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.