24 May 2013

Urban visions at odds: Haussmann, Kuyper, and the Chicago Housing Authority

As a child I had aspirations to become an architect and perhaps even an urban planner. I was especially captivated by an article in the May, 1960, issue of National Geographic titled, Brasilia: Metropolis Made to Order, about the newly inaugurated capital city of Brazil, the brainchild of President Juscelino Kubitschek, who sought to move his country's population away from the thickly settled coastal region. I admired the illustrations of the modern-looking buildings set amid the spacious plains of Brazil's interior. Designed by urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer (who died last year at the age of 104), the new capital's public buildings were impressive, giving an aura of a vigorous adolescent finally coming of age as a great nation. I imagined that Brazilians were experiencing something of the pioneer spirit that had motivated Americans to settle their own interior a century earlier, and I found it inspiring. Brazil was the land of the future, and it now had a seat of government to match its larger-than-life ambitions.

There was just one problem: Brasilia is a walker's nightmare, boasting one of the highest rates in the world of traffic accidents involving pedestrians. It is virtually impossible to get anywhere on foot, as the distances between destinations are too great, and so are the dangers to life and limb of trying to get there. Having admired Costa's and Niemeyer's handiwork for so long, I eventually came to understand the drawbacks of planning an urban centre from the top-down, with its flashy expressions of artistic modernism but with little sense of what it takes to build a genuine human community.

Read the full article here.

17 May 2013

Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s Constitution

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is no stranger to controversy. Still in his 20s when the communist régime was phased out in his native Hungary, he organized the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in its abbreviated form as Fidesz, now the ruling party in that country. Originally libertarian, Fidesz changed its orientation in the mid-1990s in a conservative direction, leading to its eventual expulsion from the Liberal International (the world federation of liberal and progressive political parties). Fidesz now allies itself with the European People’s Party in the larger European context, and currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament along with its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party.

This parliamentary supermajority has invited much of the criticism leveled at Orbán’s government. Critics, including the European Union, the Council of Europe, and even the United States, have charged him with using this overwhelming power to cripple the opposition and thereby subvert Hungarian democracy.

What has Orbán done? His most significant act has been the adoption of a new constitution, the Fundamental Law. While the other former communist states of eastern Europe adopted new constitutions shortly after the old regimes collapsed, Hungary continued for two more decades under its 1949 constitution. Once Fidesz returned to power with such overwhelming popular support, Orbán adopted a fresh constitution, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

Read the full article here.

14 May 2013

An untimely death: 'Why, O Lord?'

The past week has been a difficult one for the Christian community of which we are part here in Hamilton, Ontario. A 32-year-old husband and father disappeared on Monday of last week in nearby Ancaster. He was a member of the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church and beloved by many. Now the worst news imaginable has been reported: Missing father Tim Bosma found dead, Hamilton police say. Although I did not know Bosma personally, I know many people who did. In the midst of such a senseless tragedy one can only say, "Why, O Lord?" The words of Psalm 6 come to mind:

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

As Christians we live in the sure hope of the resurrection and know that death will not have the final word. But in the meantime we grieve. And pray.

06 May 2013

The tyranny of the choice-enhancement state

In chapter 2 of my own Political Visions and Illusions, I trace the development of liberalism in five stages: (1) the Hobbesian commonwealth, (2) the night watchman state, (3) the regulatory state, (4) the equal-opportunity state, and (5) the choice-enhancement state. The movement from each stage to the next requires an expansion of the state beyond its normative sphere of competence into the minutest corners of life—all in the name of expanding personal freedom. I have summarized this development here: Tracing the Logic of Liberalism.

Not everyone will agree with my analysis, especially those who persist in thinking early liberalism to have been solidly grounded and its later decadent manifestation a betrayal of the original vision. Yet I am by no means alone in noting the spiritual continuities among the stages of liberalism. To take just two of many recent articles on the subject: Douglas Farrow's The Audacity of the State is one of the more trenchant analyses, and this past Friday Wesley J. Smith's The Coercive Freedom of Choice probed what I call the choice-enhancement state, roughly encompassing the period since 1960. According to Smith, "We have now reached the point that others are expected to pay for individuals’ 'choices' and maximizing others’ self-identity—even when it violates the payer’s own beliefs. . . . Not too long ago, Americans mostly believed in 'live and let live.' The ironic motto for the current day: 'You do it my way.'"

Is this paradoxical quality in the unending expansion of individual autonomy implicit in the logic of liberalism? I don't know what Smith would say, but I would say: Yes, most definitely. If liberalism is based on the tendency to reduce all manner of communities to mere voluntary associations, as we see in the contractarian approach of Hobbes and Locke, then we should not be surprised if the effort to mitigate this tendency by, say, an appeal to natural law in the more conservative English-speaking liberals is unsuccessful over the long term, and in the name of freedom tyranny ends up extinguishing freedom.


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