Well, Pope Francis has once again managed to stir up a ruckus with his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which includes (among many other things) denunciations of the free market economy. Predictably, this has provoked the dismay and alarm of some on the right, as well as more giddy affirmation on the left that the Pope is “one of them” – a good Pelosi-style “liberal Catholic” Democrat who loves socialism and hates moral dogma. (One liberal commentator cheerfully commented that Pope Francis is “economically to the left of Nancy Pelosi.”) None but the most dishonest or delusional liberals, however, can still claim Francis as a social liberal after his repeated and unambiguous statements against the evil of abortion (including in this document).
Before I get on with my rant, I’ll make two points: One: There’s really nothing new or shocking going on here. Most of the modern popes, while condemning Communism and socialism, have been critical of free-market “capitalism,” and tend to, imho, put far too much trust in the modern state as a force for good. Despite media attempts to paint a narrative of mean, ultra-conservative Pope Benedict Who Loves Dogma vs. good liberal Pope Francis Who Loves the Poor, the truth is that on many economic/political issues Benedict XVI was hardly what most Americans would consider “conservative.”
As should be clear by now, papal opposition to things such as abortion is not based in right-wing politics, but on unchanging moral principle.
Two: the economic, political, and scientific opinions of the Popes are not infallible. The Pope’s teachings as Pope are only infallible in the areas of faith and morals. The charism of papal infallibility does not make any pope an infallible economist, any more than it makes him an infallible auto mechanic or heart surgeon.
It is Church moral teaching that it is gravely evil to oppress the poor. In fact, oppressing widows and orphans and defrauding workers of their wages are among the Sins Which Cry Out to Heaven for Vengeance.
While ever Catholic must agree that we must act to help the poor, what economic system or policies in fact best does best help the needy is something on which good Catholics–and even popes—can legitimately disagree.
However, the opinion that an over-abundance of economic freedom is the cause of poverty in today’s world– and that more intervention and control over the market by the state is the answer– is not infallible, and I would argue is just plain wrong.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis complains, “. . . some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
The Pope is absolutely right that the free market and economic growth will not in themselves end the problems of poverty, nor will they eliminate the need for acts of charity (a claim that only the most extreme of Randos actually make). However, no economic “system” (or lack thereof) will accomplish this, and the reality is that, while it has not and cannot create economic utopia, it is proven that economic freedom is the greatest predictor of a country’s economic success, and enables more people to rise out of poverty than any other system.
There’s a reason millions of poor people from around the world have flocked to “oppressive, capitalist” America rather than vice-versa. And it’s no coincidence that nations whose governments engage in centralized economic planning and tight control of the market have mostly been miserable economic failures where serious poverty is endemic. Also, greater economic freedom in many countries regarded as “third-world” has in fact lifted many out of poverty and created a growing middle class.
While I’m not sure how the workings of the “prevailing economic system” (which is not in fact truly free market) are “sacralized,” it does seem that Pope Francis, like many of his fellow clergymen, has a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding government power, which is what is most problematic about his thinking here.
Decrying the gap between rich and poor, Francis claims, “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”
That statement is absolute nonsense. While such libertarian ideologies do exist, they have absolutely nothing to do with how any countries in the developed world are in fact governed. The extreme laissez faire capitalism famously condemned by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum has not existed in America (much less in Europe) for well over a century, if in fact it ever really existed at all. The federal government in America exercises an enormous and ever-increasing amount of control over the market and finance, with often disastrous results. In the U.S., artificial federal manipulation of interest rates and the money supply has led to both the Great Depression of the ‘30s and today’s “Great Recession,” and socialistic policy “solutions” have in both cases perpetuated the problem. (And both Democrats and Republicans share the blame.) And most European countries are more statist and socialistic than the U.S.
(While there’s not room in this blog for a lengthy economics lesson, I’d recommend reading Thomas Woods, Jr.’s excellent The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. Also worth reading is his Meltdown: Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and the Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse.)
Ever-increasing government taxation and spending, and punishing of “the rich” (those who hire people) has done little to eliminate poverty, and has instead bred a cycle of poverty and government dependency. Ever-increasing numbers of people unable to find work, and on food-stamps, is no solution. And we have barely begun to experience the disaster of socialized medicine under Obamacare.
In this age of massive, intrusive, and rapidly expanding government power and control over economic activity, and all areas of life, complaining about lack of “any form of control” by the state is misguided, if not bizarre. It’s a bit like bemoaning lack of water while drowning in a deluge.
Francis would do well to consider his predecessor John Paul II’s criticism of the modern welfare or “social assistance” state found in Centesimus Annus: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.”
All the countless different human activities that make up a nation’s economy are simply too many and too complex to be effectively managed by centralized government control, even if all the human beings in government were intelligent, honest, and free from corruption. And in reality, of course, most of our government “leaders” are anything but.
As a libertarian pal pithily put it, many clergy unfortunately still think of the state as a trusty watchdog, rather than as the rabid dog it has in fact become.
Evangelii Gaudium’s main topic was evangelization, not economics, and Pope Francis actually has a lot good to say. I personally dig his call to “get your hands dirty” faith in action.
It’s a shame the meat of his message got lost in the debate over his few misguided and ignorant economic statements.
It’s for that reason that I think Popes and other clergy should keep focused on the essentials of faith and morals in their teachings, rather than feeling compelled to lecture in areas of politics and economics – which often proves a unnecessary distraction.