10 final theses about the Acton Institute

10 final theses about the Acton Institute August 4, 2015


The conclusion of our reports and analysis from the recent Acton University conference. Read the first ten posts here:

  1. The refreshing difference
  2. We can’t create heaven on earth
  3. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”
  4. Is there really enough to go around?
  5. Letting our Jesus Freak flag fly
  6. Was Jesus a socialist?
  7. But what about sin?
  8. The pursuit of wealth is not neutral
  9. We’re all working for the Pharoah
  10. The Pope and the farmer

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

1) Whatever one thinks of its content, Acton University is one of the most exciting and intellectually productive environments I’ve ever experienced–like grad school or a good academic conference without the posturing.

2) Within broad ideological agreement, there is a good deal of intellectual diversity. In particular, there’s some tension, it seems to me, between the Austrian/libertarian wing (as represented by Jeffrey Tucker) and the social-conservative wing (as represented by Jennifer Roback Morse).

3) The case made at Acton for the virtues of less regulation and the capacity of the free market to solve problems must be taken seriously. Even though I’m not entirely convinced, attending Acton has made me much more likely to ask in any situation, “is it possible that there’s a free-market solution to this problem?” (I have been following up by reading Thomas Woods’ The Church and the Market, which lays out the case systematically.) In particular, those of us inclined to be critical of capitalism for Christian reasons need to pay attention to the dynamic nature of wealth in a capitalist economy (i.e., some people being wealthy doesn’t necessarily make others poor).

4) One of the most important things I took away from Acton was the conviction that the people involved are sincere in their desire to help the poor and their belief that the best way to do so is through the free market. I remain highly dubious that most politicians who use this free-market rhetoric have similarly pure motives. But I am committed to fostering dialogue between “free-market” and “social-justice” Christians and combatting the caricatures and demonization that often characterize both sides.

5) On a more negative note, it frequently seems to me that free-market advocates, particularly the Austrians, are (ironically) positing a utopia that is unlikely ever to exist. It’s all  very well to denounce “crony capitalism” and argue that most of the problems with our system result from government interference. But powerful people will always use government in their interests. Just as critics of distributism argue that it will inevitably collapse into socialism because of the need for government interference, so it seems to me that free-market capitalism will always have a heavily “crony” element to it.

6) Speaking of distributism–another effect of Acton has been to make me more serious about understanding distributism rather than vaguely calling myself a “distributist” because I like Chesterton, as I’ve tended to do in the past. I intend to read more material by neo-distributists such as John Medaille and Thomas Storck, alongside free-market alternatives.

7)All of this means that I need to pay more attention to economics than I have done in the past. If nothing else, Acton has been extremely helpful in forcing me to think about these issues.

8)I was particularly unconvinced by the Scriptural arguments I heard at Acton. It seemed to me that the lecturers who addressed Scripture were trying very hard to make Scripture support a free-market perspective, and that they just didn’t succeed. That’s not to say that Bergsma, for instance, didn’t make some excellent points. But in the end he had to admit that the concept of property found in the Pentateuch isn’t really “private” in our modern sense at all.

9) Indeed, I see a lot of parallel between how Acton speakers and other Christian defenders of the free market address economic issues and how “liberal” Christians address sexual issues. In both cases we have complex arguments purporting to show that Scripture really means something other than it has traditionally been taken to mean, and/or that Scripture is addressing cultural circumstances so different from our own that direct application is impossible.

In both cases, there is a cheery advocacy of progress and modernity and a claim that those who take more traditional views are bringing the faith into disrepute by putting it at odds with the findings of natural or social sciences. Like Christians who are “progressive” on sexual issues, the Christians involved with Acton are frequently accused of simply being advocates for unrestrained sinful passions, but this obviously isn’t true. Both groups of “revisionists” clearly believe that their revisions are much-needed, are fundamentally in keeping with the essential tenets of the Christian faith, and are conducive to true virtue. In both cases, those of us who disagree need to acknowledge the good faith of our opponents rather than treating them as minions of Satan.

10) Thus, I come away from Acton still unconvinced, but more open-minded than I was and committed to reading a good deal more on these topics.

I will be assisted in doing that by a large box of books that arrived in the mail from Acton as I was writing this post, presumably as part of the Oikonomia Fellowship that paid my way to attend Acton University. Just reading these books (which include works on economics as well as Dutch Reformed theology and Biblical scholarship) is enough to keep me busy for quite a while. . . .

So thanks to Acton and the Oikonomia Fellowship!

ertEdwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, farmer, and consulting editor for Christian History magazine. He blogs at Ithilien and tweets as @Amandil3. (Extra points if you get the Tolkien reference.)

Image: Pixabay.

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