The original Tallwood House once sat as an elongated, white colonial along the outskirt of George Mason University’s Fairfax campus. The Tallwood Study, as it was also known, hosted many IHS events and programs throughout the years and served as a stomping ground for classical liberal scholarship. In 1989, Kris Alan Mauren attended an IHS career workshop on non-profit management at Tallwood, learning how to build institutions that would generate a lasting footprint in society.
That’s when Mauren began to cultivate the early seeds to an idea he had been forming with his friend, mentor, and future co-founder, Rev. Robert A. Sirico. It was, in fact, Rev. Sirico who first introduced Mauren to IHS by encouraging him to attend seminars and workshops within the classical liberal tradition.
Both Mauren and Rev. Sirico wanted to establish an institute that would energetically study the interplay between markets and morality in everyday life. Thus began the Acton Institute, a think-tank that “promotes a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
“As an IHS fellow, I had the chance to incubate the idea for Acton. I spent the month helping to write our mission statement and creating a brochure. In a very real way, IHS has had a lasting influence on my intellectual formation and has been instrumental to the early development of the Acton Institute. No doubt, IHS played a very formative role in my intellectual development.”– Kris Alan Mauren
Free markets and morality, says Mauren, operate symbiotically: You can’t have one without the other. He argues that markets are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a free and tolerant society, adding that “individual liberty depends on self-governance, which requires certain moral standards without which freedom would fall apart.”
Moral principles fashion behavior which coincides with the peaceful cooperation that characterize free and open markets. In other words, Mauren believes that without a moral seam to support the complicated fabric of society, individuals fail to trust one another and opt for greater outside interventions, often manifested in greater governmental power.
Since its inception in 1990 — and with this model in mind — Acton has trained seminarians in the economic way of thinking and supplied business leaders with insightful lessons on what responsible and ethical management entails.
The 1990s also witnessed the waning of liberation theology — a Christian theological school that focuses on wealth redistribution to the poor. This theological approach emerged out of Latin America and pushed many religious leaders away from economic principles and toward a more collectivist strategy in its attempt to alleviate poverty.
Acton, on the other hand, offered an alternative that celebrated the moral potential for markets in all its forms. In this way, the freedom to exchange would perform the true liberating function for the poor, not market-stunting mechanisms like wealth transfers.
In addition, by examining the ethical dimensions of a free society, Acton sought to revitalize the conversations that uplift individuals and communities, whose objectives were to humanize classical liberal and moral principles.
IHS and Acton share similar features across programs by bridging connections and sparking ideas devoted to exploring the questions that have the most impact. Mauren says that like IHS, “we pride ourselves on bringing together genuinely diverse people. Our programming makes for rich and honest conversations and gives participants an environment where they can speak their minds and learn from others.”
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Acton conducted its annual Acton University online, which observed over 4,000 participants. Mauren says that this online format demonstrated how new opportunities can arise in times of creative disruption. He adds that it’s in the face of uncertainty and rapid change when innovation becomes most essential for the flourishing of ideas.
In 2010, Mauren received the Charles G. Koch Outstanding IHS Alum Award for his “organizational entrepreneurship and leadership in the freedom movement.” Since receiving the award, Mauren has overseen a more than doubling of Acton’s budget, which has helped spread its mission to curious minds all across the world. This mission has no plans of slowing down.
The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.