Politics & Policy

What Should a Pope Say about Capitalism?

Free marketeers shouldn’t take his critique so personally.

If you are a free marketeer offended by Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) — in which he critiqued “deified” market capitalism and attacked income inequality — ask yourself: What should the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church say about economics in 2013? Should he take a victory lap over free enterprise’s defeat of Communism as if it were 1993?

Pope Francis offers his sharp challenge in the wake of a deep global recession whose aftermath continues to plague advanced economies. At the same time, globalization and technology have created both amazing wealth and growing inequality within nations around the world. A recent Goldman Sachs analysis, for instance, finds a long-term “hollowing out” in the U.S. labor market: The past three recessions brought deep cuts in middle-wage jobs that weren’t made up during subsequent recoveries. Nor was the pope’s message directed just — or even primarily — at the U.S., not when South America is afflicted by crony capitalism, Europe by youth unemployment, Asia by income extremes, and Africa by deep poverty.

#ad#Certainly now is not a time for “end of history” triumphalism that fails to recognize every human construct is imperfect and generates tradeoffs. We live in a fallen world. Such understanding is actually crucial to conservatism. Leave utopianism through “smarter policy” to the Left. Pro-market advocates need to consider that faster GDP growth may be necessary but not sufficient, that a rising tide may not lift all boats if accelerating automation means a vast swath of workers face unemployment or stagnant wages, as some economists on the left and right warn.

Of course those on the left have quickly highlighted bits of the pope’s statement that superficially support their cosmology — as when he writes that “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root” and “inequality is the root of social ills.” Not surprisingly, these liberal pundits and media accounts have tended to neglect those parts of Evangelii Gaudium that don’t fit with the “progressive pope” meme, such the pope’s call to move “beyond a simple welfare mentality” for the poor that meets basic needs but fails to integrated them into the economy and provide creative jobs that allow them to “express and enhance the dignity of their lives.” Tea-party GOPers should certainly approve of the pope’s description of debt as a burden that makes it “difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies.” (And, of course, many on the left have little use for the pope’s call to show “particular love and concern . . . [for] unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us.”)

But perhaps this section is the one most likely to raise hopeful left-wing cries of “Habemus Marxist Papam”: “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.”

Hardly a Randian paean to the Heroic One Percent, that. Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias, a liberal, approves of how Pope Francis “really lights into libertarian economics” but adds that there’s “lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to.” But one doesn’t need to be Catholic or a Christian of any kind to realize that it is impossible to understand the pope’s message if one fails to view it through the lens of Jesus’ teachings. Of course Pope Francis doesn’t believe market capitalism — although the greatest wealth generator ever discovered and the economic system most supportive of human freedom — is the ultimate cure to what ails humanity or the key to true human flourishing. It’s not the Bain Way one should expect to be at the heart of the pope’s message, it’s Christ’s.

— James Pethokoukis, a columnist, blogs for the American Enterprise Institute.

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