As many others do, Catholic and non-Catholic, I find very much to admire in Pope Francis.
But I’m afraid I’m going to have to register some reservations about his new “apostolic exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).
The Roman Catholic Church has long had a problem with free economic markets — not only objecting to them but (perhaps still influenced by medieval suspicions about such things as “usury” and by the dead doctrine of mercantilism, and certainly under the influence, to some degree or another, of European socialism) failing to properly understand them in the first place. It may not be coincidental, in the light of that fact, that predominantly Catholic countries have tended to lag in terms of historical economic development and poverty rates, as contrasted with Protestant countries — though I acknowledge that this is a complex and disputed matter.
“Inequality,” says the Pope, “is the root of social ills.” He seems to be referring to economic inequality, to inequality of income and possessions. However, given the innate inequalities between people (e.g., of talent, dedication, interests, energy, intelligence, luck, effort, and etc.) that no pope or church or doctrine has yet proven itself capable of eliminating, there seems no realistic way, short of gross state coercion, of achieving absolute economic equality. (Alternatively, one might rely upon the arrival of an absolute indifference to material possessions never yet witnessed among humans on anything remotely like a wide scale — which would almost certainly lead to global impoverishment on a massive, and massively lethal, scale. People completely unmotivated by material desires will rarely choose to spend the extra hours at work, or to take the risks, on which our world economy — including the surplus that funds left-leaning college professors and, for that matter, priests — absolutely depends,)
“Excessive centralization,” Pope Francis writes, “rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” And surely that is true. So how would a massive centralization of economic power and decision-making in lumbering, sclerotic ministries of production, ministries of agriculture, and the like, prove helpful? (Bureaucracy, a 1944 book by the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, remains essential but neglected reading on this topic.)
“Some people,” the Pope says, “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.”
I strongly disagree with this statement, on several levels. First of all, it has indeed been demonstrated, over and over and over again, in spades, that free markets do far more to increase wealth than do command economies. (As John Stossel shows, this is a lesson that can be illustrated even in the story of the first Thanksgiving, at Plymouth Colony.) And, unless “justice” be defined as equal poverty, that seems a salient point. Moreover, the fact is that prosperity does trickle down. People with surpluses tend to purchase things, to invest, and, directly, to hire. All of those actions share wealth and create jobs. Rich people don’t typically just bury their money in their backyards. Poor people, by contrast, have little to invest, purchase less, and can’t afford to hire. An overall decrease in capital helps nobody.
Ah, one might respond, but taking $100 dollars from the guy who has $200 and giving it to somebody who has nothing satisfies justice while still leaving a total of $200 for investment, purchase, and hiring. Thus, overall capital is unaffected. Well, maybe. If you’re lucky. But the person who amassed the $200 may be, and probably is, typically a better investor and a better manager than the fellow who had nothing. So, overall, efficiency is reduced and capital is squandered. The initial $200 becomes, effectively, $175, or $150, or perhaps only $125.
To choose an extreme example for illustrative purposes: Would investing $100,000 with a mentally ill drug addict likely be as effective as investing it with an entrepreneur with an exciting new product and a history of successful ventures behind him? If so, please send your surplus cash to me. I have no particular ideas or experience in business, but I would like to have your money. And, as a bonus, I’m not addicted to drugs and meet most minimum standards of mental health.
Moreover, preference for free and voluntary economic exchanges over centrally controlled economies emphatically doesn’t rely on the presumed benevolence of businessmen, farmers, and tradesmen. Adam Smith’s great 1776 book The Wealth of Nations offers the classic statements on this issue, of which I cite two:
[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, I.ii.3)
[The merchant] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, IV.ii.9)
“Francis seems to move the ball considerably in the direction of the idea that the market has far more power—the power to do good for humanity as well as to dehumanize—than the state,” said Chad Pecknold, assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
If so, though, his position seems to me naïve in the extreme, and even dangerous. Auschwitz, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Sobibor had far more power to dehumanize than do General Motors, Walmart, and Apple. The Cambodian “killing fields” dehumanized — and, for that matter, exterminated — considerably more people than have Toyota, Siemens, Nokia, Geico, and Amazon.com. The Soviet Gulag liquidated or otherwise killed something on the order of ten million people — perhaps considerably more — and the induced Ukrainian terror-famine of 1932-1933 starved perhaps as many as eight million more. That is, to put it very mildly, far more “dehumanization” than Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have ever even been accusedof accomplishing, even by their most unhinged critics. Chairman Mao may, some now estimate, have killed as many as 73,000,000 people. How did he do it? Not via market capitalism. He was able to do it because he controlled the apparatus of state coercion. “Every Communist,” he declared, “must grasp the truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (枪杆子里面出政)
Tyrants, politicians, and bureaucrats are no less given to “self-love” and to pursuing their own interests than are restauranteurs, dentists, ranchers, plumbers, corporate executives, accountants, and day laborers. But, unlike businessmen, farmers, and bookkeepers, they have coercive political power at their disposal. “Give me that which I want” is always part of their approach. On the other hand, “and you shall have this which you want” may or may not be.
Pope Francis is entirely justified in raising the question of poverty, exclusion, and care for the poor. I’m a Christian. I agree that disciples of Christ have serious obligations in this regard. And I don’t, by any means, buy into the entire ethical theory of Ayn Rand. But suggestions that the state would do a better job of creating prosperity for the poor than free and voluntary exchanges have done must are, to be gentle about it, not instantly plausible.