namely, that the state derives its authority from God and is subject to God. Because human beings need other people in order to flourish and live virtuously there must be some sort of government. But we are fallen, so there must also be the possibility of coercion… but in a limited sense and in certain spheres only to the extent that the common good requires it. We must correctly understand what "common good" means. Natural Law helps us place the proper limits on government and helps us resolve conflicts at the right level. The principle of subsidiarity, properly understood, helps us understand to what level and to what extent government should and must get involved with various spheres of society.
Samuel Gregg speaks
After each section, the audience could ask questions. You can tell there are highly educated people in this group. Some of the questions were pretty hard, but the presenters handled them well and gave answers that the general participant could grasp.
So far so good! Lunch is over. I am on a break. The next session is starting in a little while.
In the afternoon, Jennifer Roback Morse gave a stupendous presentation on economics, address the question of how economists approach things.
Part of the campus
A working premise is that economics and Christian anthropology share the conviction that there is a truth which we can discover. Human nature is stable enough that we can study it and can make some determinations or predictions about how people with behave, or respond to incentives.
She then exposed two ways of working. First she talked economy as the science of scarcity, the allocation of resources among competing groups. Because we are grounded in a material world, resources are limited. A problem rests in the fact that not everything humans are involved with is subject to this. Also, humans did not fall into sin because of material scarcity.
Another way of looking at economics, not as prevalent, is to study exchange and trades. Each free, voluntary party in a trade winds up better off by the trade. Everyone benefits. People work out what is agreeable and each party has gained something useful.
So, we can consider what offers people incentives in exchanges. The most obvious is money, but there are also time and other kinds of satisfaction.
Out with some of the guys in the evening
After these basics we then talked about what kind of information prices convey to us, how human creativity, when not unduly hindered, steps in to make substitutes for things when prices are unreasonable, how competition holds the markets to account.
We discussed Catholic social teaching regarding the right to own property and being voluntary parties in exchanges, the need for a consistent rule of law.
This just scratched the surface.
Also, I don’t have time about the last presentation of the day, which exploded some popular myths.
In the evening, there was a screening of a new film called The Birth of Freedom.
Watching the film The Birth of Freedom