Satyagraha

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The Genius of Christianity

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From time to time I experience the temptation to write something countering the many atheist invectives against religion that appear in print.  For the most part I’m able to resist,  reasoning that no argument will convince the atheists, and none is needed for theists.

This probably deserves  a little elaboration, however. It seems to me that religion is basically something natural to human beings. It is as much a natural mode of knowing certain things as vision is a natural sense, or humor is a natural emotional experience.  Someone who is blessed with sight, yet has shut their eyes and insists that vision is a superstition, hardly wants a serious reply; or, at least, not a reply that takes at face value their objection.  Rather, the real questions are what the motives are of such people, and whether they are being honest with themselves and their readers.

Perhaps the real concern here is a third category of persons besides atheists and theists:  namely people who do not currently practice any religion, but who are sympathetic to the message and principles of religion, and who will, eventually, either discover or rediscover it.  The danger, then, is that atheist writers may discourage the authentic religious investigations of people in this third group.  If an apology for Christianity is to be written, then, it should be for the sake of this ‘in between’ group.

Such considerations have often led me to imagine writing a book titled, “The Grandeur of Christianity“, which would enumerate  the many excellencies and benefits of Christianity.  Now it seems that Providence has supplied such a book ready-made — written in the 19th century by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848).

Chateaubriand was a noted French novelist, part of the Romantic movement, and an influence on Victor Hugo, among others.  Living through the French Revolution, Chateaubriand experienced more than the usual amount of adventure and personal tragedy.   His most famous novels include Atala (1801) and René (1802).  (And yes, it is after him that Chateaubriand steak is named — his hobby was gourmet cooking.)

But another great production from the pen of this literary master is The Genius of Christianity (Génie du christianisme; 1802).  In beautiful prose, speaking from the heart to the heart, Chateaubriand explains to the rationalists of his day why Christianity is important and necessary.


Briefly we should note the historical context of the book, which parallels in important respects the situation today.  Chateaubriand was writing at the close of two centuries in which rationalist philosophy had dominated the intellectual scene.  Faced with the ponderous edifice of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism – which left little room for traditional faith –  Romantic writers (e.g., Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth — and Chateaubriand), artists (e.g., William Blake), essayists (Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and philosophers (e.g., Kant, Hegel) mounted a response.  The Romantics, in short, pointed out that there are other forms of valid knowledge beyond that which is supplied by sense data, or by rational inferences made from sense data.  Aesthetic and moral experiences, in particular, are real – just as real to the awareness as sense data – and must be fully accounted for in any satisfactory model of the human being.

These writers, artists and philosophers were not mere fuzzy-headed dreamers, but extremely intelligent and incisive thinkers.  It’s no small matter that the atheists of today have neglected to counter, or even acknowledge the arguments of the Romantics.

In any case, I shall say no more – for, as already noted, good fortune has placed this brilliant work by Chateaubriand before us.  The work remains fresh and readable today.  Links are supplied below.  If there were one stylistic detail which modern readers might take slight exception to, it would perhaps be the author’s tendency to minimize the value of other religions – Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc.  However this is easily overlooked, and in no way detracts from the principal arguments.

Links

For English-speakers, Stork (1858) is a small volume of selections, containing many choice excerpts from the full work:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; Emma Β. Stork (tr.). The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. (Selections from Chateaubriand’s Genius Of Christianity). Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1858.

A full English translation is also online:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; White, Charles I. (Charles Ignatius; tr.). The Genius Of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Baltimore: Murphy, 1856.

Numerous editions in French are also online.

Chapters in Stork’s ‘Selections’  edition of 1858:

  • The Bible
  • The Existence of God
  • The Character of the True God
  • General Spectacle of the Universe
  • Mystery
  • Paradise
  • Physical Man
  • Adam and Eve
  • Marriage
  • The Father — Priam
  • The Mother — Andromache
  • The Son — Gusman
  • The Daughter — Iphigenia
  • “Virtues and Moral Laws
  • Our Saviour
  • The Passions
  • Dido, or Passionate Love
  • The Christian Religion as a Passion
  • Undisciplined Passions
  • Faith
  • Hope and Charity
  • Desire of Happiness
  • Redemption
  • Christianity a great Blessing to Mankind — Services rendered to Society by the Clergy, and the Christian
  • Religion in general
  • Missions—General Idea of Missions
  • Defence of Christianity
  • The Sabbath
  • Singing and Prayer
  • Christian Festivals
  • Christian Tombs
  • Country Churchyards
  • The Influence of Christianity upon History
  • Beauties of History
  • Christian Eloquence
  • Moral Harmonies
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Music
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Painting
  • Songs of Birds — For Man they are Created
  • Language of Animals — Laws appertaining thereto
  • Birds’ Nests
  • The Infidel and Christian Mother
  • Remorse of Conscience..
  • The Christian’s Death-bed
  • Two Views of Nature — Ocean; Niagara Falls
  • Youth and Old Age of the Earth
  • The World without Christianity — Conjectures

Related:  Christianity for Agnostics — my own brief apologia for Christianity, written just before reading Chateaubriand’s work.

Written by John Uebersax

February 7, 2012 at 2:59 am

Each Man a Scholar

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deer-with-tHE other day I was walking around Brussels, noticing the people in the streets, many overburdened, and wondering how I might help make the world better. Suddenly the words, “Each man a scholar” came into my head, as if whispered by a Muse. What struck me was the intelligence in the faces I saw. Brussels is a very sophisticated city, and it seemed very plain that these same people, bright and well-educated, were capable of great achievements. Yet I suspected many or most were going home to watch television, sink on the sofa, or just worry about life in general.

Hence the implications of the thought, “each man a scholar” (which, of course, I naturally understood to mean ‘each woman,’ too). With these words came all at once a much broader and grander vision. The idea is that in this age of computers and the Internet, the role of each person in society is different. Each person can become an expert in some small, but important subject, and share the results of their work with the entire world. Not only is that possible, it seems like this what God is calling us to do, for He has placed us on the earth, you and I, at the precise moment in human history where all this technology has become available.

Such, I propose, is a natural and effective response to the difficult issues that confront us today. Solutions to such problems as hunger, poverty, injustice, disease, alienation, and war all exist. What we lack is a model for organizing ourselves to solve them. The Internet provides us with opportunity to forge such a new paradigm. What might be accomplished were each person who is able those blessed with a good education, computer literate, and with sufficient free time to spend an hour or two every week donating their time to public service in this way?

Belgium, 2008

Critique of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech

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The world must remain a place where citizens read the comments of political leaders and subject them to common sense analysis. Let us avoid the alternative: a world where we become dulled by the drone of meaningless speeches and the profusion of political nonsense — until we are no longer able to think critically about issues ourselves.

Following are short excerpts from Mr. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, each followed by my comments.

Now these questions are not new. War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

Atop his many other accomplishments, it now seems Mr. Obama is an anthropologist, too. Why is he certain that war “appeared with the first man”? Is it possible that early humans were peaceful? Why assume that the human love for peace, deep and untaught, is a recent development, or something less basic to our nature than war?

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.

Well not if we don’t try. But make the effort and we might be surprised.

Why doesn’t the president stand at the podium, the world as his audience, and say, “I present to you, citizens of the world, a bold challenge: let us seek to end war in our lifetimes.” Wouldn’t that be more worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner?

President Obama is participating in the peculiar form of schizophrenia that is modern government. As individuals we know that war is wrong and in almost every case unnecessary. He stands there there telling us something we don’t believe, pretending that he doesn’t know we disbelieve it, and expecting that we’re going to play along.

For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This is the low point in his speech, and reveals the absurdity or irony his receiving the award. Evil does indeed exist. But the reason war continues as an institution is precisely because people persist in the illusion that whoever opposes them, or simply dislikes them, is not just acting badly, or influenced by evil, but is Evil itself. Obama is here equating al Queda with Evil incarnate. This simplistic, black-or-white thinking is the problem. Hitler, perhaps it could be said, was as close to pure Evil as one can imagine; he institutionalized genocide – an utterly terrible, horrific thing.

But usually things are more complex: Evil – whatever that may be precisely – affects the judgment of basically good people. Evil sets us against one another. Evil is the true enemy. Our human opponents are still God’s children, made in His image and likeness. They are tricked by Evil. So are we.  If we wish to fight our true opponent, Evil, let us end war.

From one point of view, the terrorists seem motivated only by the urge to destroy and hurt. But perhaps their own view is that they are fighting a war against a giant, oppressive, military super-power, by the only means they have available. Of course I don’t condone terrorism – far from it! But I am not unable to see even terrorsts as human beings with positive and negative traits not so different from mine.

What we must beware, as Carl Jung and other psychologists inform us, is the human tendency to project one’s own unacceptable dark side onto others. We fight with our own demons by projecting them on other people. The sign of such projection is when we see or respond to events with greater irrationality than circumstances would warrant. War will continue as long as people and political leaders lack the sophistication to understand this.

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can’t aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within. And that’s why helping farmers feed their own people — or nations educate their children and care for the sick — is not mere charity.

Alas, he is here only paying lip service to these principles. Where does he suggest that America will take on these challenges?

Perhaps there is such a thing as a just war, a war of self defense. Perhaps sometimes a war is necessary to achieve peace. But how much more often is peace necessary to achieve peace! The US spends hundreds of billions of dollars trying to gain peace through war. What if we spent even one tenth that amount on tangible gestures of friendship and assistance?

What, for example, is the United States doing to assist Latin America economically or culturally? At least John F. Kennedy (to whom Obama alluded more than once) promised this in his inaugural address. Kennedy didn’t follow up on his promises, but at least he kept the vision of the country pointed in the right direction.

And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.

Mr. Obama fails to recognize that religious institutions already demonstrate this moral imagination. I wonder if he has ever heard of the 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), or the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, penned 20 years later by Pope John Paul II. Such works constitute the true state-of-the-art of enlightened people to grapple, in a sincere, loving, and ethical way, with the social needs of the world. The principles by which the human race may proceed on the paths of peace and justice are already outlined, yet arrogant civil officials ignore them.

The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature.

But this is not true! That this is a common mistake does not excuse Mr. Obama here. If there is indeed one rule at the heart of religion, it is not love of other people, but the love of God!  This is an incredible error on Obama’s part.  (And an illustration of his arrogance, that he considers him an expert in everything — in this case, religion!)

To love other human beings is, in itself, no outstanding virtue. Even bad people love their family and friends. What sets a religious person apart is love of God. From this loves springs a deeper and more meaningful love of other human beings. For one thing, this form of love for others is free from self-interest.

The expressed sentiment of “love for all men” without love for God has no more substance than a Coca Cola commercial. Obama here is repeating the mantra of European Liberalism, which has tried to make a secular religion – one based on human instincts, including a bland appeal to “love for all” – in place of a solid, genuine one based on God.

The purely human form of “love for all” is egoistic. You love those you like, who are nice to you, who benefit you – if only because you feel “warm cuddlies” by helping them. What is needed is the kind of love that that extends to enemies as well as friends.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Mr. Obama seems to fancy himself walking in the shoes of Dr. King. But Dr. King was a Christian; he knew the meaning, importance, and necessity of loving ones enemies. There is not the slightest trace in Obama’s speech of his understanding or believing this principle.

Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.

His speech at this point has degenerated into nonsense. The absurdity of his nomination has led to the absurdity of this speech – it could do nothing else. His vision as expressed here is the opposite of clear-eyed. Nothing he has said has demonstrated the necessity of war. And even if war is necessary, to wage peace – in the form of energetic initiatives aimed at promoting justice and welfare around the world — is much more needed. On this he is silent.

Written by John Uebersax

December 15, 2009 at 4:15 am

Correct transcript of Ambassador Bolton’s remarks on Obama’s Nobel Prize speech

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On December 10, in Oslo, Norway, President Obama gave his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Fox News host Greta van Susteren later asked the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, for his analysis.  The careless transcript of Bolton’s remarks currently found online at several blogs is very rough and filled with errors.  I’ve made and supply below a more accurate transcript, taken directly from the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-H5vG8Q3CM

Greta van Susteren, Fox News:  Good evening, ambassador.

Former US Ambassador to United Nations, John R. Bolton: Good evening.

Greta: So what do you think of the speech?

Bolton:  I thought it was a pretty bad speech.  I thought it was turgid, repetitive.  I thought it was analytically weak, sort of at a high school level.  It’s like he didn’t have any lead in his pencil left after his speeches at the UN and the speech on Afghanistan.  So all in all a pretty surprisingly disappointing performance.

Greta:  What would you have expected him to say?  Because it’s rather awkward for a couple reasons.  Number one is he was nominated just a few days into his presidency and there’s been a lot of controversy over whether or not that he’d achieved — and even he says his accomplishments at this point are slight compared to others who’ve received it.  Secondly, he had just called up more troops to go to Afghanistan.  So it’s a completely awkward situation for the man.

Bolton:  Well, in circumstances like that, one alternative is not to say very much, is to thank the Nobel Committee for the honor of the award and accept it in humility and then sit down. Sometimes when people don’t have much to say, they don’t say very much.  Other people say it four times as long, which seemed to be the way he did it.

Greta:  Why do you think he was awarded this prize.

Bolton: I think that this was a conscious effort by the Nobel Committee, which has been over the years a very highly politicized body, to try and affect the American political environment, to try and send a signal of what they wanted from the Obama presidency.  I think that it’s a big mistake on their part.  I think our own political polls show that.  And I think that it will turn out to be a millstone around the president’s neck, but that’s obviously not the way the Nobel Committee saw it.

Greta:  How do you compare and contrast the speech that he gave about a week or two ago at West Point, the one when he announced to the nation that he was calling up troops.  Because a lot of the same sorts of themes about Al Qaeda and about Evil in the world.  But, still, very different speeches.

Bolton: Well I think you have to look, as I said, back as well to the speeches at the United Nations.  And what was striking was how little new there was in this speech.  But I think it’s important in looking at how Obama addresses national security, not to try and parse his speeches too carefully, not to say, “well I like this paragraph, but I don’t like this paragraph.”  You have to look at the speech whole, just as you have to look at the man behind the speech whole, and I think that’s where he runs into difficulty.

This speech today in Oslo is filled with some of the most amazing misconceptions about everything from human nature to the role of the United States in the world.

Greta: So, I’ll bite.  What are the amazing misconceptions that you say?

Bolton:  Let’s start near the beginning of the speech.  He says, that “We have to acknowledge the hard truth we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”  Well, no kidding.  You know, homo sapiens is hardwired for violent conflict and we’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.  And the whole notion you could even think about eliminating it, not just in our lifetime but soon thereafter, I think reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.  And when you start from that kind of position it only gets worse from there.  And I’ve got other examples, too.

Greta:  Go ahead.

Bolton:  Okay, then, just a few paragraphs later, he says, talking about the setting up the role of the United States, which many people said was a positive to the speech, he gets to it by saying that stability after World War II was brought about, quote “Not just treaties and declarations that brought stability, but the fact that the United States helped underwrite global security.”  As if to say it’s the treaties and the declarations that were the centerpiece and that the United States made a small contribution here or there.  In fact, it was the American nuclear capability after World War II and the strength of the military alliances, led and dominated by the United States, that brought stability and defeated the Soviets in the Cold War.  That didn’t seem to make it into this speech.

Greta:  Ambassador, thank you, sir.  Always nice to see you.

Bolton:  Okay, thank you.

Personally, I found the first half of Bolton’s remarks accurate, but the second half strangely peevish.  I think he should have stuck with what he initially said:  that you shouldn’t try to parse Obama’s speeches too closely, but rather should look for what they reveal overall.

Written by John Uebersax

December 14, 2009 at 5:10 am

Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

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Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

Eager to seize even the slightest pretense for bashing the Pope, news media, European governments, and even medical journals have taken his recent comments about African AIDS completely out of context.

The Lancet even went so far as to accuse His Holiness of “manipulating science” and having “publicly distorted scientific evidence”. Apparently his critics have not bothered to read the transcript of his remarks. The context makes it plain that Pope Benedict scarcely denies the physical effects of condoms. His point, as his preceding sentences makes plain, was that the real solution to the AIDS crisis is to strengthen spiritual values in society — including a respect for continence and personal virtue. It is not condoms per se which contribute to the AIDS epidemic, but materialistic values which over-reliance on condoms as public policy promotes. Governments are happy to distribute condoms, but afraid to tell people: “look, you are spiritual beings with moral responsibilities; act that way.”

The Pope isn’t afraid to say that, and for exposing the pretensions of atheistic civil government they are attacking him.

They are counting on the fact that people won’t bother to read the transcript of the interview in question.

The relevant portion is as follows:

Moderator – Now a further question from a French speaker: our colleague Philippe Visseyrias from France 2:

VisseyriasYour Holiness, among the many ills that beset Africa, one of the most pressing is the spread of AIDS. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey? Holy Father, would you be able to respond in French to this question?

Pope – [Reply in Italian]. I would say the opposite. I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against AIDS is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and her various organizations. I think of the Sant’Egidio community that does so much, visibly and also behind the scenes, in the struggle against Aids, I think of the Camillians, and so much more besides, I think of all the Sisters who take care of the sick. I would say that this problem of Aids cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension [se non c’è l’anima — literally, if there is not soul], if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. And so these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.

Here is a letter of reply I submitted to The Lancet.

To the Editors:

Subject: The Lancet Catholic Bashing

Concerning your editorial [1] on recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI:

A basic principle of science and civil discourse holds that, as words are inherently limited and ambiguous, one should consider context and interpret another’s statements generously. This is especially true when translation between languages is involved.

The opposite — to interpret something in the least charitable way — implies prejudice.

Clearly the Pope does not wish to “manipulate science” and has not “publicly distorted scientific evidence” as the editorial states; to suggest this reflects badly on the motives, credibility, and critical thinking of the Editors.

As the full transcript [2] shows, his comments were ethical in nature: they observed — correctly — that an excessive public emphasis on condoms, and the resulting underemphasis on issues of the soul (“se non c’è l’anima”), personal virtue, and continence, supports an overly casual cultural attitude towards extra-marital sex which is a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic.

To paraphrase your own remark: When an influential medical journal makes comments that misrepresent the intentions and statements of religious leaders in ways that could injure the religious health of many millions of people, it should retract or correct the public record.

The Editors should seek the causes of their inability to discern the plain meaning and intentions of the Pope. Perhaps this is a clue: Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart. (Eph 4:18)

John S. Uebersax PhD
Brussels, Belgium

References:

1. The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9669, Page 1054, 28 March 2009

2. “Interview of the holy father benedict xvi during the flight to Africa”. 17 March 2009.
Available at: http://www.vatican.va. (Accesssed 27 March 2009).

Written by John Uebersax

March 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Gaza Protests: Keep Them Peaceful!

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Today in many European cities there were demonstrations against the Israeli assault on Gaza.

That is a good thing.  There was a large demonstration in Brussels, as a matter of fact.  I noticed many people walking down Anspach Boulevard, apparently on the way back from the protest.  It still had the character of a protest march, and I joined in for a ways.

Later in the day I noticed some off-duty police in riot gear.  From their faces it looked like they’d had a hard day.  This made me worry that maybe there had been some trouble at the Brussels protest.

Asking around, somebody mentioned that some cars had been burned or damaged.   That doesn’t surprise me.  A day or two ago many protesters gathered at the Bourse (Stock Exchange),  and were shouting bad things about Bush.  (That struck me as a little odd.   Bush is out of the picture at this point.  What’s the point of complaining about him?)

Anyway, this photo pretty much explains what I want to write about.

What is wrong with this picture

What is wrong with this picture?

Folks — it’s a peace march.  So be peaceful, ok?

It works like this.  Assume that your enemies are actually just very, very ignorant people; it’s like nobody has ever shown them how to act right, so they just don’t know how.   It’s up to you to show them.  Demonstrate to them the behavior you want them to imitate — in this case, peaceful resolution of conflict.  In fact, that’s the perfect term:  demonstrate — as in a “demonstration”.

But don’t forget the news bias factor here.  You can bet the cameras jumped right on the  flag-burning and car-trashing.  There were no reporters covering the hundreds of quiet, almost solemn — as though praying — people I saw marching in Brussels today.

Written by John Uebersax

January 11, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Will Europe Run the 21st Century? – Not With High Taxes!

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Will Europe Run the 21st Century? – Not With High Taxes!

Recently I went to a shop in Brussels that specializes in English-language books — seeking recommendations for new works on Europe’s political outlook. Someone suggested a book, “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century“, by Mark Leonard. Unfortunately, the book looks to me like pro-EU propaganda, without much substance or insight.

There is something very naive in the European intellectual milieu: a vain hope that somehow a central EU government will solve all the problems of Europe — and, to judge from this book’s title — apparently those of the entire world. Somehow this reminds me of the absurd idealistic mentality that tried to cast World War I in a positive light: the “war to end all wars.” What I mean is that Europeans have suffered from centuries of internecine warfare and this has deeply colored their outlook. Their vision of the future seems tied to the the premise of a united Europe. Unite Europe, as this opinion goes, and all the problems will fix themselves.

This differs starkly from the view in the US, where there has never been such internal division. The exception of the Civil War notwithstanding, Americans see themselves as one country and one people, with a common history and destiny. Political salvation for Americans is not seen as coming from becoming united. Rather, they see problems as coming more from what one might call an excessive unity — a federal government that is too strong and insufficiently responsive to citizens.

I won’t belabor the point, because to me, it is simply an observable fact: Europeans place far too much hope in a centralized EU government. Given Europe’s history, this is understandable; but, unfortunately, Europeans seem unwilling to make the connection that they are headed towards the same kind of lopsided federal model that has gotten the US into trouble. Federalism doesn’t work.

And in the case of Europe, the looming federalism is even more aversive, because the central government has no clear accountability to the citizens of Europe. Let’s state this plainly:  the EU is a democracy in name only. A democracy is a political system in whichthe people control the government. It is not the presence of elections, nominally designated elected officials, or a ‘constitution’ that make a democracy. It is whether the citizens actually have a significant voice and role in determining government policy. This does not exist in Europe. Most European citizens don’t even understand the government. Many do not even speak the official languages of French, German, or English!

As I’ve already written on this subject, I won’t repeat myself here.

Rather, to return to Leonard’s book, I’d would offer that Europe will not likely “run the 21st century”, or, or that matter, accomplish much of anything until it wakes up to the grim reality that high taxes are ruining the lives of its citizens.

Taxes are too high in western Europe. It’s that simple. The marginal income tax rates are excessively high — much higher, as is well known, than in the US. When you factor in the VAT tax (21% in Belgium!), people pay more than half of their earnings to the government as direct taxes.

There’s more.  High taxes inflate the prices of goods and services. The price of food in Brussels is unbelievable. I can barely afford it — and have a good professional salary. It must be hurting the poor people considerably. The high prices are partly a result of excessive taxes. When you buy something, you are, in a sense, paying the taxes of the seller, who naturally passes his or her taxes onto you, the consumer. There’s nothing ethically wrong with that; it’s just the way things work.

This fine point is something that those who advocate high-tax socialism as a means of redistributing income should consider more carefully. Even if we assume that producers are ‘greedy capitalists’, they will inevitably pass their taxes onto consumers. There is no price control; prices, rather, are up to the discretion of the seller, determined by the laws of supply, demand, and competition.  Since all sellers pay high taxes, all will raise prices sufficient to assure a certain net income.

In fact, the best way to reduce prices is to permit competition.  But in a high-tax environment it is more difficult for people to start businesses.  Hence, higher taxes mean less competition, and higher prices.

Since rich and poor consumers pay the same prices, this disproportionately burdens the poor.

In any case, under the present western European model, you, the consumer, (1) not only have to struggle with high income taxes, but every time you buy something (2) you pay an unreasonably high VAT tax, and (3) have to contend with the incremental price, added onto the natural value of the commodity, required so that the seller and manufacturer can pay his or her high taxes and stay in business.

Where is the Outrage?

Mostly what I see throughout Europe is a moribund economy, lassitude, and, in a psychological sense,  cultural depression. Europeans are, by nature, intelligent and hard working. But now they are unmotivated and lacking a sense of direction or purpose. High taxes as a central causal factor.

At best, Europeans are, at the personal level, treading water, economically. They struggle, barely getting by day to day. This might be acceptable to a person  if there were some genuine reason that ones economic situation might improve very soon, but there is no evidence of that. Rather, it seems likely that the economy will become more strained in the years ahead — that is, *unless* until some fundamental positive changes are made.

One plausible and commonly expressed view is that the current ‘pension economy’ is now being propped up with the wave of immigrants engineered by politicians in recent decades. That certainly has the outward appearances of a short term fix. (Among other things, wWho is going to pay for pensions of these immigrants when they retire?

The bottom line is that we are living in the 21st century, and people have a right to expect a decent life! Why is it that, despite the incredible advances in technology, the quality of life is still miserable for so many people? Why must so many people struggle through each day, living, for all practical purposes, without “the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? How can things be mismanaged that badly?

Citizens ought to be outraged, but, strangely, they’re not.

Lack of Critical Thinking

There is a remarkable difference between the US and Europe in this respect. When you talk about high taxes in the US, everybody joins in the chorus of complaint. But when one broaches the subject with Europeans, one more often gets a response like: “Yes, taxes are high, but look at all the benefits.” When pressed for specifics, people frequently point to social assistance programs — especially financial support for the elderly.

This is, up a point, a legitimate concern. We all want — or should want — a social system with a good safety net, something that takes care of the old and the infirm. We should accept that as a given.

But how does one proceed from that premise automatically to the conclusion that any amount of  taxation is justifiable on that basis? This lack of critical thinking is at the basis of Europe’s social problems. Perhaps the inferential leap can be justified if one posits of a wise and altruistic government — one that levies no more taxes than are necessary. But who could be so naive as to, given all the contrary evidence, believe that?

There are two related issues here. The first is the likely hypothesis that the government is taxing too much to support the programs which justify public taxes. That is an empirical question that could be easily addressed (and perhaps it has been): some competent economists at a think tank or university should simply analyze this.

A complication, unfortunately, might be that, if one were to look rationally and objectively at the evidence, one might discover that *no* amount of taxation — even 100% — would be sufficient to prop up the pension systems of Europe in coming years. But at least enquiry into the subject would pave the way for finding workable alternatives.

Why Bother to Work?

This brings us to the second point: the impact of high taxes on economic growth. It is an obvious and easily verified fact: when the government takes most of your income, you ask yourself, “why bother to work?”

That is the question in Europe now, as it has been for years. Why bother to work? That is the question most people — aside from the few clever ones with insider connections who have discovered ways to beat the tax system — in Europe ask themselves. And this is a terrible foundation for a society. Europe is basically comprised of people who have no incentive to work! And, in a sense, inasmuch as work is hard, that means they have an incentive not to work.

Social Liberals for Low Taxes!

So I propose to turn round the historical liberalism of Europe on its head. Europeans have accepted an aversive economy because of their strong desire to help others. Good! Let’s keep that positive social ethic. But I propose this: if we truly want to help people, then we must stimulate the economy. This will do two important things.

  1. First, it will raise revenue — actively employ more people, and more money will be available for social programs. This is the economic paradox which Americans (and, it seems some Asian countries) grasp so much better than Europeans: that lower taxes stimulate economic growth, and economic growth increases overall tax revenue. Or to say it another way: lower individual taxes produce greater total tax revenue.
  2. Second, a stimulated economy will harness the greatest natural resource any country has: its human capital. The wealth of a nation is not the coal, or gold, or iron buried in its mountains, nor the crops of its fields. It is the spirit of the individual. It is the feeling that makes one wake up each morning and say, “today let me see what I can accomplish, for myself and others!” It is this feeling or spirit that motivates people to work energetically, creatively, and productively — generating goods and services for the benefit and enjoyment of others. More than anything else it is this spirit which a society must foster in order to truly be prosperous.

Written by John Uebersax

December 31, 2008 at 2:25 pm