Nov. 7 marks the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution that initiated one of the worst humanitarian, economic, and political disasters known to modern civilization, if not in all history. The catalog of ignominies inflicted upon the populations incorporated under the banner of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (and ideologically aligned regimes such as North Korea, China, Cuba, and Venezuela) is well-known and oft-repeated — and yet amazingly often downplayed if not ignored or denied altogether. (Some Italian political parties still tout the hammer and sickle to this day.)
Those of us grounded in theology, history, philosophy, political science, economics, and basic human psychology witness on a daily basis the feeble attempts to perfect our species in pursuit of an earthly utopia. One need only look to contemporary experiments in Venezuela to recognize the persistence and inherent fallacies of the Marxist myth. Somehow, it’s concluded, the original message of Karl Marx was lost in previous attempts, and all that’s needed to successfully implement his ideal economic system are charismatic leaders possessing impeccable qualifications.
Furthermore, any failure of markets to provide perfectly egalitarian outcomes is perceived as a wholesale indictment of the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. The same charges are often leveled at the reluctance of free-market institutions such as my own to champion policies that promise the illusory car in every garage and chicken in every pot.
While nothing could be less truthful than utopia — a word etymologically derived from the Greek “no place” by St. Thomas More — or human perfection, both are used as pretexts for maligning proponents for limited government and free markets. Additionally, the quixotic pursuit of human perfection runs contrary to the New Testament pronouncement that the poor will be with us always. It’s up to all of us to determine the best methods of reducing the number of poor as much as humanly possible, regardless of the cause of their poverty: external or self-inflicted.
The operative word is humanly. That doesn’t mean we should downplay efforts to alleviate the suffering of the poor, but, instead, recognize that massive government wealth and income redistribution plans disingenuously described as programs designed to assist the poor actually risk increasing poverty. Concomitantly, forced philanthropy imposed by governments serves as a disincentive for private charitable giving and productivity. “I gave at the office” is no substitute for adhering to Judeo-Christian principles when ministering to the vulnerable.
Ameliorating poverty isn’t exclusive to human flourishing and virtuous living, however. Vacuous materialism runs contrary to lives of ordered liberty.
By ordered liberty, I reiterate the “free and virtuous society” credo adopted when I founded the Acton Institute with Kris Mauren 27 years ago. Undergirding all of our efforts since 1990 has been the recognition that the free economy, properly understood and practiced under the rule of law with the protection of property, aligns closely with the precepts of faith.
Our main priority is helping those who influence the moral consensus in the very same concepts. The best way to alleviate poverty, hunger, illness, and lack of education isn’t first to implement more expensive government programs, ignoring more local other options that pose less of a threat to individual freedoms.
One need only trace the causes for the collapse of the USSR more than 25 years ago to observe the extreme shortcomings of centralized planning. Library shelves are filled with books depicting the dehumanizing measures taken by oppressive regimes from the French Revolution forward to ensure equal economic outcomes.
History bears witness to the human experience that those societies exercising the most freedom experience the greatest relief from poverty. It should come as no surprise that the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been reduced by 50 percent over the last quarter-century precisely for this reason.
Despite these advancements, the statist penchant continues apace. How soon we forget the immense failures of the immediate past.
The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and cofounder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Michigan. He and First Things editor R.R. Reno will discuss “Catholicism and the Morality of Markets” at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at Villanova University’s Connelly Center Cinema. The event is hosted by the Matthew J. Ryan Center.