By Theresa Camoriano
This past week, Fr. Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute, gave a speech at a fundraiser for Holy Angels Academy in Louisville. He told about his life – growing up in a small apartment in Brooklyn, rejecting his Catholic religion during the ‘60s and ‘70s and joining the hippies in California, protesting and working for “the revolution”, including getting to know Jane Fonda, and then learning about economics, returning to the Catholic church, becoming a priest, and co-founding the Acton Institute.
Fr. Sirico described a memory from when he was about five years old, peering through his window and watching his neighbor making rugelach cookies. He was fascinated by the process and the wonderful aroma and was very excited when the woman, in her broken English, called him to the window to give him a few of the cookies. As she gave him the cookies, he noticed a tattoo on her arm.
Of course, as a child, he was much more interested in the cookies than in the tattoo, but, later on, he asked his mother about it. She asked him whether he knew why, in the cowboy shows he watched, they lassoed the cattle and branded them. He answered that they branded the cattle so people would know who they belonged to. She said that tattoo was the same thing. Even as a young child, he understood and felt deep inside how terrible that was — how disrespectful of basic human dignity.
He then described an event in his hippie days when a group of friends got together and they were each shouting out what would happen when the revolution came. When it was his turn, he said, “When the revolution comes, everyone will be able to shop at the Gucci store!”. He said the room became silent and everything stood still, even the smoke that had been wafting in the room. Then he was asked what he meant by his statement. He asked, isn’t that what the revolution is about – enabling poor people to become better off so they can shop in the Gucci store? He was told that he was too bourgeois.
He then explained how he had been introduced to economics and had devoured books on that subject, many of them written by atheists, and how that caused him to put pieces of his experience together, so that he returned to his religion and became a priest.
Now he understands property rights to be a relationship between humans and the material world – that his understanding goes back to his neighbor’s tattoo and to basic human dignity and respect. Property rights give each individual the opportunity and incentive to interact with the material world, using his mind and creativity to give value to physical objects. For example, throughout most of human history, petroleum oil had no value. It was a nuisance, getting your feet dirty and being hard to get off. But humans, using their minds and creativity, have turned it into something very valuable, giving us energy so we can travel and achieve great things. Property rights protect the relationship between man and the material world, so we have the incentive to apply our creative minds and our labor to create value for ourselves and others.
Fr. Sirico also talked about tolerance in its original meaning, which is that I may disagree with what you are doing and think it is wrong, but I will not interfere. He contrasted that with today’s definition of tolerance, which means that I have to endorse what you are doing.
Fr. Sirico’s talk reinforced my understanding of liberty as respecting property rights, which are the most basic human right. Respecting property rights means respecting the dignity and value of every person, unleashing human creativity and giving rise to real tolerance, with each person being free to reach for the stars, chase his dreams, and make the most of his God-given talents in his own way.
If we all had respect for private property rights, then there would be much more respect for individuals and much greater tolerance, so that people with various lifestyles could live in peace and have much greater prosperity and much greater happiness — each person being free to chase his own dreams.
Of course, that vision contrasts sharply with the leftist view in which the state knows what is best for us, and we all are regulated and controlled like cattle.
(Fr. Sirico has written a book that came out this week, making the moral case for free markets. I have ordered it and look forward to reading it.)
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