This is not the first time I’ve commented on the socioeconomic ideas of the current Pontiff of the Catholic Church. However, Time’s newly named Person of the Year Pope Francis unfortunately insists once again on statist ideas that go against an open society based on free markets.
No doubt this has a clear moral dimension given that the tradition of classical liberalism (and its modern advocacy) is based on mutual respect and the allocation of property rights as moral support of its philosophical, legal and economic proposals. Hence Adam Smith’s first book in 1759 was titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments – a concern held by the leading exponents of that noble tradition.
I do not want to repeat here arguments that I’ve already stated in my previous pieces. Rather, I will restrict my comments to the most salient socioeconomic aspects of the Pope’s new document.
The heart of the document is in the second chapter. To get an idea of the spirit that prevails, it is necessary to start with a somewhat lengthy quotation:
Just as the commandment ´Thou shalt not kill´ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ´thou shalt not´ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. […] Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the 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.
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 naïve 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. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
The Pope’s reflections are surprising due to the inaccuracies they contain. First and foremost, it should be clarified that the world is very far from having competition and open markets. To varying degrees, nations have adopted measures in which the Leviathan of government is ever fatter and ever more vehemently tramples the rights of people through multiple absurd regulations, colossal public debts and spending, unbearable taxes, and increasingly aggressive government interventions–none of which are mentioned by the Pope in his new paper.
However, the Pope opposes competition and free markets, which he says “kill” as a result of the survival of the fittest, not realizing that those who accumulate the greatest wealth today are often not the entrepreneurs who most efficiently meet the needs of their neighbors but professional lobbyists who, allied with political power, miserably exploit the needy. It is also worth noting that unemployment is an inevitable consequence of legislation that seeks wages that are higher than those that capitalization rates allow, as if we could get rich by decree. Such market rates are unfortunately undermined by government policies that prevail. Market rates constitute the sole reason for the rise in people’s standard of living. If we realize that the causes do not reside in the prevailing climate conditions or in natural resources (recall that Africa is the continent with the most natural resources while Japan is a wasteland where only 20 percent of the land is habitable), we can conclude that such rates permit higher wages and income in real terms.
If a house painter from Angola moves to Canada, he will see his income increase to four times what he had been earning. But it is not that the Canadian is more generous than the Angolan, rather that he is obligated to pay those wages given the investment rates in his country. That is why in places where the aforementioned rates are high, things such as personal housekeeping services are very rare. For example, it is not that an average American would not like to have these services, but that, with few exceptions, she can not afford it.
It is interesting that the Pope refers to compassion in the way he does, given that the contradiction that is the welfare state has not only penalized the most needy and has led to their increased marginalization, but has degraded the notion of charity. Charity, properly understood, refers to the voluntary surrender of personal resources, not to a third party forcibly taking something from someone else’s labor.
The values and principles of a free society do not kill. What annihilates is the statism that has been in force for a long time now. It is important to cite the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” but one must also remember “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” In this sense, I consider the Pope’s advice, based on a quote from St. John Chrysostom, especially dangerous when the Pope writes, “I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’”
That is the aggressive advice on property rights that the current Pontiff sends to today’s political leaders? Isn’t the misfortune the world already experiences for disparaging the values of liberty enough? And is this an invitation to confiscate the Vatican’s riches or was he referring only to the riches of those who are outside its walls and have legitimately acquired them?
The Pope continues, “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. […] This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”
First, it must be stated that in a free society income and wealth inequality are the inevitable consequence of purchases–and lack thereof–that people carry out of supermarkets (and their equivalents) and reflect the degree to which customers consider they benefit. The businessman who succeeds profits and the one who errs incurs a loss. On the other hand, the inequalities derived from political privileges are an assault on the fruits of someone else’s labor by robber barons through bailouts and other frauds. With the support of nefarious institutions such as the IMF, government leaders in poor countries steal from taxpayers and open numerous bank accounts in more developed countries with the purpose of safeguarding their ill-gotten wealth accumulated by irresponsible policies that they themselves implemented.
But what is most worrying is that, put into context, the Pope seems to be justifying violence as a reaction to the competitive system, its free markets, and its respect for property rights.
It is also prudent to note that so-called “equal opportunity” is incompatible with equality before the law. If a mediocre tennis player played with a professional and the former is expected to be granted equal opportunity, the latter would have to, for example, be handcuffed, thereby violating his right. The point is to improve everyone’s opportunities but not equalize them, given that everyone is different, unique and inimitable. Equality is before the law, not through it.
Our healthy concern about poverty is not resolved by intensifying statist and socialist measures, but rather by promoting the establishment of institutional frameworks by which everyone’s rights are respected. If it is considered a good thing to be poor in the material sense and not in the evangelical spiritual meaning, charity would be out of the question because it would condemn those who received it. And if it is said that the Church is of the poor, it should devote itself to the rich since the poor would already be saved. Moreover, we are all rich or poor depending on whom we compare ourselves to. Of course, it is alarming and shocking to see the misery in which so many live, but it is imperative to understand that such a situation is the consequence of the permanent attacks to progress by governments that, instead of limiting themselves to guaranteeing rights, destroy the possibilities of elevating the condition of so many people whose dignity has been hurt by inflation, unprecedented fiscal pressures, and tremendous obstructions to peaceful contractual arrangements that do not violate the rights of others. In the places where these impoverishing policies have not taken place, things have been allowed to get better in terms of production of food, medicine, education, housing and many other manifestations of progress that lifted our ancestors out of the original condition of living in caves and misery – not achieved by magic but with work, savings, and perseverance in a system of liberty that incentivizes creativity and respect for others.
Along this line of argument, it is very important to keep in mind biblical considerations on poverty and material wealth to find the meaning of these terms in the context of the moral values that should prevail over all other considerations, in accordance with the above two Commandments. Note that they both implicate the importance of private property, which is entirely in harmony with the principles of an open society. As such, in Deuteronomy (8:18), “But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day.” In 1 Timothy (5:8), “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” In Matthew (5:3) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” lashing out against he who puts the material before love for God, in other words “…he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” Luke (12:21). In Proverbs (11:18), “The wicked worketh a deceitful work: but to him that soweth righteousness shall be a sure reward.” In Psalms (62:10), “Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” And in Matthew (6:24), “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
I know that the Pope is infused with the best intentions, but the intentions and kindness of the person – as is the case here – are not relevant; what matter are the policies that are carried out. In this context, finally, it is interesting to keep in mind the provisions of the International Theological Commission that proclaimed in its Human Development and Christian Salvation (June 30, 1977):
Theology, however, cannot deduce concrete political norms sheerly from theological principles, and so the theologian cannot settle profound sociological issues by theology’s specific resources. Theological treatises that strive to build a more human society must take into account the risks that the use of sociological theories involves. In every instance these theories must be tested for their degree of certitude, inasmuch as they are often no more than conjectures and not infrequently harbor explicit or implicit ideological elements that rest on debatable philosophical assumptions or on an erroneous anthropology. This is true, for instance, of significant segments of analyses inspired by Marxism and Leninism. Anyone who employs such theories and analyses should be aware that these do not achieve a greater degree of truth simply because theology introduces them into its expositions.
The fanatics who always say amen to everything are complicit in the problem, as the Pope himself said when referring to courtiers: “they are the lepers of the Church.” If it was up to them – other differences aside – we’d still have the Borgias.
Alberto Benegas Lynch, JR. is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.