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A collection of short essays by Acton writers, click a link to jump to that article:


Free trade and Brexit can help Africa flourish

Ibrahim B. Anoba, African Liberty Organization

In early 2018, all 54 member- states of the African Union (AU) will sign an agreement for a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) to make Africa the world’s largest common market. The CFTA could increase trade within the region by an unprecedented 50 percent and create about $35 billion in benefits.

This is necessary, as intra- African trade constitutes only 18 percent of the continent’s total trade – an abysmal rating compared to the European Union’s (EU) 70 percent. But a well-implemented free trade treaty could increase trade and benefit the ever-growing population of the continent with more material resources. It would also likely give Africa an advantage in negotiating more equitable agreements with the EU.

With Europe recognizing these alternatives, Africa would have the opportunity to elevate its bargaining position with the EU. Moreover, Africa’s development commitments may give it more reasons to increase imports from Europe through the next two decades. The UK is already one of Africa’s largest European partners, and leading Brexiteers have raised the possibility of importing more goods from Africa once the UK no longer has to abide by the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, which imposes 18 percent tariffs on African agricultural goods.

More than ever, Africa’s economic potential as a market – especially as a home for technologically driven commodities to serve its sprouting population – is attracting interest from emerging super- economies like China, India and Israel. The free trade plan would integrate the numerous fragmented markets to cooperate directly to increase productive capacity, information exchange, improved infrastructure and financial flow.

For an Africa faced with what seem to be daunting challenges that many believe can only be solved by greater central coordination, the decentralized and organic coordination brought about by the CFTA is an all-around winner.


French strike for the right to retire at 52

Rev. Ben Johnson, Acton Institute

Some 4.5 million French were immobilized by a national rail strike over what might be termed the most thoroughly French of all labor demands: the right to retire with full benefits at age 52.

The nationalized railway, SNCF, kicked off the first of a nearly three-month-long strike in April. With 86 percent of all trains canceled nationwide, 230 miles of traffic jams congested French roads on “Black Tuesday.” Video surfaced purporting to show desperate passengers climbing through the window of one of the few operational train cars.

France already faces fiscal strain for allowing its citizens to retire at age 62. According to the French free-market think tank Fondation iFRAP, that retirement age “has increased the burden on the state, hospitals, businesses and individuals. It has largely contributed to the increase in deficits and unemployment, and the loss of French competitiveness.” Subtracting an additional decade of work creates an even less sustainable system – something Americans, who face $6 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities, should understand.

Christians should seek to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). This includes cultivating harmonious, rather than adversarial, labor relations. To this end, Catholic social teaching circumscribes the conditions in which a labor strike would be considered morally licit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that a strike can be “morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.”


Fifty years later, cities still suffer the economic effects of the 1968 riots

Joe Carter, Acton Institute

The The riots that began in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.— sometimes referred to as the Holy Week Uprising or King assassination riots—spread through 110 cities across the United States.

As historian Peter B. Levy notes,

Fifty-four cities suffered at least $100,000 in property damage, with the nation’s capital and Baltimore topping the list at approximately $15 million and $12 million, respectively. Thousands of small shopkeepers saw their life savings go up in smoke. Combined, 43 men and women were killed, approximately 3,500 were injured, and 27,000 were arrested. Not until over 58,000 National Guardsmen and army troops joined local state and police forces did the uprisings cease. Put somewhat differently, during Holy Week 1968, the United States experienced its greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War.

From 1964 to 1971, as many as 700 riots erupted in cities across America. The large numbers of injuries, deaths and property damage that occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods caused considerable short-term damage to the communities.

Between 1960 and 1980, severe riot cities had relative declines in male employment rates of 4 to 7 percentage points. Individual-level data for the 1970s suggests that this decline was especially large for men under the age of 30.

A second paper investigated the influence of riots on central city residential property values, especially black-owned properties:

They find that the riots significantly depressed the median value of black-owned property between 1960 and 1970, with little or no rebound in the 1970s. The baseline estimates for severe-riot cities relative to small-orno- riot cities range from approximately 14 to 20 percent for black-owned properties, and from 6 to 10 percent for all central-city residential properties. Household-level data for the 1970s indicate that the racial gap in property values widened substantially in riot-afflicted cities relative to others.

Whatever the initial causes, the effect of the riots was economic harm that has lasted 50 years. However justified they might have seemed at the time, the riots serve as a reminder that the unintended consequences of our actions can have a destructive impact on our children for generations to come.


How overregulation is stifling the food truck revolution

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

As protestors continue to boldly decry “corporate greed” with little definition or discernment, progressive policymakers are just as quick to push a range of wage controls and market manipulations to mitigate the supposed vices of free and open exchange.

The painful irony, of course, is that the victims of such policies are not the fat-cat cronyists at the top, but the scrappy challengers at the bottom.

We’ve seen it with the recent embrace of the $15 minimum wage, which continues to cripple and dismantle small businesses wherever it’s found, from Seattle to Minneapolis to California to New York. But while the wars over wages tend to be the loudest and most prominent, we mustn’t forget the pains and misfortunes due to plain-old regulatory excess, subtle and unexciting though it may be.

In the restaurant industry, for example, food trucks have posed a healthy challenge to the status quo, rattling entrenched corporate interests, diminishing barriers to entry and expanding opportunities for aspiring restaurateurs of all backgrounds. But alas, such opportunities are beginning to disappear in cities across the country, leaving many struggling beneath the weight of a growing pile of rules and regulations.

In Food Truck Nation, a new study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, we see the scale and severity of the damage caused by a range of these regulatory roadblocks.

Compiling in-depth analysis of food-truck rules from 20 American cities, as well as in-depth surveys from 288 food truck owners, the study concludes that “in spite of rapid growth, regulatory barriers appear to be slowing a once hot industry.”

That trend of food trucks morphing into and being a part of brick-and-mortar restaurants is accelerating. In nearly every city in which they set up shop, food trucks offer a net positive to the established restaurant industry. While official figures on that type of growth are elusive, neighborhoods where food trucks cluster, such as around Washington, D.C.’s Farragut Square, have seen visible, concomitant growth in brick-and-mortar establishments.

In spite of rapid growth, regulatory barriers appear to be slowing a once hot industry. Market research by IBISWorld found that “despite strong performance … high competition and unfavorable regulatory conditions in some cities have limited the growth of industry vendors.” That report predicts food truck growth will grind to a halt over the next few years. After five years of rapid growth, expected food truck growth is now only 0.4% a year through 2020. Several of America’s largest cities are already experiencing slower, or zero, growth of their local food-truck economy.

The study ranks American cities by the food-truck friendliness of their regulatory climates, using average scores to indicate the ease or difficulty of three distinct activities: obtaining permits and licenses, complying with restrictions, and operating a food truck.

While cities like Portland, Denver and Orlando lead the way in friendly regulatory environments, others like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston place solidly at the bottom, each due to excessive rules, fees and restrictions. “On average, starting and maintaining a food truck for one year requires an entrepreneur to complete 45 separate government-mandated procedures over the course of 37 business days, and spend $28,276 on permits, licenses, and ongoing legal compliance”, the study concludes.

We also learn that the total weight of such regulations is far heavier than that endured by traditional restaurants, due (most likely) to intra-industry lobbying by brick-and-mortar competitors. “When new regulations enter the books, their sheer variance from city to city often betray their arbitrary nature”, the study explains. “At times, they appear to arise at the behest of established firms seeking restrictions against new competition.”

Once again, these are not the entrenched economic interests imagined by your typical, garden-variety progressive. “As Harvard’s Edward Glaeser pointed out”, the study reminds us, “’you can begin an Internet company in Silicon Valley with little regulatory oversight; you need more than ten permits to open a grocery store in the Bronx.’ This same regulatory inequality falls heaviest on food trucks at the state and local levels, directly affecting entrepreneurial opportunity for those who need it most.”

The study also finds that food truck owners are “a diverse crowd of rich and poor and represent all races and genders.” In Chicago, for example, “roughly 80% of local food trucks are minority- owned small businesses”, most likely due to the (previously) low barrier to entry. “Owning and operating a food truck does not necessarily require an expensive degree, family connections, or English language skills. You just have to stand the heat.”

These are businesses that are vulnerable, independent and unprotected, almost by definition. If we truly aim to expand opportunity for all, including the disadvantaged, we would do well to fight and dismantle the regulatory regimes that seek to stifle such growth.


Lessons from a craftsman on sanctified work

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

Throughout its history, the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information- driven. In turn, “work with the hands” has become less and less common, replaced by widespread automation and a host of intangible services.

Meanwhile, a quiet resurgence in craftsmanship has begun, whether one looks to the massive online marketplaces for handmade goods or the diverse range of specialized artisans who continue to find niches in a globalized economy.

Take Jack Martin, owner of Hockaday Handmade Brooms, who still prides himself on making “one broom at a time”, each made from homegrown broomcorn on his land in McNairy County, Tennessee. For Martin, making brooms isn’t just about a return to quality or offering a localist alternative to the mass-produced broom at the nearest big-box store. It’s about something a bit more mystical and sacred.

In a profile of Martin and his business, writer Shawn Pitts detected a palpable reverence for the broom itself, labeling Martin a “broom prophet” of sorts, whose personality is akin to John the Immerser and whose product falls within a long tradition of southern folklore and superstition.

In the hands of Jack Martin, a broom is an objet d’art, born of the earth and handcrafted with elegant simplicity into a talisman worthy of veneration. Whether displayed for its exceptional beauty and quality — or used to sweep out the garage — an encounter with one of Martin’s brooms often sparks something like enchantment. It’s hard to reckon with such feelings — primal echoes from the past, perhaps.

The object itself proclaims its agricultural heritage. The bristles are made of natural broomcorn, cultivated in sight of the shop where Martin crafts his brooms, while handles are often cut from young timber nearby — living sacrifices to a down-home Demeter, the good goddess of Southern field and forest. And then there is the mystery of the thing itself, how its intended function — to clean — seems to breathe symbolic life into each broom.

It’s easy to see how our forebears concluded there was something more than sweeping afoot.

As the result of a family business that began over a century ago, Martin’s brooms have been widely recognized for their artistry, a fact that might lead some to dismiss them as mere museum pieces. For Martin, however, the meaning comes alive in their function and use. The glory and beauty of the broom is found, ultimately, in the labor.

“Every step of the process, from selecting and planting the seeds, to harvesting and combing the broomcorn, to wiring it onto the handle and sewing it into the familiar fan shape, is lovingly done by hand, with function in mind, ” Pitts explains. “After all that, it seems a shame to hang it on the wall. A broom is sanctified in the sweeping.”

After presenting Martin with a range of southern superstitions about brooms and sweeping, Pitts asks about the source of it all. “Why all the spirituality and superstition surrounding brooms? Why do we project such power on them?”

“[Martin’s] answer was profound and painfully obvious, ” Pitts writes. The mythology emerges from human intimacy with this ubiquitous object. Like the holy places on the earth, where divine life invades human space, objects are imbued with meaning from our experience of them. The details may be lost to antiquity, but the broom earned its place in our imagination, and we do well to pay it the honor it is due.”

For Martin, the material and the spiritual are deeply connected. The sacred emerges not only from the act of sweeping itself, but through the relationship between human and tool, labor and application, creativity and service.

There are no great riches in store for the slow-and-steady broom craftsman, and Martin seems satisfied nevertheless. As Pitts observes, “There is something satisfying about walking in the old paths, something solemn and sacred in the work of the hands.”

In beholding Martin’s comfort with his calling, one can’t help but be reminded of the famous line about street sweepers from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” In the speech, King notes the importance of our work, no matter how mundane, encouraging us to “set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it,” and to “set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera,” King says. “Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.”

Working with one’s hands may make some of these realities easier to see and swallow, but the same lessons apply to the rest of us. No matter how intangible or fuzzy the value we create may seem or feel, we’d do well to recognize and embrace it.

No matter how fast our companies, products and industries may move, there is likely more value than we think, if only we’d see it.


Can economics bring back humility and civil discourse?

Steve Stapleton

Mark Twain is celebrated for the way his storytelling makes us laugh, mostly at ourselves. His work as author and humorist frequently spoke to the folly and truth of human nature. One quotation attributed to him goes, “It ain’t what we don’t know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” We smile because we recognize this truth from our own experience. But more serious reflection may give us pause and make the most prideful among us a bit humbler. And more than a bit of humility will be required on all sides of the political divide if we are to communicate with each other in the coming year. We must rediscover the important role of reason and civil discourse to human progress through open dialogue. Rediscovering civil discourse is essential to keep this melting pot of a country from boiling over.

Today, reason seems upended, and our discourse has regressed to where even the fundamental importance of free speech – our first freedom – is being openly challenged. We have made a blood sport of spewing vitriol and ridicule at those with whom we disagree. This retreat from reason has led too many into the dangerous traps of identity politics, tribalism and irrational fundamentalism. How do we reclaim the mantle of reason and civil discourse in broader society?

Ironically, this coarsening of society is happening amid a growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates how the human brain can err in its conclusions and convictions. Some of this evidence comes from the field of behavioral economics. Research is discovering how and why we can sometimes ignore facts or reason in our decision-making – particularly when they conflict with our preexisting understanding or strong desires. These kinds of errors surely exacerbate our growing incivility.

Behavioral economics is devoted to exploring why human beings regularly make economically irrational decisions. This past October, American economist Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in the field of behavioral economics. Thaler’s work has added to the scientific body of knowledge of how we make decisions. The highly acclaimed book that Thayer coauthored with Cass Sunstein in 2008 – Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness – gained broad interest from both the business world and government. Economists have long observed that human behavior does not follow the predictions of traditional economic models. And their models universally assume that people make economically rational decisions. The goal of Nudge is to use this growing knowledge of human decision-making to devise ways to “nudge” people toward more desired decisions and behaviors. The question remains, desired by whom?

For example, encouraging employees to sign-up for 401(k) retirement savings has long been a challenge for business managers and owners. Today, rather than offering new employees the choice to opt into a 401(k)-retirement savings plan, more employers automatically enroll employees and give them the option to lower their savings rate or opt out. This small change, or “nudge, ” takes advantage of the human tendency to procrastinate and is credited with increasing retirement savings in the U.S. Since both employers and workers are (eventually) happy, this is seen as a successful nudge.

Nudging is not without its critics, particularly among those who lean libertarian. Mark D. White, a philosopher at the City University of New York, argues that nudging “is very much coercive, and in some ways more insidious than ‘old school’ paternalistic government policies such as prohibiting or taxing behavior.” Errors work in both directions. But our focus here is not on the pros and cons of nudging but rather on the growing body of knowledge and insights from behavioral economics to show human fallibility – of all parties.

Understanding how we are prone to err in our reasoning does not diminish the importance of human reason. Reason is built on learning and sharpened through dialogue. The importance of reason to human progress has been recorded since the ancient Greeks. Reason allowed primitive man to survive in a hostile world. Applied by theologians like Thomas Aquinas, reason gave birth to the concept of human equality. Reason ushered in the Enlightenment. All of human kind’s progress in the humanities, science and industry came through reason.

A return to reason through increased humility will be necessary to bring about a rebirth of civil discourse. For those of us who are people of faith, our faith informs us that humility is a virtue and excessive pride a sin. We know that we need to work on making a habit of humility. But what about the nonreligious among us who do not share these views? For those who do not believe in God but who do believe in “science, ” perhaps the science behind behavioral economics can bring them to realize that they, too, will benefit from cultivating the habit of humility. If we are to stop “ignoring our own ignorance,” we will need to listen in order to understand, not merely to respond. Our discourse will become more civil if we will argue as if we were right but listen as though we could be wrong. Perhaps with newfound humility, people of goodwill on both sides of our cultural and political divide can bring tolerance, reason and civil discourse back to the public square.


Unlocking the future of American incarceration

Kahryn Riley, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Two new books correct the narrative on soaring prison populations and offer a way out.

While home to 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. confines 25 percent of the global prison population. Nationwide, the population of all state prisons combined was more than 1.3 million in 2017. Simply put, we incarcerate more people than we probably should despite falling crime rates.

What is the “right” number of people to incarcerate? And how did we surpass it so excessively? Those called to act justly and love mercy may feel compelled to find answers – in which case the two books reviewed here will serve as excellent resources.

First, some background. The national crime rate had been pretty low through the 1950s and ’60s, but it began climbing in the ’70s and erupted in the ’80s. There’s not much consensus on why this happened or why crime seems to be falling so quickly today. The important point is that the “prison boom” that sent prison populations soaring to their present levels didn’t begin until the ’90s, after the crime wave began to recede.

This prison boom had an outsize effect on black men, who make up the majority of prison populations nationwide. Part of the reason criminal justice reform has traditionally been a priority of liberal Democrats is because so many social justice advocates attribute this disparity to institutional racism perpetuated by whites through the war on drugs. This claim was once a core feature of the conventional wisdom about incarceration.

Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff calls it out in the introduction to Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. He writes only 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges. It is not the war on drugs but rather the increased rate at which people are sent to prison in the first place. The solution, Pfaff writes, is to impose guidelines on prosecutors to limit their effectively unfettered power to influence criminal sentencing.

Courts should define acceptable plea bargains and allow trial judges to review them for compliance, as New Jersey has done. States should establish low default sentences and identify factors that mitigate lengthy sentences, while ensuring that pleas are more consistent across race, age and class.

States should also prevent prosecutors from shifting costs from their county onto the state. They do this when they win felony convictions, which ensure that defendants will serve time in state penitentiaries rather than the local jail. California’s sweeping Public Safety Realignment Act required counties to take responsibility for nonviolent offenders, even felons. This eliminated a budgetary moral hazard and ensured that only serious criminals entered state prisons, without raising the crime rate. Pfaff acknowledges that his changes might be controversial, but prosecutors currently operate with intense political pressure to seek punitive sentences and unfettered authority to procure them.

In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman Jr. identifies the crackdown on urban crime since the 1970s as responsible for subsequently eroding poor black neighborhoods in Washington – home to most of the clients he served as a public defender. Officials fielded demands from their constituents that seem unbelievable today. They called for “super aggressive” policing and decried the “revolving door” that allowed alleged criminals to walk free after being arrested or serving only a short sentence. Black politicians born under Jim Crow battled for pretrial detention, lengthy maximum sentences, more prison sentences and even mandatory minimums. Eventually these policies would have devastating consequences for people of color in Washington and across the country.

Still, the Judeo-Christian values of justice, compassion and dignity on which this country was founded permeate our culture. If we reverse the punitive course that created the incarceration crisis, it will surely be the result of the incremental and diffuse actions taken by people who espouse these values. They will bring about a safer, freer future.