My ongoing feud with Pope Francis

 

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006)
Was he seeking a this-worldly utopian paradise?
Did he want your grandparents to die in order to achieve it?

 

I first questioned Pope Francis’s apparent economic views here, and then continued the quarrel here.

 

As a follow-up, I pass on to you three more items — for those who might be interested in reflection on a serious, morally-engaged, Christian view of economics.

 

-1-

 

First, there is this, from an Evangelical who argues that Pope Francis is actually a conservative.  (The piece was suggested to me by a Latter-day Saint friend of mine who, I assume, was not altogether satisfied with what I had said regarding the pope’s recent “apostolic exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium.)  I should say upfront that, on the whole, I actually agree.  He does, indeed, stand forthrightly for traditional Catholic and Christian values.  And, as I’ve said before, I see much to like in Pope Francis.  Indeed, much to like very much.

 

However, I found one paragraph in the article problematic:

 

“When the Pope speaks on economics, he speaks conservative words, not libertarian fantasies. A conservative trusts big business no more than big government. He does not think perfect liberty will produce a Utopia anymore than an all powerful state. A Christian rejects Rand, Marx, and Mussolini. A libertarian thinks my grandfather must die for the libertarian Paradise to come, the Marxist thinks grandparents must die to bring on the new Soviet Man, the corporate statist thinks the weak must go to the wall so that the powerful can govern.”

 

The author’s invocation of “libertarian fantasies” is, itself, something of a fantasy.  There is a spectrum of libertarian thinking.  Libertarianism isn’t a monolith.  (Not surprisingly, people who prize liberty so highly tend to be rather independent thinkers.)  By no means all libertarians are “anarcho-capitalists” or unquestioning devotees of Ayn Rand, as he seems to assume.  (I am, myself, a conservative who merely leans, though I lean rather strongly, libertarian on mostly economic matters.)  It’s wrong and unjust to sum libertarianism up, as he does later in his article, in the image of “the atheistic Rand follower who believes in social Darwinism: winners win and losers must die.”  This is a caricature, and a rather malicious one.

 

“A conservative trusts big business,” says the author, “no more than big government.”  Precisely right.  That was my point in citing two passages from Adam Smith:

 

[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)

 

Neither conservatives nor libertarians presume uniform good will on the part of capitalists.  To the contrary, we presume self-interested behavior on the part of everybody, economically speaking — though, as a Christian, I recognize (and celebrate) the fact that many people (freely, voluntarily) rise above self-interest at various times — and we believe that free markets are the best way of harnessing that self-interested behavior and of directing it to the general welfare and the greater good.  A selfish businessman who must provide a service or give up a good in order to get your money is, on the whole, more likely to be of benefit to you than is a selfish bureaucrat or a selfish tyrant, who has little or no inducement to please you.

 

“I will not cede more power to the state,” wrote the young William F. Buckley, in some ways the founder of the modern American conservative movement, in his 1959 book Up from Liberalism.  ”I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.”

 

A conservative, says the author of the linked article, “does not think perfect liberty will produce a Utopia anymore than an all powerful state.”  Absolutely.  Of course.  And few if any of those who have questioned the pope’s apparent economic views expect “Utopia” from free markets or from anything else mortals can create.  This seems to be a straw man.  Advocates of free and voluntary economic exchange simply think that the free market is the best and most just economic system, the most appropriate economic arrangement for freedom and human dignity, and, as it happens, far and away the best hope, overall, of societies mired in poverty and corruption.

 

“A Christian,” continues the author, “rejects Rand, Marx, and Mussolini.”  True again.  Leftist tyrannies, whether communist or fascist, are incompatible with Christianity, as is Ayn Rand’s rejection of ethical altruism.  But I haven’t seen anybody dissenting from Pope Francis’s economic reflections in the name of communism or fascism.  There’s probably a Randian somewhere trumpeting “the virtue of selfishness” and denouncing Christianity, but I haven’t seen it.

 

“A libertarian,” the author goes on to say,  ”thinks my grandfather must die for the libertarian Paradise to come.”

 

What?  This is utterly unrecognizable to me as exemplifying any serious strain of libertarian or free market thinking.  Advocates of voluntary economic exchange as the most efficient, just, and productive mode of allocating resources aren’t calling for anybody’s death, and they aren’t anticipating the arrival of any sort of Paradise via competition between producers of tooth-paste, fertilizer, television sitcoms, and cheeseburgers.  It does people like Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell,  and F. A. Hayek, to say nothing of Murray Rothbard, an enormous injustice to link them in any way, as the author implicitly does, with “the Marxist [who] thinks grandparents must die to bring on the new Soviet Man, the corporate statist [who] thinks the weak must go to the wall so that the powerful can govern.”

 

-2-

 

Here is an actual response, from an actual libertarian rather than from a mythological libertarian monster, to Pope Francis.

 

-3-

 

And this piece suggests that a small but significant portion of the pope’s “apostolic exhortation” may have been mistranslated into English.

 

Which reminds me that it’s always dangerous to judge a papal document, or indeed virtually any other significant text, from excerpts in the news media.

 

Some years ago, I was lecturing on Islam and interfaith relations in New Zealand and Australia when Pope Benedict XVI made some seemingly inflammatory comments about Islam during an address at the University of Regensburg, in Germany.  They were much in the news, and the controversy soon drew even me into it.  I was asked, multiple times, in lectures and during radio interviews in both countries, to respond, as a Christian Islamicist, to the pope’s remarks. At first, I was caught by surprise.  But then I managed to find the full talk, both in English and in its original German, online, and I discovered that what he had said was considerably less hostile toward Islam than the media were making it out to be.  I have to admit that I was amused to find myself, an American and a committed Latter-day Saint, defending the Roman pontiff in lectures and on the airwaves across Australia and New Zealand.

 

Anyway, for those who are curious:  No, Pope Francis hasn’t yet responded to my dissenting opinion.  Which presumably shows that he has no argument to make.

 

 

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  • Ray Agostini

    I’m not a socialist, in fact I’m mostly a conservative voter. I describe myself as “middle of the road”. On some policies I lean to the Left, on others, to the Right. When I pay my monthly electricity bill, which could be as high as $500.00, I wonder why it’s so expensive just to supply electricity to a *unit* occupied by one person. Admittedly, my system is a bit outdated, but speaking to many others, the complaints about excessively high electricity bills predominates, even with those who have more modern systems.

    I can’t speak for America, but here in Australia, you’ll be set back at minimum $600.00 just to register your car on an annual basis. That includes insurance and “registration fees”. Where’s the money going? If I want a printout of my driving record, that will cost me $22. Just to type in a few figures? $22? Awfully expensive fingers.

    The truth is that the corporate bureaucrats are greedy, and they’ll unconscionably suck the financial life out of the average person without blinking an eye. They’ll have their parties, the junket overseas “study” trips with cocktail parties to “relieve the stress” of traveling.

    If we taxpayers ever got sucked in to the idea that taxes are “working for our benefit”, the evidence is scarce. We work – endlessly – only to see more and higher bills.

    Where’s the money going? On “trickle down”?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-tasini/ceo-greed-worse-this-year_b_521563.html

    • DanielPeterson

      Bureaucrats are the same all around the world — except when they’re worse.

      • Ray Agostini

        In the world of corporate greed, it doesn’t quite work like the ideal espoused by the Book of Mormon: “16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. 17 Perhaps thou shalt say:
        The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
        19 For behold, are we not all beggars?
        Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the
        substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?…

        21 And now, if God, who has created you, on
        whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.

        22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.

        23 I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.” (Mosiah 4)

        While the “fat cats” live it up in style, they fail to see the homelessness and misery all around them. There’s no “trickle down” here, and it’s not as if all of these people are “lazy bums” who don’t want to work. On any given night, one in 200 people in the “Lucky Country” are homeless.

        http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/index.php/about-homelessness/fact-sheets

        While the CEO’s live the Life of Riley:

        http://www.news.com.au/business/breaking-news/telstra-to-maintain-4g-spend/story-e6frfkur-1226740099110

        And all this from the land of the “fair go”.

  • G Rant

    I can understand your frustration with the monolithic depiction of libertarians and conservatives. And yet, you often seem utterly fine with monolithic, even chacturistic depictions of liberals. Why is it wrong for liberals to do this to conservatives but morally virtuous for conservatives to do this to liberals. I think it is wrong either way, but LDS conservatives make political opinions the sole measure of a person’s righteousness.

    • DanielPeterson

      Two questions:

      1) Where have I ever claimed that liberals are monolithic?

      Good luck finding an illustration of that.

      2) Where have I ever said anything to suggest that political opinions are or should be the sole measure of a person’s righteousness?

      Hint: Here’s a promising place to look!
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2013/06/harry-reid-my-brother.html

  • jeffwild

    I assume you have seen this – http://www.eppc.org/publications/pope-francis-the-revolutionary/. Seems to do a good job of putting Francis in perspective.

  • Mark Taylor

    ” I mean to live my life an obedient man…” Buckley’s statement is my favorite statement on politics. Thanks for giving it good air time.

  • Bryce Haymond

    Hi Dan. You’ve probably already addressed it, but what are your thoughts about the growing economic inequality in the country? http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928/

    • DanielPeterson

      I’ve just posted a blog entry on the matter.


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