Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Pope Francis’s recently released exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (pdf), has made the news and elicited commentary for its admonitions against the free market economy. This is not a new stance for the Catholic Church. Still, this latest iteration of qualified praise (hat tip First Thoughts blog) from commentators across the political spectrum led me to study the primary source itself. After reviewing the text, I can only conclude that on free markets and the poor, Francis is tragically mistaken. He gets it wrong.
In a section titled “Some challenges of today’s world,” Francis calls Christians to say “no to an economy of exclusion.” Consider this passage:
… today we have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Herein we get a good sample of the main vehicle of discourse: platitudes. Pope Francis doesn’t try to marshal any facts or hard evidence that the world is as he says; he takes it for granted that we share in a worldview where the powerful crush the weak and eat them for breakfast. But is this really the world we live in?
Writing for the Daily Caller, conservative and Christian Matt K. Lewis affirms Francis’s warning against greed. To me, his acknowledgment of the “tension” between conservatism and markets comes off as a little too contrite. Lewis appeals to pure speculation by otherwise venerable Christian writer and apologist Francis Schaeffer. He supposed that employers who sacrificed profits to pay their employees more would demonstrate Christ’s love better than by giving those profits to charity. This obsession with profits is beyond misguided; it’s destructive to lend credence to the notion that not giving away profits is inherently bad.
Jesus warns us all to refrain from judging our neighbors. He warns us to remove the log from our own eye before removing the speck from our neighbor’s. Accordingly, who am I to say that my neighbor is greedy? It is one thing if I know my neighbor intimately. But it is uncharitable and an overreach to attribute greed to a general class of people whose trade circumstances I know little about.
As I see it, Francis’s social teaching remains too mired in a Eurocentric, Old World conception of human society. The Pope himself hails from Argentina, a poster child for the economic development frustrations that are the norm in Latin America. At one point, Francis sharply rebuts the efficacy of supply-side economic theory:
In this context, 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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
But to say that supply-side stimulation has never been confirmed by the facts is untrue! In America, Kennedy’s 1964 tax cuts, along with Reagan’s 1986 and Bush’s 2002 and 2003 tax cuts, helped everyday Americans greatly. Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson details some more of Francis’s economic shortsightedness, particularly his trust of government to ameliorate inequality.
If Pope Francis really wants to lift up the “excluded,” he should look no further than to the tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently, China. There, real people have been lifted out of poverty and brought into purpose, productivity, and prosperity, thanks to the free market.
Elswhere in his treatise, the Pope offers a thesis that violence will continue as long as inequality prevails. What supports this idea, given that we’ve always had economic inequality, and there is no political mechanism to eliminate it on the horizon? We could call upon Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to see how violence has declined precipetously over the history of civilization. We can lay this against our background knowledge that inequality is increasing to say that violence has shown itself to be inversely proportional to inequality. Truely, may the rich get richer!
The progressive may ask, how could anyone say that? Well, if life is anything more than a zero sum game, where the only way forward is government enforced redistribution, then that’s something we need to know and lay hold of. In a Wall Street Journal opinion from 2012, Rabbi Aryeh Spero makes the case:
At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.
Further, seeking to unlock the hidden treasures of creation brings deep joy. Spero remarks:
Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual.
Where the Pope sees dehumanization and a stripping of dignity, a capitalist who understands economic truth in light of the image of God–Imago Dei–sees joy. To make room for the invisible hand, to allow suppliers to compete for the benefit of the consumer, and to practice capitalism–under the rule of law, not under the unbridled strawman Francis berates–brings very real material and spiritual benefit not just to the capitalist, but to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
If we love God with all our mind, as we’re called to do in Matthew 25, then we can heed Francis’s call to serve as ones “bruised, hurting and dirty.” But that will mean for someone like myself, refuting a simplistic vision of the world that vilifies entrepreneurship, uncritically trusts government to alleviate inequality, and endows dignity as a wealth transfer instead of a mutually beneficial transaction. If there is joy in the Gospel, it has to be in knowing the world as it actually is. As for the economic realm, it looks nothing like Pope Francis sees it.