How Pope Francis misunderstands the free market

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Article Highlights

  • Every pope from 1914 to 1978 had Vatican diplomatic or bureaucratic experience.

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  • That Francis has instead been first and foremost a pastor has undoubtedly contributed to his powerful charisma.

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  • He is a pastor, moreover, who fairly radiates holiness.

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In its cover story on the “Person of the Year,” Time magazine contrasts Pope Francis’s background with that of his two most recent predecessors: “John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.”

The point can be extended further. Every pope from 1914 to 1978 had Vatican diplomatic or bureaucratic experience, and so our understanding of the papacy has been shaped by diplomats, bureaucrats and scholars. That Francis has instead been first and foremost a pastor has undoubtedly contributed to his powerful charisma. It’s part of why he has quickly become popular around the world and, as Time puts it, “captured the imagination of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.” He is a pastor, moreover, who fairly radiates holiness.

One strength of diplomats, bureaucrats and scholars, or at least the good ones, is that they choose their words carefully. A Catholic friend of mine says that Francis seeks to engage the world in the style of after-dinner conversation. A weakness of that style is that some of Francis’s comments are frustratingly vague, imprecise or poorly considered. The much-discussed remarks on economics within his recent apostolic exhortation are a case in point.

The problem isn’t that Francis’s policy prescriptions are misguided, because he doesn’t make any. Nor is it that his sympathies in economic debates are clearly with the left, although they are. One can favor a much stronger safety net than the U.S. has and still disagree with some of what Francis has to say.

Take his discussion of violence. He says that violence is on the rise and that its root cause is increasing inequality. “But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence,” he writes. (Surely the main clause of that sentence could have stood alone.) “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve.” Actually, there is good evidence that both violence and economic inequality are falling globally.

And while nobody expects, or wants, the pope to issue detailed policy proposals, his comments make it sound as though he would consider anything short of perfect economic equality unjust. He ought to tell us whether he would.

In another passage, the pope appears to blame businessmen for sometimes downsizing their companies, writing that “the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” Even in a well-functioning economy with low unemployment, that’s exactly what businessmen will and should sometimes do.

The document ranges widely, treating some of the faults of Catholic cultures, the evil of sex trafficking, the church’s recognition of God’s unbroken covenant with the Jews and how pastors should preach. The most famous passage of it, though, is an attack on “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.” He continues: “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

This is a caricature, as many advocates of free markets have pointed out (and even allowing for some issues that have been raised about how these words were translated from Spanish). Consider, for a moment, the view of someone who believes that the U.S. has a crying need for lower marginal tax rates on the highest earners, the better to motivate them to work, save and invest, which will benefit the poor by helping the economy expand. That’s not my view. But it also isn’t a view that rests on trust in the goodness of rich people. It rests on the expectation that their self-interest can yield unintended benefits for others.

And whether or not that expectation is well-founded, it need not involve any belief that existing economic arrangements are in any sense sacred. In fact, the most extreme free-marketeers are pretty unhappy with those arrangements throughout the world.

The pope is persuasive when he counsels against consumerism and challenges us to give priority to moral and spiritual values over merely material ones. That includes those of us in the news media. “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?”

Much of Francis’s economic thought, though, seems to rest on the identification of free markets with extreme individualism. A generation ago, the writer Michael Novak and others were instrumental in persuading many American Catholics that markets could instead enable a creative form of community. The pope’s remarks suggest that this type of evangelizing still needs to be done.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.)

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