22 September 2016

The downside of deindustrialization

One summer in her youth my mother worked at the Willow Run factory in suburban Detroit where the short-lived Kaiser-Frazer automobiles were manufactured. The plant had been constructed just ahead of America’s entry into the Second World War for the production of B-24 Liberator bombers, which began rolling off the assembly line in 1941. A month after Japan’s destruction of the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Wartime Production Board to supervise the conversion of the country’s industrial might from civilian to military purposes. This adaptation was crucial to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

During my childhood Detroit continued to manufacture the automobiles that had become indispensable to American life, fuelling the nation’s economy. In fact, my maternal grandfather was working on an assembly line at a General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan, while I was growing up.

Half a century later North America’s thoroughfares are largely filled with Japanese, German and Korean automobiles, with GM, Ford and Chrysler marques definitely in the minority. What happened to our domestic automobiles? Where did our manufacturing jobs go? Often they were exported to Mexico or overseas where nonunionized labour is less expensive and government regulations lax. In 1979 nearly 20 million workers were employed in manufacturing jobs, but by 2007 fewer than 14 million held jobs in this sector, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over five million manufacturing jobs were lost just during the eleven-year period following the turn of the millennium, which indicates that the decline has accelerated in recent years.

Is this decline a bad thing? If increasing numbers of employees are now sitting at desks staring at computer screens, is this something to lament? Not necessarily, but it may be a sign of an unbalanced economy.

Free-trade liberals tend to extol the virtues of an international division of labour, in which production of goods and services varies from one country to the next. If each country had to produce everything internally for its own people, huge numbers would not have life’s basics. Switzerland lacks arable soil, while Canada is one of the world’s breadbaskets. We buy Swiss watches and they buy foodstuffs. Everyone gains. Our “buy local” movements may not see this as clearly as others do.

Nevertheless, the deindustrializing trends of the past half century are producing a world in which brain and brawn are more geographically distant from each other than ever before. There have long been white- and blue-collar neighbourhoods in our cities. But now we may be seeing the rise of white-collar and blue-collar countries, where the differing legal systems prevent the development of healthy workplaces and labour relationships, especially in poorer countries attempting to live at the whims of the wealthy west’s consumption choices.

But there’s also a negative for the western countries. Given the rapid decline of industry, especially in the US, there is reason to doubt that that country could repeat its impressive performance in the Second World War. If a new leader were to arise elsewhere bent on world domination, would an effort to convert a shrinking industrial base to military use be sufficient to carry the day against such a determined enemy?

The General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan, is long gone, and GM closed the historic Willow Run factory in 2010. No one can deny that changing economies are a reality to which we must adjust as well as possible. Yet it may be time to work towards rebalancing our economies to put more unskilled labourers to work, to renew our manufacturing bases, and to lessen the widening division of labour between the west and the rest.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He teaches politics and humanities at Redeemer University College. This post appeared in the 13 June issue of Christian Courier.

20 July 2016

The impossibility of equal concern: compassion is no substitute for justice

In recent months, terrorist attacks in different parts of the world have left scores of people dead and injured. Attacks have occurred in Paris, Beirut, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, and now Nice. After each of these episodes, North Americans are moved to express solidarity with the victims. On Facebook, such expressions generally consist of overlaying one’s profile picture with the colors of the French flag or posting a meme proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” or something similar. Alternatively, we link to stories about the tragedy for friends and family to read.

But, as many have pointed out with some embarrassment, we do not offer our sympathies equally to everyone. We are more likely to express horror at attacks in Brussels, Orlando, and Nice than at attacks in Istanbul, Beirut, and Baghdad. Part of the relative inattention to Beirut and Baghdad is due to the fact that, because these cities have so often been war zones, violent acts are not altogether unexpected there, sad to say. We have become inured to the chronic bloodshed in the Middle East. An attack on Brussels, however, catches us off guard. We are horrified because Brussels is a peaceful city in which violence on such a scale is rare.

But there is another reason for the inequality in our expressions of concern. Culturally speaking, Paris and Brussels are more like New York and Toronto than are Beirut and Baghdad. We tend naturally to sympathize with people who are like ourselves. Even educated Western cosmopolitans who castigate everyone else for being too parochial in their concerns tend to sympathize more with other educated Western cosmopolitans than with, well, everyone else.

Excessive parochialism is, of course, a bad thing insofar as it tempts us to ignore the evil and suffering outside of our own communities. Nevertheless, we must always bear in mind that a functioning society has diverse spheres of responsibility in which individual actors properly care more for the things that are closest to them. This is something Aristotle understood better than Plato. And Tocqueville had a better grasp of it than Rousseau. While we may aspire to have equal regard for everyone without discrimination, in reality we are limited creatures with limited abilities. Our capacity for compassion is thus limited as well. When my daughter falls and scrapes her knee, my compassion for her is much greater than for the little girl down the street who does the same. And that is as it should be.

The problem arises when we tie compassion too closely to justice. True, compassion is often a motive to do justice. My own decision to study politics as a young man was motivated in part by compassion for my paternal relatives who had lost their homes during Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974. But I quickly came to understand that compassion is no substitute for concrete policy proposals, and that justice is more likely to be accomplished by hard work and the willingness to compromise than by claiming that such-and-such is the compassionate thing to do.

Furthermore, if we move too quickly from compassion to justice, we are at great risk of miscarrying justice. Why? Because if I seek “justice” only for those with whom I am personally able to identify, I may be unwilling to take into account the competing claims of a party I find less sympathetic.

Justice must be based on equitable treatment under a law that applies to everyone. When it comes time to weigh various interests in the balance, our political leaders must make their policy decisions without bias towards one side or another. Importing the language of compassion into the political or judicial processes could tempt decision-makers to tip the balance in favour of those with whom they can most readily identify—and that, of course, would be nothing less than injustice.

This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.

14 July 2016

Correcting Carver

Last October in this space I analyzed the Policy Governance® model that originated with Dr. John Carver and has been adopted by an increasing number of Christian organizations, including educational institutions. While admitting that there were good reasons to find the model attractive and efficient in theory, I suggested that in practice its considerable flaws should warn boards away from adopting it wholesale.

First, it expects too much of members of a volunteer board in ensuring the continuation of the organization’s mission, especially in the absence of multiple sources of information about the life of the organization. Without such information, the board will not be able to exercise sufficient oversight, the likely result being a loss of the mission.

Second, it removes the board from the life of the institution, which is precisely the opposite of what should happen. The board needs to be aware of what staff are doing, and they need to hear it from the staff members themselves.

Third, it places too much power in the hands of a single person, the chief executive officer (CEO), who is expected to be the sole source of information to the board on the state of the organization as a whole. If the CEO errs in his or her estimation of the health of the organization, the board may not discover this until too late, because it has not heard other, possibly dissenting, voices.

Plato famously thought that the best form of government would be rule by one or more philosopher-kings. The problem with his prescription is that, even in the best of circumstances, philosopher-kings are rarely available. This reality prompted Plato’s successors, including Aristotle, to opt for a second best, namely, the rule of law. John Carver seems to be a modern Plato, arguing for a board governance model that takes insufficient account of human nature and assumes too much of the CEO. So what is the alternative? I have three suggestions for alleviating the defects of the Policy Governance model:

First, there should be structured opportunities for interaction between board members and employees. If this is an educational institution, then faculty, who are on the front lines of its mission, should definitely participate. This will prevent board members too easily accepting the notion that what employees do is “completely immaterial,” as Carver unwisely puts it, to the board’s work. Such interaction could be as informal as assigning a few board members to circulate among staff (or faculty) on a normal workday to hear what things are like in the trenches, or it could take the form of regular gatherings with an agenda set by the board. It is preferable to have multiple sources of information available rather than leaving all communication in the hands of a single person.

Second, if the organization is a Christian university, the board should be formally interviewing faculty when they receive tenure, promotion, and renewal of tenure. The board should retain responsibility for approving these matters and not delegate them to the CEO.

Third, in a Christian institution of higher education, any effort to dismiss faculty or administrators should have the input and approval of the board and should not be delegated to the CEO alone. This will lessen the possibility of abuse.

An anonymous 19th-century Russian once observed that every country has its own constitution and that his country’s was absolutism moderated by assassination. I would not go so far as to liken the Carver model to such unstable political rule. Nevertheless, a workable form of board governance must find middle ground between giving the CEO a free hand and sacking him or her. The Carver model lacks this flexibility, at least without the checks I’ve proposed here.

As a people steeped in a biblical understanding of humanity and creation, we can surely do better than the Carver model. In the meantime I offer these three proposals for mitigating its worst features.

This post appeared in the 11 July 2016 issue of Christian Courier as part of the author's long-running column, Principalities & Powers.

09 July 2016

Os Salmos e a Primeira Guerra Mundial

One of my articles from two years ago has been published in Portuguese for primarily Brazilian readers: Os Salmos e a Primeira Guerra Mundial. Here is the original: One Hundred Years Later: The Psalms and the First World War.

28 June 2016

Unity and independence: How Asymmetrical Federalism Might Allow for an Independent United Kingdom within the European Union

In the aftermath of last week's vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, a number observers have expressed support of the British electorate's narrow decision. There is undoubtedly something satisfying in seeing ordinary people stand up to progressive élites overly attached to their cosmopolitan dreams. Yet I would like to register a qualified dissent on the issue. Yes, EU institutions are hampered by the so-called democratic deficit, and many Europeans can be forgiven for thinking that “eurocrats” in Brussels do not have their best interests at heart. Because their own domestic political institutions seem more evidently responsive to their interests, they are willing to use them to assert their national particularities against an abstract universalism threatening the imposition of an artificial homogeneity.

That said, it is worth remembering that the principal architects of the European Union in the 1950s were devout Catholics who understood the principle of subsidiarity as set forth in the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Out of the debris of the two world wars, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, and others sought to build a European federation that would transcend the national antagonisms that had plunged the old continent into conflict twice in thirty years. In so doing, they sought also to move beyond past efforts at unity from a single imperial center. What Napoleon and Hitler had sought to do from the top down the European Union would accomplish from the ground up, at once preserving the best of national autonomy and securing the advantages of greater unity.

We must remember, as well, that the Christian tradition carries within itself, not only the seeds of counter-cosmopolitan localism, but of political universalism, as exemplified in Dante Aligheri's De Monarchia, but even in the old Holy Roman Empire, which claimed some form of preeminence within western Christendom. Reflecting this tradition, the late Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor and King, worked tirelessly for European unity, and very much out of a Catholic worldview.

Moreover, in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty explicitly enshrined the principle of subsidiarity for the future union:

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be efficiently achieved by the Member states and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.

In many respects this principle corresponds to the tenth amendment to the United States Constitution which provides that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It should be possible for local identities to survive within a larger federal union. The American founders certainly thought so and staked their country's future on it.

Of course, it could be argued that Washington has moved well beyond the powers originally enumerated in Article 1, section 8, encroaching on the prerogatives of the several states in ways not intended by the founders. Across the pond we hear similar arguments that Brussels has violated the spirit of subsidiarity, with the larger dream of unity taking on a life of its own at the expense of the hugely diverse interests of the member states. Hence EU leaders were shocked when French and Dutch voters rejected their proposed European constitution just over a decade ago. And now they are similarly incredulous that any country would want out of the Union altogether, when its benefits seem so obvious to them.

Yet this tale of discontent need not be the whole story. It may well be that future federations will more resemble the Holy Roman Empire or the pre-1848 Swiss confederation than the United States of America or Australia. Canada and Spain have already led the way towards a more asymmetrical federalism in which provinces or regions relate to the federal or central government in different ways. The notion that all component units of a federation must be treated the same is itself an abstraction that may be hindering just governance. If one of your children requires braces on her teeth, you wouldn't think of getting braces for all of your children for the sake of equality of treatment. Similarly, if one state or province aspires to greater autonomy than the others in certain policy areas, granting this in no way undermines just governance and may in fact facilitate it. While formally possessing the same powers as the other provinces as set out in section 92 of Canada's Constitution Act, 1867, Québec in practice exercises certain powers, for example, over language, that the other provinces are content to leave to Ottawa. While Spain is formally a unitary state, Madrid has devolved powers unevenly to its regions, with Euskadi (the Basque region) and Catalunya retaining more autonomy than others.

If we abandon the peculiarly modern quest for strict equality of treatment, it should be possible for the EU to function with its member states unevenly integrated into the whole. A two- or three-tier Union would be the result. France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries might be the most tightly integrated federal core of the Union, with no internal border controls restricting the free movement of persons and goods. Other states could remain members of the Union but opt out of some of its integrating features, including the euro zone and the Schengen Agreement. These would retain greater autonomy vis-à-vis Brussels, keeping their own currencies and central banks, along with other markers of independent nationhood.

Such an arrangement may seem terribly untidy and chaotic, but the reality need not be so. If subsidiarity means that as many decisions as possible are made at the lowest levels closest to the people affected, then an unevenly decentralized European Union may, after all, best conform to this principle. If the British people prefer that London (or Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast) take responsibility for matters that the core members prefer to delegate to Brussels, then there is no reason why this should not be permitted. Great Britain could remain part of the EU while, fully in accordance with subsidiarity, claiming as much independence as it needs and can handle.

A bare majority for Brexit is hardly a ringing endorsement of such a momentous move, which threatens to fragment the United Kingdom itself. Better, it seems to me, to opt for both independence and continued membership in the EU, even if it means abandoning the artificial symmetry characterizing the classic modern constitutional federation.

A slightly different version of this is posted at First Thoughts.

15 June 2016

O liberalismo e a igreja: Liberalism and the church

Yet another article of mine can be read at tuporém: O liberalismo e a igreja: Como a espiritualidade pura deixa o ego no comando. This is a translation of Liberalism and the Church: How mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge. An excerpt:

É comum nesses dias ouvir as pessoas dizendo que são espirituais, mas não religiosas. Pura espiritualidade deixa o ego no comando, e igrejas de sucesso fazem seu melhor para recorrer a esse ego. Por outro lado, religião implica certa forma de ligação (Latim: religare) das pessoas com um determinando caminho de obediência não escolhida pela própria pessoa.

It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself.

30 May 2016

Justice and reality

Nearly a quarter of a century ago the United States Supreme Court claimed to have expanded dramatically the scope of liberty in its famous decision, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. One sentence in particular stands out for its breathtaking vision of the extraordinary possibilities apparently available to ordinary human beings: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The author of this “sweet mystery of life” passage was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has been on the court since 1988.

On the surface it seems as though this decision simply affirms something approximating religious freedom, that is, the right to believe or to disbelieve in God. A citizen of the United States is at liberty to decide which spiritual path to follow without undue interference from the state. The very next sentence appears to bear this out: “Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”

Justice therefore would seem to entail allowing people as much liberty as possible in those matters deemed most personal and intimate. Or, as our current Prime Minister’s late father once put it: “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” However self-evidently good this newly discovered liberty might seem at first glance, the current judicial régimes in both countries appear to have declared our freedom from reality itself – a dream once thought to be limited to utopians and revolutionaries. Yet if we take Kennedy’s words seriously, we have now become little gods, fully authorized to define liberty to suit our own conception of the cosmos, to which everyone else is now expected to conform. An otherwise salutary effort to curtail state compulsion has now effectively expanded the same.

For the past decade and a half the Canadian government has claimed the authority to redefine marriage by eliminating sexual complementarity as a necessary feature. Last year the US Supreme Court imposed this new definition on all fifty states, despite the objections of many of those states’ citizens at the polls. The most recent bone of contention has to do with the individual’s right to choose between male and female washrooms in public settings. If a man genuinely believes himself to be a woman deep down, does justice require permitting him to enter through the door marked women? Or do the biological women using this facility have a right to privacy that trumps this man’s self-definition?

These are the sorts of disputes that inevitably follow any serious attempt to implement the notion that we define ourselves irrespective of our embodied nature and the judgement of others. Such disputes inevitably call forth the strong arm of government for resolution.

The late Václav Havel, writing of his own Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, affirmed that political ideologies try to pass off appearances for reality itself. They build a self-contained pseudo-reality to which everyone is expected to pay lip service. In this alternative universe slavery passes for liberty, censorship for free speech, bureaucracy for democracy, and arbitrary power for legal authority. Those caught up in this régime are compelled to “live within a lie.” Anyone daring to point out that this pseudo-reality is, well, unreal can expect to suffer ostracism or possibly much worse.

To be sure, the current political climate in North America is not as bad as that of the former Soviet Union and its clients. Nevertheless, a similar spirit is at work here. That spirit tells us that we are autonomous, capable of authoring, not only our own actions, but reality itself. And if others are clever enough to see through our self-deceptions, they will have to be silenced – gently, one hopes.

What then of those who persist in believing, to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism, that we are not our own and that our world belongs to God? What of those who believe that a loving God created the cosmos and placed us at its pinnacle to fashion the rest of creation into cultural artefacts and to live according to principles that God himself authored? The current secular orthodoxy generously permits us to believe these things privately, and it is even willing to allow us some space to live them out, but only if they do not conflict with its own expanded understanding of individual liberty as self-definition.

In the meantime Christians will have to be content to live against the grain of the larger society, recognizing that we answer to Another to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance.

This appeared in the author's Principalities & Powers column in Christian Courier's 9 May 2016 issue.

15 April 2016

Com que autoridade? By what authority?

Another of my articles has appeared in Portuguese on the túporem website: Com que autoridade? This is a translation of By What Authority? The Limits of Niebuhr's Transformational Christianity.

14 April 2016

England’s greatest export

Anglophiles. We all know them. They like everything English, from marmalade and Earl Grey tea to shepherd’s pie, blood pudding and spotted dick. (Google it! Trust me; it’s not what it sounds like.) They avidly watched the concluding episode of Downton Abbey last month and may even affect certain British pronunciations in their speech. They like the BBC and probably worship – if they go in for that sort of thing – at a high Anglican church.

Some three centuries ago a certain French aristocrat surnamed Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a different sort of Anglophile. A lawyer and man of letters, he spent two years in England and was favourably impressed by the experience. He had come to admire in particular England’s political institutions for their durability and reputation for protecting liberty. Through many centuries of constitutional development, the subjects of the English king enjoyed rights that the French could only dream of. Beginning with Magna Carta (1215) and extending up through the Petition of Right (1628) and Bill of Rights (1689), the powers of the king had gradually been limited and parliamentary government came into the ascendancy.

This was in stark contrast to his own country, whose political life had been relentlessly centralized in the person of the monarch. “L’état c’est moi!” King Louis XIV famously uttered. “I am the state!” From Montesquieu’s side of La Manche (the English Channel), England looked pretty good, with its division of sovereignty amongst King, Lords and Commons; its jury system; and its balanced constitution. No one in particular had invented this form of government; it simply came about by happy circumstance – and, of course, a fair bit of conflict.

In 1748 Montesquieu published his political ideas in The Spirit of the Laws. “One nation there is also in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty,” he wrote, with reference to England. Some four decades later on this side of the pond, the leaders of the newly independent American states drew heavily on Montesquieu’s magnum opus in fashioning their own constitutional document. There was perhaps a certain irony in Americans, who had just won a war for independence from England, borrowing from English models as interpreted by an admiring Frenchman. Yet for generations Americans had been accustomed to representative institutions inherited from the motherland. One of the key features they incorporated into their system was the separation of powers, thought at the time to characterize England’s constitution.

A century later, however, things looked rather different in what by then had become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Writing in 1867, the journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the genius of The English Constitution (the title of his book on the subject) was not a separation of powers, but a “fusion of powers,” namely, the concentration of both legislative and executive powers in the cabinet, making for a highly efficient system able to get things done with a minimum of fuss. This is what we now know as the Westminster system of responsible government: the government of the day governs as long as it enjoys the confidence of the Commons, and if that confidence is withdrawn, the government resigns.

In the same year Bagehot published his influential book, our own Fathers of Confederation created a new federal union of four of the British North American colonies. Drawing again on their own political experience, they transplanted the Westminster system into the Dominion of Canada. A little over a generation later Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa would follow suit, each operating under a more or less identical arrangement.

The British Parliament is often styled the “Mother of Parliaments,” due to its having been replicated in so many other countries. Because the English constitution has proven so durable and flexible in its homeland, it has been widely imitated. If the United States and Canada appear now to have different political systems based on contrasting principles, it is because each drew on England’s constitution at different stages in its development. Nevertheless, the two forms have served our respective countries well, and we could certainly do a lot worse.

Am I an Anglophile then? Well, I couldn’t manage to get past season two of Downton Abbey, so perhaps not. Nevertheless, I thank God to have lived my life in two countries that are heir to a highly successful political system with an enviable reputation of doing public justice over a vast swath of the globe’s surface.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and We Answer to Another:Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He teaches politics at Redeemer University College and has lived in Canada for just over half his life. This post was published in the author's Principalities & Powers column in the 11 April 2016 issue of Christian Courier.

05 April 2016

On civil disobedience

For one day only my Christianity Today article is out from behind the paywall: Is It Time for American Christians to Disobey the Government? Tomorrow I will be interviewed on the subject of this article on Let's Talk with Mark Elfstrand over radio station WYLL AM 1160 in Chicago.


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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca