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