Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

Occupy the Vatican? A progressive pope? Not really

Image Credit: Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

American conservatives — perhaps to a person — were outraged and disappointed by Pope Francis’s tough statement about free markets and capitalism and his highlighting of the harm caused by inequality, consumerism, and “trickle-down economics.” Habemus Anti-Capitalist Papam!

No, wait. That’s not quite correct. American progressives — perhaps to a person — expected American conservatives to freak out. “Pope Francis basically just endorsed the de Blasio agenda!” and such. But conservatives pretty much didn’t react that way. Not surprising, really. Christians on the right are accustomed to Sunday sermons denouncing crass materialism, and exhorting the faithful to help the poor, orphans, widows. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” demands the Gospel of St. Matthew. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” And this, a few verses later: “No one can serve two masters. … You cannot serve both God and money.”

Conservatives — whether churchgoers or not — are not utopians, They understand market economies will never turn the world temporal into Paradise (while at the same time realizing that command-and-control economies have frequently produced a kind of hell on earth). Conservatives value the “safety net” to help those whom the pope calls the “excluded.” But conservatives also want to reform the safety net so more resources are devoted to raising the living standards of the truly needy rather than subsidizing the rich, moving the jobless toward work and self sufficiency, and increasing social mobility and equality of opportunity.

Likewise, few conservatives would disagree with this bit of the pope’s statement: “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.”

Conservatives embrace markets because they support a free society — but also because market economies produce the sort of prosperity that enables true human flourishing, one where we can better define our future as we see fit and achieve success on the basis of merit and hard work. After all, it was innovative capitalism — something the pope surely understands even if actual anti-capitalists don’t — that raised the average real income of the West over the past two centuries from $3 a day to $140. That might not qualify as a miracle, but it is surely a wonder — one that has given us lots better stuff and lots more opportunity to lead lives of deep fulfillment.

And progressives are kidding themselves if they think the pope was somehow embracing an Elizabethian (Warren) agenda of sky-high tax rates and an endlessly expanding welfare state. (Indeed, the pope denounced “a simple welfare mentality.”) How cramped an interpretation. Pope Francis’s vision transcends such parochial concerns. He is a global figure looking at crony capitalism in South America, massive youth unemployment in big government Europe, tremendous wealth disparities in state capitalist Asia, and deep poverty in Africa.

As the Christian and libertarian economist Deirdre McCloskey writes in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, the good society can be built on the cardinal and theological virtues that also support a prosperous commercial society. The virtue of Courage, for example “to venture on new ways of business … to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up the next morning and face fresh work with cheer.” And Hope “to imagine a better machine … to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seen one’s labor as a glorious calling. … The claim here is that modern capitalism does not need to be offset to be good. Capitalism on the contrary can be virtuous. In a fallen world, the bourgeois is not perfect. But it is better than any available alternative.”

McCloskey goes on to write that capitalism needs to be “inspired, moralized, completed.” That sounds exactly like what Pope Francis is trying to do.

 

36 thoughts on “Occupy the Vatican? A progressive pope? Not really

    • It’s telling that you fail to respond to an actual comment on this board but indict “teabaggers” and their alleged “Social Darwinism” by finding a deranged youtube video. It’s a cute propaganda technique.

      • Oh I dunno. When Juandos talks about parasites would his slur include a woman with MS who wants to work but needs some accommodations? And when Mesa talks about the burden of regulations like ADA, does that mean said woman has no right to support herself? And if she can’t replace her health insurance, it’s only right she should exhaust her assets before getting help, no?, because ACA is an abomination in the view of most people here. And then we have the woman who claims the alpha people were meant to be rich, and the guy who thinks a Yale legacy deserves a seat and C grades. And Paul who claims to represent the last vestige of what made America great. That’s off the top of my head. I would bet I can find an example of teabagger delusion on any page herein picked at random.

  1. Have yet to see one serious proposal by U.S. conservatives to “reform the safety net so more resources are devoted to raising the living standards of the truly needy rather than subsidizing the rich”.

    Paying less taxes for GOP “job creators” has been a consistent message for years, until it had to be screeched for the last 5 years. And give up carried interest, tax loopholes and the account in the Caribbean (Mitt?), we and the Pope have gotten the message clear. “F you, conservatives are right!”

    • “Have yet to see one serious proposal by U.S. conservatives to “reform the safety net so more resources are devoted to raising the living standards of the truly needy rather than subsidizing the rich””

      1. Privatization of Social Security. Given the unfunded liability of SS, probably the best hope for retaining a system our parents and grandparents enjoyed for future generations.

      2. Health Savings Accounts.

      3. Medicare (Part D).

    • please take the time to read the road to serfdom by hayek and watch a few youtube videos by milton freidman and thomas sowell. its not fun being brainwashed.

  2. Jesus Christ said something about the eye of a needle…usury is not a polite topic either…
    Trying to justify capitalism by citing Christian impulses may be a Quixotic mission…better render unto God those things that are God’s, and render the spoils to Cesar Romero…

  3. I would like to agree, but I am dubious. Didn’t Francis say that our economic system is unjust at its root? He’s not just saying the leaves of capitalism are being misused; he’s saying the whole tree is rotten. And what should one do with a rotten tree?

  4. What the Pope said was fodder for the delusional left. They have already embraced it and are parading it widely.

    That the Pope is economically illiterate isn’t surprising, especially given his Argentinian past, but it does cast a rather hypocritical pall on the Vatican, which perhaps more than any institution in the world practiced extreme wealth building, as well as confiscation.

    It was an unfortunate communique, especially at this time, where we have the exact opposite of “unfettered capitalism,” and are suffering from mass interventionism and government corruption, not Darwinism.

  5. These are the actual words of Pope Francis:

    “No to an economy of exclusion

    53. 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. 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 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.

    Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

    54. 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.

    No to the new idolatry of money

    55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
    —30—

    Hard to read the above as a defense of free market capitalism, or even a call for reformation. The Pope sure seems to be saying that welfare and social values must be the primary goals of society and government. I assume the Pope advocates universal health care, education, and care even for the undeserving poor.

    Perhaps a VA-style system for all Americans.

    There is a tremendous schism on the American right, between free market libertarians who want smaller government, and those who want social engineering and intrusive government (pro-family values, no recreational drugs prostitution, etc).

    And now another schism: Catholics who want to be in tune with the Pope.

    Other parts of the Francis’ message were inspiring, such as the call for something akin to Catholic evangelicalism, and a recognition that being cloistered behind the walls is not the way to serve the flock.

    From what I read, Pope Francis is eschewing excessive symbols, such as fancy cars and apartments.

    Francis could turn out to be a great Pope.

    • He will be an excellent socialist Pope, as 53), 54) and 55) denote.

      His Holiness has no economic understanding of voluntary exchange, or the involuntary government perversion thereof, and claims “trickle down” is factually unsupported, which is incorrect.

      Really weak, Benji, and explains your misunderstandings. But thank you for posting for the record.

        • One of the best ways to become poor, and remain that way is to have an interventionist government which limits voluntary exchange.

          Another way is to have a government which incentivizes poverty, through programs like foodstamps and disability insurance.

          That is the government we have now, and why poverty levels have risen markedly.

  6. Mesa Econoguy-

    Actually, I am on the libertarian side of the fence, so I prefer small government, and free markets.

    I am aghast at a GOP that created ethanol, incessant wars and a spy state, a VA at huge scale, Medicare Part D, a pink rural economy and who think the government should promote family values through law and taxes.

    The Donks are no better—but at least they admit to being pro-government.

    So, as a libertarian, I prefer the smallest government possible. As I have posted, I think all sorts of non-family values should be legal, such as drug use, drinking, speak-easies, gambling, prostitution. The tax code should be family neutral; that is no business of the governments. No taxes on either dividends or capital gains.

    Religion is a whole ‘nother matter.

    Should religious leader genuflect to gold or God?

    I think the Pope is correct in his definition of his role. A Pope who catered to plutocrats and preached hate and exclusion would make a poor showing.

    The Vatican has become detached from its flock, and from the very good side of Catholicism, and that is its democracy, inclusiveness and charity. The Catholic Church should always be an advocate for the poor, for a better society, for family values. A place for everyone. That is the role of religion, but not government.

    I wish this Pope every success.

    • The text above is not good evidence that this Pope understands economics in any way. He certainly does understand the tenor of the current leftist slant, and carries the message well. That is unfortunate.

      I will consult His Holiness (and other religious leaders) on matters of religion.

      His Holiness is free to consult me (and many others) about economics, about which I know far, far more than he does.

      • Indeed. As the church only recently got around to pardoning Galileo, it should come as no surprise that they are a bit behind the times when it comes to understanding economics. The history of the church is not inspiring when it comes to the discovery of knowledge and the advance of commerce that built the modern world. Those in the past who pushed the human race to higher levels achievement and innovation often did so in spite of, rather than because of, the church.

        If the leaders of the church wish to opine on such matters they are free to do so, but they cannot be taken seriously by those who have actually studied economics.

        • Au contraire’ – the Church was a major force behind early science. In Medieval times, the Church created and maintained universities which were a primary seat of knowledge and discovery. These universities were so privileged that the Church’s doctrine of “academic freedom” mean scholars could travel unharmed through hostile principalities to meet other scholars. Monasteries also served both as places of discovery and copiers and preservers of text. In Galileo’s time the Church sponsored scientists and telescopes (such as the modern Mt. Graham, Arizona Vatican Telescope). Galileo was the founder of the first Vatican Academy [of science].

          The Church did and does this because of the belief that it was man’s duty to more fully understand the universe that God had created. Of course, the actual debates and viewpoints were messy and changed over the years. Without the Church, science may have been delayed and much ancient knowledge lost.

          In modern times, a weakly supported myth has grown of the Church as anti-science. Another view is the Catholics hold the Pope as infallible, when the Church recognizes that Popes are fallible and sinners, like very one else (“ex cathedra” speech, which is rare, is considered infallible). Also, the Church is intentionally very slow to adapt new ideas, because of the gravity of new statements of doctrine – it tries not to rush to judgement.

          Likewise, judging anyone of the 17th century by modern standards is ahistorical. Finally, as shown below, the Galileo affair was complex, and while neither Galileo nor the Pope are to be admired for their behavior,the event does not support the common assertion that the Church was a major obstacle.

          By the time of Galileo, heliocentrism was an old well known theory (it went back to the Greeks). Copernicus had shown that mathematics consistent with heliocentrism accurately predicted planetary motion.

          Many years later, Galileo showed further suggestive evidence: satellites of Jupiter which themselves orbited, not the Sun, but Jupiter.

          However, Galileo was no more able to prove heliocentrism than was Copernicus. Worse, he incorrectly but strongly asserted that orbits were circular, and that the Earth’s rotation caused tides. The weaknesses of his position were known and put forward in debates. None of this was secret – the debate involved many people – well before the Inquisition was involved. For example:

          In 1615, “[the Church's Master of Controversial Questions] pointed out that: 1) it was perfectly acceptable to maintain Copernicanism as a working hypothesis; and 2) if there were “real proof” that the earth circles around the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary…” ”

          Had Galileo’s arguments remained purely scientific, the Church would not have acted. Galileo, however, went beyond science into theology (a field in which he was an amateur), trying to force the Church to change its doctrine. He published his Dialogue in which fictional characters clearly were meant to mock his enemies in science and in the Church (including his friend and supporter, the Pope).

          Galileo’s real crime wast asserting heological dogma, and even worse (in those days) engaging in Lèse-majesté. He didn’t get into trouble until he insisted that the Church not only accept his flawed theories, but that they trump scripture (for example, that he could prove the sun had not stood still – a scientism error), and saying so in an intentionally offensive way. Given the shaky status of heliocentrism at the time, the Church could hardly have been expected to reverse its beliefs.

          Given Galileo’s antics and the tenor of the times, even his good friend the Pope went along with punishing him. Of course, by the standards of the time, the punishment for his behavior was remarkably mild:

          ‘As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.”’

          Reference for the Galileo details: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0005.html

    • “The Catholic Church should always be an advocate for the poor, for a better society, for family values. A place for everyone. That is the role of religion, but not government.”

      Sounds like you agree with Mesa and disagree with Pope Francis then.

      I also agree with Mesa. Although, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that the Pope has disavowed capitalism. He pointed out a few truisms that would be apparent in any economic system (does anyone really believe some socialists don’t worship money?). That capitalism is the greater wealth generator only means there is more to worship. I am a little troubled by his understanding of “trickle down”. Wouldn’t the opposite be 100% redistribution and “trickle up”? The closest examples to that would be states like North Korea, Cuba etc.

      “Hard to read the above as a defense of free market capitalism, or even a call for reformation. The Pope sure seems to be saying that welfare and social values must be the primary goals of society and government.”

      I wonder given the two extremes, which the Pope would prefer? I got the feeling this Exhortation was more about curbing excesses (with an obvious lack of economic literacy) than changing economic systems.

      • MikeK–

        I guess the Pope will have to clarify and expand his comments, if he wants Catholics to know what to do, within the context of the United States.

        My guess is that the Pope would, for example, support a single-payor national health system in the USA, even if it were not the most efficient system. But it would be a system that brings everyone into the tent.

        The VA, for example, is federally funded, housed, staffed, administered, and even the GOP is happy with that model, wherein 300,000 federal employees provide health care to vets. Maybe the Pope would just say expand the VA to take care of everybody.

  7. He is rehashing Rerum Novarum, which inspired Mussolini’s corporatism/fascism and later Peron – google it! This Pope is Argentinian. This stuff is typical patronizing old world conservatism/crypto-fascism.

    The clueless responses to this from American progressives and conservatives are embarrassing, depressing.

    • If Rerum Novarum “inspired” Mussolini’s fascism, Pope Pius XI couldn’t find any bright line between the two. Writing in 1931, Pius specifically criticized Mussolini’s state sponsored labor union, ostensibly borrowed from Rerum, as devoted more to political purposes than to improving social order. In fact, Mussolini perverted Rerum to court Catholics and frustrate Socialists. Italian workers paid the price, as the state union routinely sided with corporations. We should also note that Rerum’s vision of corporate/labor/state collaboration works very well in Germany and Scandanavia.

  8. What a whitewash of what the Pope said.
    “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; ”

    Such a statement cannot be taken as anything other than a direct attack on free market capitalism.

    The facts simply are that those who are against free market capitalism are overwhelmingly in favor of broad government control through coercion and the enslavement of the human spirit.

    Thus this Pope has aided and abetted the evil forces who want to enslave mankind. That is pure evil. No getting around it.

    Furthermore, any dunce knows that the rise of the middle class has been created solely by free market capitalism. There was no middle class before free market capitalism and there is no little or no middle class in places that don’t allow it to flourish. To think that government “built” it is just delusional.

    While this Pope may well be well intentioned, his actions in this regard are pure evil.

    He has greatly undermined the moral authority of the Church because how can one now believe it an institution that endorses such evil and gives its subsistence?

    My Catholic faith has been shaken to it’s roots by this Man.
    As a result I will no longer donate to the Church on Sundays. I will still go to Church because it is Christ’s house, but I will not donate any further until this evil rot at the Vatican is thoroughly cleaned out.

    • And once again, Paul demonstrates his ignorance, this time in his own faith.

      “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”[

      That would be Leo XIII in 1891 writing of the dignity and rights of workers in Rerum Novarum.

      Another passage:
      ” The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”

      If Jesus came back to chase the money changers from the temple, my guess is that he would start on K St in DC.

  9. The author is substituting his views (ones I agree with) for what the Pope actually said.

    The good news is that this communication does not invoke papal infallibility. Pope’s say lots of things, and they need to be considered, but not taken as dogma, since it is not an ex cathedra utterance.

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