If there’s anybody who can rival Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman for knowitall smugness, it’s Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. We’ve taken note before of Sachs’s high self-regard (here and here) and even praised him once for taking down Krugman.
Last month he wrote in the Catholic magazine America that his fondest hope for Pope Francis’s upcoming fall visit to the United States is that the Pope will try to persuade Americans to abandon the principles of the American Founding, which, surprise-surprise, Sachs doesn’t like:
Pope Francis has declared that the joy of the Gospel can help the world to overcome the globalization of indifference to others. Undoubtedly, he will bring this message when he visits the United States. But when he does, he will face a society in thrall to a different idea—that of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The urgent core of Francis’ message, which is the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, challenges this American idea by proclaiming that the path to happiness lies not solely or mainly through the defense of rights but through the exercise of virtues, most notably justice and charity. . .
Pope Francis sees a crisis of the human spirit in our time, characterized by our inability to hear the suffering of others. This is a crisis not of material want, of the scarcity of material goods as taught by modern economics, but of morals. We suffer a poverty of the spirit in the midst of material plenty, a failure to live properly in an age of unprecedented material affluence.
This is an idea that is foreign to the ideology of rights that dominates American ideological discourse. In the United States, we learn that the route to happiness lies in the rights of the individual. By throwing off the yoke of King George III, by unleashing the individual pursuit of happiness, early Americans believed they would achieve that happiness. Most important, they believed that they would find happiness as individuals, each endowed by the creator with individual rights.
You can tell from Sachs’s wording that he thinks the American Founding is defective, or worse. This fundamental mangling of the principles and philosophy of the American Founding gets worse from here, with passages such as this:
How strange to the American eye and ear is Aristotle’s declaration in the opening pages of The Politics that “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” Aristotle does not mean that the state can willfully crush the individual, but rather that the individual finds meaning in life, and the path to happiness, as a citizen of the polis, the state. In a phrase that reverberates powerfully still today, Aristotle noted that “man is a social animal.”
One hardly knows where to begin sorting out Sachs’s monumental ignorance, or whether he ever got to Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle denounces the very idea that the poor, by the mere force of numbers, may take away the property of the rich. Though he must be granted this much: If Aristotle is strange to the American ear today, it’s because his thought isn’t taught at our leading universities.
Aristotle certainly wasn’t strange to Thomas Jefferson, who once described the inspirations of the Declaration of Independence to include “Aristotle, Cicero, Sidney, and Locke.” And no competent translator of Aristotle’s Politics uses the modern term “state” for Aristotle’s polis, which rightly and fully understood comprises the very ideas of reciprocity that Sachs purports to argue for here. “State” is only used by statists like Sachs (quite obviously he understands and uses the word in the modern sense—not Aristotle’s sense), whose remedies for everything always involve more forced redistribution of wealth guided conveniently by people like him. Beyond this, Sachs shows not the slightest perception of the idea of natural rights enshrined in the Declaration and other founding charters, which, rightly understood, compass both rights and duties that Sachs thinks are missing because the Founding was defective.
It’s an easy bet that Sachs does not believe the “self-evident truths” of the laws of nature and nature’s God that are the source of our natural rights. It should be added that the Christian preachers of the American Founding era had no trouble harmonizing individual rights and individual virtue, and to the extent this connection is attenuated today, we might blame the secular culture’s hostility toward religion. (Just check out Political Sermons of the Founding Era, for example.) Or as George Washington warned: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” But Sachs wants to blame libertarians instead.
One hopes that the shaky Pope Francis won’t take Sachs’s bearing, though if he does I wonder if America magazine might want to think about changing its name. One further hopes that Francis might take in the thoughts of another great Catholic thinker, who once summarized his regard for the American Founding thus:
The United States carries a weighty and far reaching responsibility, not only for the well being of its own people, but for the development and destiny of people throughout the world…. The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.”
Thus, they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty”: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good.
Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no happiness without respect and support for the natural groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others. The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model, in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic.
Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives…fortunes…and sacred honor.”
The person who spoke these words was Pope John Paul II, who clearly had a better grasp of the American Founding than Sachs, and possibly better than Francis.