Robert Sirico: The RealClearReligion Interview

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

"Liberty is not the power of doing what we like," Lord Acton once wrote, "but the right of being able to do what we ought." In Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, Acton Institute President Father Robert Sirico develops a manifesto for economic liberty. On the 100th anniversary of Milton Friedman's birth, Fr. Sirico and I met at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House north of Chicago to discuss subjects ranging from smoking pot with Jane Fonda to why Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and Pope John Paul II have more in common than you may think.

RealClearReligion: Your book begins with the story of how you left the Left and got right with the Right. Are you another Michael Novak or Richard John Neuhaus?

Robert Sirico: I'm a little different than them, because of course they're a generation further back, so some of their categories were different. I think what was happening with them was they came at it from a more moderate point of view and then the world changed and they found themselves changing with it. I don't think either of them were quite as radical -- I certainly wasn't an orthodox Marxist. I was a dilettante.

RCR: Novak or Neuhaus weren't radical enough to smoke pot with Jane Fonda, though?

RS: [Laughter] I knew her not well, but we were together at a number of occasions. We had had dinner beforehand and went to the gay center in Hollywood for a voter registration event. At the dinner, we had smoked pot, passed it around, and I passed it to her and she said, "No, I have to speak. Maybe later." She and somebody else gave speeches, and I walked her out to the parking lot after the event to say goodnight. In the parking lot, I gave her the joint. She thanked me and said, "Tom doesn't let me keep it in the house during the campaign."

RCR: Why didn't Jane Fonda and others in your generation follow you to the Right?

RS: There are a lot of them that are not Leftist anymore. I know a lot of people in my generation who were at those things and are much more conservative today -- not quite philosophically, but certainly wouldn't identify with the Left. Now, why are some of them still stuck? When you're in that ethos and the whole culture moves and if you didn't have a fixed point, you move with it. When you're formed in your ideas, it's a whole hermeneutic. It's a whole way that you approach the world. And when, for instance, you approach the world with a zero-sum presumption, I think it's very explanatory. Marx gives you a view of the world that is plausible. It's not completely absurd to think that the person who owns the means of production is wealthy because of another's poverty. It's plausible. It sounds right. It's only when you understand the broader context, then it becomes more complex. Traditional, classical, free market ideas are far more complex -- and counterintuitive.

RCR: Do you think President Obama and his administration has made Marx's ideas new again?

RS: If you're talking about the popularity and the vitality in the current political climate, that's one thing. If you're talking about vibrancy -- excuse me, error is never really vibrant. Error is always parasitic. It looks vibrant, but its source of nourishment is not life. Its source of nourishment is consumption. But I do think those ideas are resilient because they can morph. They can represent themselves in a lot of different ways. Now with regard to the political question, I think Obama's success was a mixture of a very strong nostalgic urge on the part of people of my generation to return to the Haight-Ashbury days.

RCR: Hasn't your generation seen a failure of those ideas?

RS: We have. The Soviet Union is gone. But there's one group that are always going to be attracted to those ideas. It was very telling to see Peter Seeger recreate the whole ethos of the Sixties -- right down to the singing of "This Land Is Your Land," which has such horrendous Marxist overtones. Beyond that, there's a different generation and I think this is the thing that is not going to endure. I think that generation represents the best in America. We have this great capacity to be honest with ourselves and critical of ourselves.

What I think Obama represented to many people was an honesty, that as magnificent as this experiment in liberty has been, at its founding there was a scar. Slavery. It's undeniable. We can't turn away from it. We can't ameliorate it by saying, "Yes, but..." We know the innate injustice of that. What Obama embodied in many ways was a hope of finally moving past that. An attractive man who articulated this very vague hope. So, the content that was absent was filled by this section of people which explains the fleeting popularity of these ideas.

RCR: Most of those people are young.

RS: And I think they'll turn on Obama in the Fall because they see his ideas have failed.

RCR: Isn't that easy to see that his ideas have failed?

RS: It depends on what you mean by easy. I think it's complex. I think it's complex to think you can have order without centrally planned authority. It took Hayek books to explain that. Now, the cultural questions are hard, not necessarily because the ideas are difficult to comprehend, but because they have not been formed in these ideas. There hasn't been a clear, consistent moral voice teaching people how to think in those categories. And what's more, because the culture goes against that, it takes a bit of heroism to stand up against the insanity and really be countercultural. In a way it's easier to be socially liberal right now. It's much more politically correct nowadays to say Chick-fil-A doesn't represent "our values."

RCR: "Chicago values," as Rahm Emanuel would say.

RS: We don't want to talk too much about "Chicago values," in the political realm anyway, coming from the mouth of Rahm Emanuel!

RCR: It seems you don't want to say much about Chicago in the economic realm either. You reference Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek often, but rarely Milton Friedman. Why?

RS: I think the Austrian school of economic thought is more anthropological.

RCR: Not all that unlike a Theology of the Body?

RS: That is very good that you picked up on that because my approach is very personalistic. When I met Christopher West, in two minutes we were on the same page even though he's not particularly interested in economics, and I'm not an expert in that whole area of Theology of the Body, but we both had the same starting point -- anthropology.

The history of personalism began with a former priest, Franz Brentano and among his followers was Carl Menger, who was the teacher of Ludwig von Mises. I wrote a long article on all this some years ago in the Journal of Markets and Morality. The basic idea here is that Brentano begins a whole way of thinking about phenomenology and personalism comes out of that. You then have these two schools of thought: one ends up in psychology and philosophy -- among those people you'd find Edith Stein and Karol Wojtyła; in the other school you have economists and sociologists. And there are certain points of dialogue between the two schools.

Rocco Buttiglione, an adviser to John Paul II who had a lot to do with the writing of Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus -- now, God forgive him, he's an Italian politician -- said that if you read The Acting Person in juxtaposition to the first five chapters of Human Action, there is this preoccupation with the act, the purposefulness of human will, beginning the anthropology of these two approaches. Now, they go off in different horizons. I'm not at all saying that Wojtyła ripped off von Mises, but the point is that they're coming from a backdrop that is not too dissimilar.

Now, the methodology of the Chicago school is much more akin to the mathematical abstractions of the Keynesians, but they come to different conclusions. I knew Milton Friedman and his wife. He was a classic enlightenment thinker. He was afraid of the role of religion and anyone who made truth claim pronouncements.

RCR: Yet, the Church makes truth pronouncements on the economy all the time.

RS: It depends on what you mean by Church. I'm talking about the Magisterium of the Church.

RCR: Bishops and clergy all too often answer public policy questions on the specific, legislative level.

RS: Yes, but let me first establish that the Church herself has repeatedly declined to teach economics. She has no particular competency on economics. She's an expert on humanity. Now, what is this phenomenon of the social justice people, the Nuns on the Bus, and all the rest of them? Let's remember that what happened at about the time of and even prior to the Second Vatican Council was a whole shift toward the historical in theological thinking -- not necessarily a bad thing. It became a diminishment of philosophy, of rigorous analytical thinking. Part of that was because it seemed desiccated and impersonal, but what ended up happening was the philosophical studies were downplayed.

This was the era of relevancy, the Secular City, Harvey Cox. Emphasizing a lower Christology, a higher anthropology -- as though these things would be in contradiction to each other. I think this explains the Nuns on the Bus perfectly: all of the social issues become the new Magisterium. They become the new authority from which there can be no dissent. "You can negotiate the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection of Our Lord, or certain sexual norms. We should have dialogue about that. You want to dialogue about whether there should be a minimum wage? Oh, this there can be no dialogue! You're a heretic!"

So, I think in the substitution of sociology and politics and the like for theology and philosophy, they confuse their priorities.

RCR: You learned your priorities early on as a child. Your next-door neighbor was a Holocaust survivor and you asked your Mother about her. How formative was that experience?

RS: My mom told me that she came for refuge from a place where she and her husband were treated like animals. There was no abstraction in what she said. She simply found something that was close to what I knew and the way you treated steers and these people I knew and the way other people treated them -- morally, I knew the whole case. Just from a few sentences I knew the whole thing: you have dignity of life, you have everything. You know it. You know it in your bones just by looking at reality.

RCR: You sound a lot like Ronald Reagan in arguing that human beings are intrinsically drawn to freedom.

RS: Yes! How do we connect all of this? We have these things but we leave them separate. We're in search of coherence. Here's the way I would explain it in the most ecumenical way possible: the thing that we know about ourselves is that we see outside of ourselves. There is a reality outside of ourselves that exists. As we mature we understand the depth of that reality.

In order to affect that social reality we need to be free to act upon what we see and what we know to be true. If we can't do that, then there is no moral basis to our existence. It's coherence that we desire -- not just the assembly of facts, but the meaning behind the facts. We're beings that look to an objective reality to make sense of things. That's why liberty is imperative. Those tried and true reference points are what we're missing that disables us from connecting all of the dots.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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