Laudato No: Praise Not Pope Francis’s Crude Economics

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There is an undeniable majesty to the papacy, one that is politically useful to the Left from time to time. The same Western liberals who abominate the Catholic Church as an atavistic relic of more superstitious times, who regard its teachings on abortion and contraception as inhumane and its teachings on sexuality as a hate crime today are celebrating Pope Francis’s global-warming encyclical, Laudato Si’, as a moral mandate for their cause. So much for that seamless garment.

It may be that the carbon tax, like Paris, is worth a Mass.

The main argument of the encyclical will be no surprise to those familiar with Pope Francis’s characteristic line of thought, which combines an admirable and proper concern for the condition of the world’s poor with a crude and backward understanding of economics and politics both. Any number of straw men go up in flames in this rhetorical auto-da-fé, as the pope frames his concern in tendentious economic terms: “By itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” We are familiar with no free-market thinker, even the most extreme, who believes that “by itself, the market can guarantee integral human development.” There are any number of other players in social life — the family, civil society, the large and durable institution of which the pope is the chief executive — that contribute to human flourishing. The pope is here taking a side in a conflict that, so far as we can tell, does not exist.

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It is important to appreciate that Pope Francis’s environmental thinking is entirely embedded in his economic thinking, which is, we say with respect, simplistic. “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment,” the pontiff writes. “Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, ‘whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.’” (The quotation is the pope citing himself, from Evangelii Gaudium.) Taking a page from the neo-Malthusians, the pope predicts that resource depletion will lead to wars, and he contemplates the possibility that the weapons used in them may be nuclear or biological. He laments “technocracy” and consumption that seems to him “extreme.”

RELATED: Is the Encyclical a Measured Document?

This latter objection strikes us as particularly objectionable: The economic progress of the late 20th century and early 21st century — which is to say, the advance of capitalism — particularly in the areas of agriculture, medicine, and energy, has not so much enabled consumption that is excessive in the rich world but adequate in places such as India and China, where famine, once thought to be a permanent and ordinary part of life, has largely disappeared. This outcome was made possible not by the political oversight of economic activity that the pope contemplates but by its partial abandonment. The pope’s stridently anti-development vision would be the opposite of a blessing for the world’s poor.

The pope is right about honoring God and His creation — but the question before us is about tradeoffs.

“Political institutions and various other social groups are also entrusted with helping to raise people’s awareness. So too is the Church.” Fair enough, but the Church, like any other institution, has an ethical obligation to do so in an intellectually rigorous fashion, and here, with respect, the pope fails, writing: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.” This is inconsistent with science in many ways, the most obvious of them being that the operating consensus among climate scientists is far from a doomsday scenario — models have consistently offered an estimate of about 2 degrees’ warming a century hence. That would impose real environmental costs and require difficult choices regarding mitigation, but it is not what the pope here is contemplating —  literally the end of the world, a scenario that the Catholic Church has always envisioned happening by other means. Beyond that, the pope’s focus on lifestyles and consumption ignores the fact that demographers predict that the world’s population will begin declining only 40 years from now, peaking in 2055. That will probably relieve some of the demands on the planet’s physical resources — and present us with an entirely new set of social problems that the pope apparently has not contemplated.

#related#Unless one takes the most alarmist view of the problem and the least skeptical view of the proffered solutions — as, alas, the Holy Father does in his encyclical, among other things by linking global-warming to current events unrelated to it — then the global-warming debate is not really a moral question, but a scientific and economic question. And while there are persistent questions about the data and the models at issue in the global-warming debate, those pale in comparison with the much greater challenge — which is a technical challenge, not a moral challenge — of evaluating the various programs of mitigation and prevention that are being offered up. The pope is certainly right about honoring God and His creation — but the question before us is about tradeoffs: How much certain economic damage to impose today in exchange for possible economic and ecological benefits at the dawn of the 22nd century? How radically to transform the Western economies in light of the fact that large greenhouse-gas emitters such as China and India have made it abundantly clear that they will do nothing to reduce emissions in real terms? How much symbolic local action is prudent in response to an issue that is by definition global, about which there is no global consensus as to a course of action? And, not irrelevant to the pope’s traditional concerns: How much suffering to impose on the world’s poor right now — and it is they who will suffer most acutely — in order to satisfy the moral appetites of Western elites who normally hold the pope, the Church he serves, and the moral tradition underlying this encyclical in comprehensive contempt?

To disaggregate the question: The rich world should indeed feel itself morally obliged to help the world’s poor. It must do this by helping them develop their economies, along lines the pope rejects, to enable higher levels consumption — of the sort the pope criticizes. We should appreciate that human dignity has in all observed cases been better served by the private-property regime that alarms the pope than by the political-discipline model that holds the property right to be a usufruct granted by states and princes and subject to endless revision at their whim. And when considering the specific question of global warming, we must face the reality that all the preventative strategies currently under consideration would impose radical costs on the compliant while the noncompliant are nearly certain to render those measures ineffective. And even if there were global compliance, the current costs in real terms would be very high relative to the predicted benefits: a few points of global GDP a hundred years from now.

Which is to say, the challenge before us is not to ensure that every tongue confess the global-warming creed; it is, rather, the familiar problem of the organization of capital, balancing production and consumption, and assigning relative weight to a very large and diverse array of possible public and private goods. That is a task to which the pope is not especially well suited, as he has, unhappily, here demonstrated.


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