Our Lady of the Rosary
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Review: Roberts and Stratton, The
Tyranny of Good Intentions
Simony? Selling Blessed Rose Oil?
Moral Aspects of the Great Depression
[ Q&A ARCHIVES ]
Roberts and Stratton,
Tyranny of Good Intentions
Paul Craig Roberts & Lawrence M. Stratton, The
Tyranny of Good Intentions, New York: Three Rivers Press, Revised
2008, xxiii+264 pages, paperbound, U.S. $14.95 (discounts available).
It seems that the longer one looks the more one finds
evils that sprung from the so-called “Progressive” movement. Roberts
and Stratton make a very convincing case that law in these United States is
one more casualty of that ideology among many. As with so many of these
things, it is necessary to understand the underlying philosophy. Most of
us are unfamiliar with any sort of philosophy of law, so the first few
chapters of the book are devoted to correcting that omission.
Roberts and Stratton trace the development of British law
from King Alfred in the ninth century, through the signing of Magna Carta
in 1215, to the revolution at the end of the seventeenth century, culminating
in the writings of the famed jurist, William Blackstone. The law was
conceived as a “shield” that would protect people from arbitrary power,
including that of the ruler. All men were subject to the same laws,
without regard to wealth or social class. The law was “a means of
pursuing justice by finding truth.” It was grounded in the natural
law, which tells us that individuals have natural rights—that in the law of
“nature’s God” it is wrong to steal from a man, to injure him
physically, to lie to him, to defraud him of his wages, to estrange him from
his wife and family, and so on. It is the function of society to see
that these natural rights are not infringed for any subject of the realm.
Roberts and Stratton repeatedly refer to “the Rights of Englishmen,” and
it may take a little getting used to that Americans are “Englishmen” as
inheritors of the British legal system, and as inhabitants of a Republic based
on that system.
The legal philosophy of William Blackstone came under
fire with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). For Bentham
there were no natural rights, and society did not exist to protect
individuals—rather, for Bentham, society existed in order “to achieve the
greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Rather than having a
nation of self responsible citizens, a governing elite would determine through
a “hedonistic calculus” what would make the majority most happy, and bring
about this happiness by force of law. Roberts and Stratton go on to make
the case that American law has been so corrupted by Bentham that little of
Blackstone can be found in the operation of our modern legal system,
even though many of Blackstone’s concepts of natural law remain in our Constitution,
where they are ignored. Hopefully, a few quotes will whet the reader’s
appetite for reading The Tyranny of Good Intentions.
“Foremost among the Rights of Englishmen is the
requirement that no one can be prosecuted for a crime without evidence that a
crime has occurred and evidence that links the accused to the crime....
Punishment implies moral blameworthiness, and the stigma of a criminal
conviction is undercut when no distinction is made between intended and
unintended behavior.... In contemporary America crimes no longer require
intent. Prosecutors have invented new felonies to fit those who have
been targeted. Accidents have become criminalized, and it has even
become a crime to make a mistake when filling out regulatory forms required by
“The mens rea requirement [requirement of
criminal intent] rules out ex post facto laws because if an act was legal when
it took place, the actor could not have intentionally engaged in illegal
conduct.... Even before the addition of the Bill of Rights, the U.S.
Constitution forbade both Congress (Article I, Section 9) and the states
(Article I, Section 10) to enact ex post facto laws.” (65-66) Roberts
and Stratton go on to trace the history of ex post facto law in the U.S.
“Plea bargaining has ominous implications for the
Rights of Englishmen.... ‘The parallels between the modern American plea
bargaining system and the ancient system of judicial torture are many and
chilling.’ Defendants who insist upon exercising their constitutional
right to a jury trial risk a substantially increased sentence if they are
convicted, and this sentencing differential alone is enough to make plea
bargaining coercive.... According to Justice Department statistics, 90
to 95 percent of all federal, state, and local criminal cases are settled by
plea bargains.” (82)
“When Berkeley, California residents ... learned that a
taxpayer funded homeless shelter was to be located in their neighborhood, they
exercised their First Amendment rights of free speech to inform their
neighbors and organize a protest. They soon found HUD investigators ...
threatening them with jail terms and $50,000 fines unless they turned over to
HUD documents that HUD could allege to be evidence that the Berkeley residents
had violated the Fair Housing Act by opposing the homeless shelter.”
“At 8:36 A.M. on October 2, 1992, thirty armed members
of an ‘entry team’ led by Los Angles deputy sheriffs John Cater and Gary
Spencer broke down the front door of multimillionaire Donald Scott’s home on
his 200 acre estate in Malibu, California, and shot him dead. Mr. Scott
was not on the FBI’s most wanted list. He was holding no one hostage.
He had committed no crime, and he had defied no summons. He was shot
dead because Mr. Spencer had targeted Scott’s estate for asset forfeiture on
trumped-up drug charges.” (117)
The Tyranny of Good Intentions has a chapter on
prosecutors building reputations on false convictions, and another on how
Congress routinely and illegally delegates its legislative powers to agencies
of the Administration, thereby expanding the number of federal crimes from
three (piracy, treason, counterfeiting) in 1787 to 3,000 derived from statutes
and 10,000 created by agency regulations! You can read about the folks
who went to federal jail by filling in their own land while holding a state
permit to do so. (163) Roberts and Stratton are certainly not
“bleeding heart liberals,” but they do lament the way the law has been
manipulated, and how many Americans are in jail for no good reason.
The Tyranny of Good Intentions is must reading for
Catholics concerned with legal morality in our modern society.
Simony? Selling Blessed Rose Oil?
Question: The newspaper says that a local Novus
Ordo church is selling rose oil into which has been dipped a relic of
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as it was blessed by the priest.
Isn’t the sale of blessed objects sinful?
Answer: Newspapers are notoriously bad about
getting the details of such things wrong, but the Church usually tries to
avoid even the appearance of trading in blessed things. It would not be
wrong to accept a free-will donation from someone who receives the object, and
it would seem permissible to let people know what the object cost to begin
with so that they can make a realistic donation (e.g. “the plastic rosaries
cost us $2.25 each.”). It would certainly be sinful to demand a
donation above the material cost, as though the blessing added some number of
dollars to the value of the object. Generally, the objects blessed by
the Church are inexpensive enough to be just given away without any
expectation of profit—holy water, palms, ashes, plastic rosaries, and such
things certainly fit into this category. Beeswax candles are getting
pricey, and it might be prudent for people to know the material value of what
they are receiving. If someone wants to have a more expensive religious
object, he should purchase it for himself and ask the priest to bless it
thereafter. Religious objects in the parish gift shop should not be
blessed before sale. Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, objects to
which an indulgence is attached lose that indulgence if sold (c.924) and
objects lose their blessing or consecration if exposed for public sale
The newspaper article mentioned “a $5 donation” for
an ounce of blessed oil—probably reasonable if the donation remains one of
free will and doesn’t become the “price,” as we usually use that word.
Presumably, a poor person would not be refused a bottle without a donation,
and perhaps the wealthy give more than the five dollars mentioned.
At Our Lady of the Rosary we occasionally mark
things—principally books—with a “suggested donation,” so our
people will know how much it cost the parish, and will, if able, make an
appropriate donation so the parish doesn’t lose money.
The Moral Aspects of the Great Depression
from last month:]
Question: Were there moral aspects of the
Great Depression? A lot of
people suffered for well over a decade. Shouldn’t someone be held
● Capitalism or Free Enterprise? ●
“capitalism” comes to us from the pen of Karl Marx, and tends to be
ambiguous in describing the free enterprise system. Economists speak of
“the four factors of production,” which include land, labor, capital, and
entrepreneurial ability. “Land” refers to the surface of the earth
as well as to the materials beneath it. “Labor” refers to the
productive efforts of human beings, mental as well as physical.
“Entrepreneurial ability” speaks to the organizing activities of those who
bring a productive enterprise into being and keep it running.
“Capital” refers to the physical things which make production possible or
efficient. In the modern firm, capital generally refers to heavy
machinery or an assembly line. But in a more general sense the
instruments of production can be quite simple. The fellow who rents a
shop, builds a workbench, and acquires the tools needed to do his work
efficiently is a “capitalist”—at least relative to the fellow who works
outside, on the ground, with just his fingers and fingernails.
We often equate
“capital” with “money,” but it should be obvious that money can be
used to acquire any of the four factors of production. The organizer of
a productive activity—a business—may finance it with his own money, or
recruit partners or stockholders with money to invest, or may borrow it from
someone who is able to loan it for a period of time, or do all of the above.
and partners may directly contribute their land, labor, capital goods, and
entrepreneurial ability or hire these factors with the money provided by the
investors. Morally and legally, the hired help have the first claim to
be paid for their efforts, followed by those who have made loans to the
business. The partners or stockholders—the “investors” being
reimbursed with whatever is left after the firm retains enough to continue in
existence. The investors expect to receive enough return on their
investment to make up for the risk of loss and for the “opportunity cost”
of not having done something else with their money. The investors may be
willing to trade future reward (their share of the business growing and
becoming worth more) for current dividends. Often the hired help must be
paid immediately, with possible long delays before the product is sold and
is a Good Thing ●
In order for the
business to survive, it must make adequate profit. The goods that are
produced and sold must bring enough to pay all the expenses of the business:
taxes, wages and benefits, raw material costs, utility bills, sales and
advertising costs, loan payments, building and equipment rentals, allowances
for repair or future replacement of buildings and equipment, and so forth.
Only after all of the expenses are paid can we speak of “profit”—and
even then there are decisions to be made about retaining some of the profits
for future growth or internal financing.
Every once in a
while, the folks on TV will report that this or that company made a “huge
profit.” They have to talk about something, and many viewers are
dazzled by big numbers. An $11,680,000,000 quarterly profit just has to
be evil and immoral, and call out for someone to put a stop to it.
But it is absolutely impossible to make a moral judgment on the size of a
profit without knowing what went into making it. How many dollars in
assets were required to make that profit? How many shares were owned?
What did a share cost? Is the business cyclical or risky, with far
smaller profits made is some quarters or likely to be made in the future?
If the business had 5.3 billion shares outstanding, that profit amounts
to about $2.08 per share, only some of which (say 40¢) can be distributed to
the investors. If a share sells for $80, that is only about a 2% annual
return—not very competitive with something risk-free like a bank CD—but,
apparently the shareholders believe that the value of their shares will go up
over the years, repaying them in the long term rather than the short term.
don’t tell the whole story, but our business with the $11+ billion
profit paid $32+ billion in taxes (49%), which presumably contribute to
the public well-being. The business employed 80,800 employees.
Daily it provided the world with 2.4 million barrels of petroleum products,
8.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 75 thousand metric tons of chemical
investors expect to receive a return on their investment to cover risk and
opportunity cost. The rational investor will consider the risk he is
taking, his opportunity for the investment to grow, and the periodic return of
cash dividends. The business that cannot continue to attract investment
will fail, leaving people unemployed, loans defaulted on, and no product
produced for the consumers.
Isn’t All Bad ●
fail. That can be a gut-wrenching experience for those trying to keep
them going, possibly facing loss of their own personal investment. But
business failure is a natural mechanism for insuring that resources are used
efficiently, and that the public receives goods at the best possible prices.
A business that makes widgets and has to sell them for $7 will not last long
if the others in the widget industry are selling at around $5.50. The
land, labor, capital and entrepreneurial ability employed by that firm will be
put to better use elsewhere.
The price people
are willing to pay and the amount of a product they are willing to buy tells
producers what and how much to produce, and gives them guidelines as to
desired quality. This is a significant advantage of the free market
economy. A controlled economy in which government planners determine
price, quantity, and quality will almost always be wrong in its predictions,
leading to perpetual waste or scarcity. The free market reduces both
waste and scarcity by demanding satisfaction from those producers who want to
remain in business.
If there is any
doubt, consider New York City. Any fair sized city will do, but the
“Big Apple” probably makes the point best. There are 15 million
people jammed into the lower end of Manhattan on a business day. Somehow
they all get modern communications services and electricity. When it is
time to eat, they can get most anything they want, from a hot dog to pheasant
under glass; they can wash it down with their favorite brand of soda,
water, beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, tea, or milk. If they have a
headache, back-pain, a cold, or an itch, a nearby pharmacy will have their
choice of remedies. They can buy a pair of denim jeans or a fine wool
suit; a cotton dress or a gown of silk. There are newspapers and
magazines, candy bars, chewing gum, cigars, and cigarettes. With all of
this ability to get what one wants, there is little waste and rarely a
shortage. How did it all get to the right place, at the right time, in
the right quantities? Does the Mayor of New York plan all of this?
the Governor? the Cardinal-Archbishop? God help New Yorkers if
they did! The free market puts those things there.
By the way, you
won't be able to get a cab, and parts of the Subway smell like sewers in the
ninth circle of Hell—but that is not because of any failure of free
enterprise—it is because of the limited number and high cost of taxi
medallions issued by the city government—it is because when everybody owns
something like the Subway, nobody owns it, and no one cares what happens to