Pope Francis Strafes Libertarian Economics

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Nov. 26 2013 9:41 AM

Pope Francis Strafes Libertarian Economics

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Smells like socialism.

Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis' latest apostolic exhortation covers a number of topics, but really lights into libertarian economics. There's a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can't really sign on to but here's a great point about media priorities and the declining marginal value of income:

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.
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But importantly, he follows up with a specific invocation of the need for state action rather than simple trust in the beneficence of the powerful:

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.

And, again, not a call for charity or goodwill toward the poor but specifically for economic regulation and democratic supervision of the capitalist system:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

And on externalities:

In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Again, a call for political change:

A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.

I've heard a number of conservative Catholic commentators remark numerous times that it's silly for left-wing people to be highlighting Pope Francis' thoughts on economic policy because all this stuff has been Catholic doctrine for a long time. I think this misses the point. Obviously a new pope isn't going to make up a new religious doctrine from scratch. But when you have a corpus of thinking and tradition that spans centuries, it makes a great deal of difference what you emphasize.

I remember very clearly having been an intern in Chuck Schumer's office and attending with the senator, some of his staff, and a wide swathe of New York City political elites an event at St Patrick's Cathedral to celebrate the posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Archbishop John O'Connor. His successor, Archbishop Egan, delivered an address that went on at length about O'Connor's charitable work, but on a public policy level addressed almost exclusively the Church's support for banning abortion, for discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, and for school vouchers. That was a choice he made about what he thought it was important for people to hear about. Pope Francis is making a different kind of choice.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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