Why should we embrace religion?

Because freedom is the combination of liberty and virtue, religion provides a natural and voluntary source of moral guidelines to assist us in living virtuous lives.

Human beings need and want to belong in communities. In a free society those communities are natural and voluntary: family, friends, religion, neighborhoods, community groups, etc.

Tyrants understand that to take control of any people the tyrant must become the “community” for the people. Hence, dictators such as Hitler and Stalin first sought to erase the intermediate layer of society that stood between the individual and the state. Only then – only after family, religion and natural communities are destroyed – can a tyrant assert moral authority. Healthy religion is the enemy of an overreaching state.

Of all natural moral influences within a free society, the positive and constructive influence of religion is second only to family.

For more on this topic (and others), visit Utah Citizen Network.

There will be order – Sutherland Soapbox, 3/10/15

self-controlThis post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

When it comes to figuring out how to live together in society, there’s one thing we can all be sure of. It’s this: There will be order. One of conservatism’s icons, Edmund Burke, captures this concept beautifully in a 1791 letter:

What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?

It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; inproportion as they are disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

So many great little gems there from Edmund Burke. Liberty, he argues, if it is not bridled by wisdom and virtue, can run unrestrained into folly, into any number of vices, and finally into unrestrained madness.

Conservatism holds that ordered liberty is the optimal way to secure freedom while maintaining order in a civil society. But in order to maximize freedom, each of us must control our appetites and our passions. Because if we don’t, some external force will control them for us.

If we cannot rely on self-control; if our families are too broken to love us and teach us and nurture us; if our religions are too corrupt to call from within us the better angels of our nature, or if we are too corrupt to hear that call; if our schools are ineffective wrecks; if all of this is true, if these little platoons, as Burke called them, fail us, we will still have order.

Society might, as it has throughout history, devolve for a time into chaos. But some one, or someones, will seize control in the chaos and produce some form of order. It might be a dictatorship. It might be an oligarchy. It might be socialism.

Some may say America is now no better than any other country, and worse than a lot of them at maximizing freedom. It is true, in the U.S., we have seen the rise, for instance, of the police state and the diminution of individual rights. Partly, we can blame this on the natural desire of man to rule over man, but also partly, we can safely say, this is the result of the failure of individuals, families, churches and the other “little platoons” to sufficiently self govern. As families and churches fail, government will naturally, and with little encouragement, fill the void.

But there is hope. The United States, along with many other countries, was created as a nation of laws, and not of men. And, fortunately, the foundational laws that created our republic, and the free market economic system built alongside it, both reflect the realities of the inherent good and evil of human nature. Other ideologies actually try to change human behavior, which is why they always have and always will fail. So, yes, ordered liberty does require some government coercion, but in a free society, that coercion conforms to human nature.

No system is perfect. But America is built on the most solid foundation yet devised by humankind. The responsibility, therefore, lies with us. If civil society is crumbling around us, the repairs must start with us, with our families, with our little platoons. Because there will be order. How much freedom we will have to go along with it is up to us.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.

Receive this broadcast each week directly to your iTunes by clicking here

SUTHERLAND SOAPBOX: There Will Be Order

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

When it comes to figuring out how to live together in society, there’s one thing we can all be sure of. It’s this: There will be order.One of conservatism’s icons, Edmund Burke, captures this concept beautifully in a 1791 letter:

What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?

It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; inproportion as they are disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

So many great little gems there from Edmund Burke. Liberty, he argues, if it is not bridled by wisdom and virtue, can run unrestrained into folly, into any number of vices, and finally into unrestrained madness.

self-controlConservatism holds that ordered liberty is the optimal way to secure freedom while maintaining order in a civil society. But in order to maximize freedom, each of us must control our appetites and our passions. Because if we don’t, some external force will control them for us.

If we cannot rely on self-control; if our families are too broken to love us and teach us and nurture us; if our religions are too corrupt to call from within us the better angels of our nature, or if we are too corrupt to hear that call; if our schools are ineffective wrecks; if all of this is true, if these little platoons, as Burke called them, fail us, we will still have order.

Society might, as it has throughout history, devolve for a time into chaos. But some one, or someones, will seize control in the chaos and produce some form of order. It might be a dictatorship. It might be an oligarchy. It might be socialism.

Some may say America is now no better than any other country, and worse than a lot of them at maximizing freedom. It is true, in the U.S., we have seen the rise, for instance, of the police state and the diminution of individual rights. Partly, we can blame this on the natural desire of man to rule over man, but also partly, we can safely say, this is the result of the failure of individuals, families, churches and the other “little platoons” to sufficiently self govern. As families and churches fail, government will naturally, and with little encouragement, fill the void.

But there is hope. The United States, along with many other countries, was created as a nation of laws, and not of men. And, fortunately, the foundational laws that created our republic, and the free market economic system built alongside it, both reflect the realities of the inherent good and evil of human nature. Other ideologies actually try to change human behavior, which is why they always have and always will fail. So, yes, ordered liberty does require some government coercion, but in a free society, that coercion conforms to human nature.

No system is perfect. But America is built on the most solid foundation yet devised by humankind. The responsibility, therefore, lies with us. If civil society is crumbling around us, the repairs must start with us, with our families, with our little platoons. Because there will be order. How much freedom we will have to go along with it is up to us.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.

Receive this broadcast each week directly to your iTunes by clicking here

Ronald Reagan: Still remarkably relevant today

Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981Thirty-five years ago today, on Nov. 13, 1979, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the office of President of the United States. Though a generation and a half have passed since then, in many respects his words and the circumstances they describe sound remarkably relevant today.

They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been; that the America of the coming years will be a place where – because of our past excesses – it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true. I don’t believe that. And, I don’t believe you do either. That is why I am seeking the presidency. I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself. Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living, the result of thrift and hard work, is somehow selfish extravagance which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity. I don’t agree that our nation must resign itself to inevitable decline, yielding its proud position to other hands. I am totally unwilling to see this country fail in its obligation to itself and to the other free peoples of the world.

Reading the transcript or watching the video of the full announcement address provides additional meaningful insights — about the man twice elected as our country’s chief executive, and about us.

As highlighted in a comprehensive online resource about our 40th president,

Ronald Wilson Reagan was the first – and last – modern conservative President of the United States. That fact alone accounts for the divergent recountings of his terms as leader of the free world. Members of the Political Left still revile Reagan, while simultaneously dismissing the accomplishments of his terms in office as if the major changes he envisioned and championed would have transpired without his leadership.

During Reagan’s tenure, those from the Left celebrated the balance of power and proclaimed the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union, content to live in a world divided into camps of the slave and the free. And few dared dream that this often precarious and edgy state of affairs could end in the span of their lives. But together with a band of courageous allies and inspired aides, Reagan adopted policies that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain, making the world both safer and freer than anyone could have hoped when the perilous decade of the 1980s began. In the process, Reagan demonstrated irrefutably that centralized power and bureaucratic planning cannot be harnessed to serve the public good. And the Left cannot forgive Reagan for that – much less acknowledging or congratulating his victory.

Regardless of one’s personal philosophy or political affiliation, of the many compelling messages proclaimed by Ronald Reagan, two more stand out as especially pertinent in today’s world:

We…believe that the preservation and enhancement of the values that strengthen and protect individual freedom, family life, communities and neighborhoods and the liberty of our beloved nation should be at the heart of any legislative or political program presented to the American people. (February 6, 1977)

And,

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it, and then hand it to them with the well-taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in America when men were free. (March 30, 1961)

Read with caution: Why 'The Law' lacks context for today’s readers

Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat

I read The Law by Frédéric Bastiat in 1977, when I was 19 years old and attending a small college in North Texas. The Law, along with other writings on liberty, had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

Sutherland Institute has distributed dozens of copies of The Law over the years to introduce responsible citizens to ideas on liberty. In fact, for several years The Law has been one of three books we provide inner-circle donors to get their minds focused on freedom (the other two books are The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt).

But last year I took The Law out of the Sutherland collection and replaced it with Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate by George Carey. Frankly, I came to feel we had been doing more harm than good by sharing The Law in this manner.

I’ll explain.

Demographically speaking, Millennials tends to be increasingly progressive in their politics. Many gravitate to the progressive left (i.e., liberals) but many also lean toward the progressive right (i.e., libertarians). Surveys tell us that Millennials in Utah, including those among the predominant Mormon population, tend to focus more on individual liberties and less on the common good. That focus is more on “choice” among consenting adults and less on the full constellation of rights and responsibilities that are part of authentic freedom.

I feel The Law, appropriate for 1850 when it was written and even 100 years later, now simply fuels the modern appetite for selfish individualism and justifies selfishness as doctrine. As conservative icon Russell Kirk once quipped, “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.”

This isn’t to say that The Law isn’t valuable as political philosophy. But 2014 is not 1850 or even 1950 in terms of understanding and rationally applying ideas of individual liberty. Ideas stated rudimentarily, but refreshingly, even radically, in 1850, seem incomplete and immature today. Read more

Twice as good, half as well, never enough

half loaf cornbreadIs it more important to stand on principle, or get while the getting is good? Is settling for half a loaf selling out, or a step in the right direction? Does mixing metaphors like concrete weigh prose down, or liberate the literary soul?

OK, no one but the grammar police really cares about that last one. But the first two will decide the limited government movement’s fate. That’s what’s splitting us right now, you see. Libertarian-leaners, classical liberals, and “establishment” conservatives are less divided by issues and objectives than we are about timelines and roadmaps. We all want to see the same movie, but we’re wearing ourselves out haggling over which showing and how to get there. And whatever we decide, the other guys will be there first. Let’s see if I can stick with one metaphor long enough to explain why.

The reason they’ll be there first is because they’re running the theater. Government employees are predominantly big government-type people. That’s not meant as a pejorative. It’s simple common sense. If you think government is the answer and you care about the question, you are more likely to migrate to government employment (it used to be government service, but the days of the dollar-a-year man are gone) than someone who sees government as the problem; or more likely, who sees private work or charity as the answer.

The simple fact is that when conservatives engage in the political and bureaucratic arena, it’s almost always an away game. One reason is noted in this excellent piece by Kevin Williamson: “[C]onservatives are forever in a position of running against handouts, and handouts are popular.”

Read more

Weakening the ‘old habits of decency’

The Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility and Court, Chicago.

A juvenile detention facility in Chicago.

A wonderfully stated warning regarding the effect of government largesse:

A sentimental utilitarianism argued that prosperity would abolish sin. It was a shallow argument, ignorant of history; for had it been true, all rich men’s sons, these many centuries past, would have been perfectly virtuous.

To the student of history, as contrasted with the doctrinaire positivistic reformer, it seems that people are decent, when they are decent, chiefly out of habit. They fall into habits of decent conduct by religious instruction, by settled family life, by assuming private responsibilities, by the old incentives of private gain and advancement in rewards for decent conduct. When the individual seems to run no risks; when food, shelter, and even comforts are guaranteed by the state, no matter what one’s conduct may be; when the state arrogates to itself a complex of responsibilities that formerly were undertaken by church, family, voluntary association, and the private person – why, then the old habits of decency are weakened, and the police constable and the Borstal* are required to maintain precariously by compulsion what once was taken for granted in Britain and elsewhere.”

– Russell Kirk, ‘The Sword of Imagination’

*youth detention center

‘The Yellow Bird’ and the limits of liberty

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

canaryEnglish journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once wrote a parable about liberty titled “The Yellow Bird.” In this parable, a Russian scholar, Professor Ivanhov, is visiting a friend in the English countryside. The professor had just published a much-praised book, The Psychology of Liberty. In short, he’s a zealous advocate of individual liberty and the elimination of all restraints on human conduct.

The guest cottage in which he stayed houses a small yellow canary in a beautiful cage. The canary seemed very happy to be where it was. Its song resonated throughout the cottage. But being the champion of freedom he is, Professor Ivanhov is convinced the little creature would be much happier and more fulfilled out in the world. So he liberates the canary from its cage and out the window the bird flies.

But it doesn’t fly for long. The wild birds of the woods were not as discriminating as the professor regarding liberty and soon ravaged the little creature to nothing but feathers and bones.

The next day, Professor Ivanhov set his sights on liberating the poor goldfish swimming contentedly around their bowl. With a crash of glass, the goldfish were set free.

On his third day at the cottage, Professor Ivanhov, contemplating the arching “round prison” of the sky, ultimately blows up the guest cottage with him in it culminating the end of a life lived in absolute liberty.

Read more

What’s fair about equal outcomes?

The_Law_(2007_ed)_cover

By Carl Graham

Have you come across this phrase before? “Equal people are not free and free people are not equal.” The point of that saying is that no society can guarantee equal outcomes for its members, and trying comes at the cost of freedom.

The reason is that people bring different attributes, talents, aspirations and even luck to the table. Equalizing those things means artificially holding some of them back and propping some of them up; in other words, taking away their freedom to succeed or fail or even to dream.

Enforced equality of outcomes would mean forcing beautiful people to wear masks, holding down stronger people with weights, depriving athletes or actors of the ability to use their talents, and more. I think we can all agree that wouldn’t be fair, so why is it fair to deprive risk-takers, hard workers and innovators of what they produce to make them equal with those who have worked less, taken fewer risks, or just aren’t blessed with the same skills and talents? Clearly it isn’t.

Attempts to equalize outcomes are the inevitable results of envy or of seeing the world as zero-sum. The envy argument speaks for itself. If you believe your failures are the fault of others, it’s not much of a leap to wish punishment on them. That’s hardly a fair or moral argument.

But those who believe in a zero-sum world think that winners must equal losers, and so the losers must be made whole. That’s not the way our world works. Nobody is worse off because Bill Gates is a billionaire. In fact, millions of people’s lives are much better because he had the incentive to bring PCs to the masses; and those who followed him and got rich building apps and hardware and businesses made even more people better off. They didn’t take slices of the pie away from others; they created their own slices and grew the pie for everyone else in the process. We should encourage that, not punish it.

Read more

3 ideas that changed the world

Cuerpo_humano_jaqaruThe following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Standing in a checkout line at the supermarket, I saw a special edition of Time magazine titled, “100 Ideas That Changed the World: History’s Greatest Breakthroughs, Inventions and Theories.” Because I’m in the idea business, I was curious, so I picked it up.

Many subjects and great people didn’t make the list – those subjects are important and the great people no doubt had significant influence in world history, but this particular magazine is about ideas. Photography made the list, as did the computer. The free market, electricity, television and geometry made the list. Every major religion is on the list, including every major proponent of those religions, and, of course, every major political philosophy and central advocate showed up. I was gratified to see that Edmund Burke’s conservatism made the list and was not surprised to find opponents of conservatism, such as utilitarianism, Marxism and atheism on the list.

But I got thinking: If I had to pick just three ideas that changed the world, which three ideas would I choose? I immediately set aside technology. For me the winner is clearly electricity and all of the science that preceded its unveiling. Electricity is the single technological difference between the modern world and the developing world (with clean water a close second).

No, I stuck with what I knew best: ideas about politics, religion and culture.

Read more