June is always an exciting time for me because it brings Acton University. Each year the Acton Institute hosts around 1,000 people from 80 countries for three-and-a-half days of classes, plenaries, delicious meals, and inspiring fellowship. (Even if you can’t make time for the whole conference coming up, you can still register for the evening dinner speakers.) In a few weeks I will be attending my seventh consecutive Acton U where I will be teaching my own courses and attending many others on wide-ranging topics within theology, economics, politics, and intellectual history. With evening speakers including political analyst Jonah Goldberg, as well as a former member of the Estonian parliament and a Brazilian attorney fighting state corruption, you might think those would be chief among my reasons for enthusiasm. (I am a wee bit of a Goldberg fangirl, after all.) But at the very top of my list is the old friends I’ll see once again and the new friends I’ll almost surely make.
In 2018 I made connections with many people including new friends living in Munich, Vienna, and Banská Bystrica (Slovakia), all of whom I visited while on a sabbatical research trip to Vienna last fall. (We’ll miss our friend Father Bartholomew, pictured above last June and below with me at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, who won’t be in attendance this year.) Of course, I appreciate all the research and teaching ideas hatched during Acton U. It is the most intellectually-engaging week of my year. But it is the people who attend that make it the most wonderful time of the year!
As for my official role at Acton U, a few words on the two courses I’ll be teaching.
- “Why Hayek Should Matter to Christians” Following an overview of Nobel Laureate economist F.A. Hayek’s most pertinent intellectual contributions, we’ll think about how they apply to Christian thinking and living. I find this topic all the more interesting because Hayek was an agnostic who rejected outright the existence of a “Designer,” though he was in awe of the order in civilization. While respecting religion, he was not seeking something transcendental in his work. Still, what he finds is consonant in many ways with a Christian understanding of the created order and can be quite helpful as we seek to understand the world we live in and consider how to live out our various callings.
- “What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Criminal Justice Policy” For the first time this year I will also share from my empirical research and the larger economics literature on crime, punishment, and policy. Over the last few years, we have seen a major shift in the political debate concerning criminal justice as a diverse set of politicians, advocacy groups, and public thinkers have come together to call for “smart justice” reforms. The idea is to balance all the benefits and costs of criminal justice, a major change from the uniformly “tough on crime” stance popular late last century. However, it is difficult in practice to implement “smart” changes because, while we’ve learned a lot from solid economic research, there is so much more we do not know. People who really care about public safety, government budgets, the dignity and worth of incarcerated persons, and/or the well-being of their families will want to understand the consequences of criminal justice policy and, perhaps even more, where we don’t yet have a firm enough understanding to speak with confidence.