Acton University

Note: This post is from the previous Opus Publicum; I am putting it up here by request.

Since nobody bothered to sponsor yours truly to attend Acton University, a week-long indoctrination program that covers the (conservative) Christian spectrum, I have decided to torture myself by reviewing this year’s course offerings in order to see what I am missing out on.

For those who don’t know, Acton University is comprised of 11 different “sessions” with a few mandatory talks and meet-and-greets mixed in. Instead of going through each offering session by session, I have decided to pick out some “highlights” in order to find out just what the Christian leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow will be learning today. (Well, actually, what they’ll be learning starting this Wednesday.)

In Session One we have “Getting Social Justice Right” taught by — wait for it — a fellow from the Heritage Foundation. What’s on the top of the reading list? Why, wouldn’t you know, an article from The Journal of Markets and Morality — Acton’s very own publication. Funny. Given the critical nature of the course I would have expected some reading from outside the Actonite circle, just in case they were interested in presenting the question of social justice in an open and unbiased manner. But of course they are not. So let’s see if Session Two has anything worth attending.

Ah, here’s a good one: “Markets and Monasticism,” taught by Orthodox convert Dylan Pahman. Setting aside for a moment that Pahman has no particular sophistication with respect to Eastern Christian thought (he is a graduate of Calvin College) or, for that matter, the history of monasticism, he is apparently going to survey and analyze “the historical interaction between Christian monasticism and markets.” I was disappointed to see that the reading list contained neither the works of St. Nil Sorsky nor St. Iosif Volotsky. I wonder which of the two is a saint of Pahman’s devotion?

Session Three has a doozy: “Crony Capitalism” as taught by Discovery Institute fellow Jay Richards. Since “crony capitalism,” next to “statism,” is libertarianism’s prime hobgoblin, this is one that can’t be missed. I think I just need to let the course description speak for itself:

Popular comparisons of political economy often treat the primary options as either free-market capitalism or socialism, but in the 21st century, both of these options are being displaced by a third way called cronyism. Unlike a free market, cronyism involves the widespread collusion between government regulators and large private corporations. Using the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath as a current example, this course will explain the essential elements of cronyism and how to distinguish it from both free enterprise and socialism.

Ah yes, there was no such thing as “crony capitalism” prior to the 21st Century! Well, ok, the term “crony capitalism” wasn’t in use; the favored expression, from George Stigler onward, was “regulatory capture.” All of that was supposed to have gone the way of the dodo following the deregulation movement in the 1970s and 80s, but of course that’s not what happened. What happened instead was “regulatory transformation” and the marriage between government and capital remains as it has always been: indissoluble. I have a sneaking suspicion that the intrinsic link between the state and the interests of capitalists won’t be up for discussion during Richards’s talk. Pity.

Skipping ahead to Session Five we find “Solzhenitsyn: Prophet and Critic” being taught by Fr. Johannes Jacobse of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. (The Russian Orthodox aren’t going to like that.) In glancing over the course outline, it appears that the Solzhenitsyn the Actonites will get is the Solzhenitsyn who decried communism and socialism, but not the Solzhenitsyn who also turned his sights on liberalism and capitalism. This is the man who, in an interview with his Anglophone biographer Joseph Pearce, stated: “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.”

Session Six features Mr. Pahman at it again, this time with “Introduction to Orthodox Social Thought.” (For those interested, I have previously discussed Acton’s attempt to manufacture an Orthodox social magisterium here [link now dead].) Several posts could no doubt be dedicated to Pahman’s handout of social paradigms that covers “Sovereignty Thinkers,” “Thomists,” “Calvinists,” and, of course, “Orthodox.” I am just going to gently suggest that every feature of the Orthodox paradigm Pahman suggests — features he draws out of his own imagination — are, at best, questionable and, at worst, nonsensical. What does it even mean, practically speaking, to say that nature is “sacramental” or that human nature in particular is “iconic”? The paradigm reeks of creative, but ultimately false and meaningless, distinctions that some Orthodox like to make between themselves and the Western Christian tradition, specifically the Thomistic tradition.

Session Seven gives away the game with “Free Market Thought: Austrian Economics.” The next time an Actonite tries to tell you they’re not libertarian, remind them that this was on the course offerings.

Session Eight has a course I would actually be interested in sitting in on: “Orthodoxy and Natural Law” by Fr. Michael Butler. During my Orthodox days I was deeply skeptical that Orthodoxy had anything like a natural-law tradition. I eventually modified that view a bit after studying the reception of Roman Law in the Byzantine Empire, though the paradigm of natural law seems to have degraded rather quickly after the days of Justinian. As Butler’s outline to the course concludes, there is a definite paucity of natural law thinking in contemporary Orthodoxy. In fact, there is a great deal of hostility toward it — and anything else that reeks of Catholicism — within the Orthodox Church today.

Oh, just in case Session Seven didn’t give you enough evidence that Acton is a libertarian think tank, Jeffrey Tucker’s Ninth Session course, “The Austrian Tradition on Social and Economic Order,” should put the case over the top.

In Session Ten Acton carries out a hit job on Distributism before, in Session Eleven, reminding attendees about John Locke’s theory of property rights and Christianity. I’m stunned.