Thoughts on Pope Francis on Capitalism

In response to Pope Francis’s recent critique of capitalism, Ross Douthat has a column dealing with the implication for conservative Catholics, such as himself: “[F]or Catholics who pride themselves on fidelity to Rome, the burden is on them – on us- to explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.”  It isn’t enough to say merely that Papal pronouncements don’t present a particular platform as mandated by Catholic social teaching- conservatives Catholics also have to justify their platforms as consistent with such teaching, Ross believes.

“[T]he church’s social teaching is no less an official teaching for allowing room for disagreement on its policy implications,” Ross writes.  But for me, my disagreements with Pope Francis’s encyclical, or excerpts I’ve seen reported on, is more at the level of principle than practical policy. 

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life,” Francis writes, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.  Such an economy kills.”  The Pope fallaciously anthropomorphizes the economy, which as everybody knows consists of millions of decisions whose connections to one another nobody understands.  His rhetoric focuses on the question whether “the free market,” as a whole, is morally good or bad, which is a meaningless question.  How would one apply it to a particular policy question?  Do we just have to favor any proposed government intervention, because lack of said intervention would be “the free market,” and the free market is bad?

It seems to me there is unclear thinking behind the encyclical, which eliminates the kind of room Ross sees for policy disagreements, by taking such disagreements to a level of abstraction that just doesn’t makes sense.  I see the document as a Bernie Sanders-style rant rather than the thoughtful, nuanced critique of capitalism Ross Douthat and others appear to see.

With “Thou shalt not kill” as applied to an actual, individual person, the solution is straightforward; don’t kill people, or at least, don’t kill innocent people.  There’s a pretty bright line.  With “the free market economy kills,” you don’t have a bright line at all, and Pope Francis wants there to be one.  How much “free market” is too much?  The status quo does not implement absolute, “free market ideology,” but the Pope treats it as doing so, when it is merely more of a free market than he likes: “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.”  But the marketplace isn’t absolutely autonomous, and states do exercise control.  The marketplace is just more autonomous, and states exercise less control, than Francis likes.  That’s a question of degree, not an either-or question like killing or not killing.
Some market supporters have responded to Francis to the effect that “the free market” as a whole saves more lives than anything else or whatever.  Douthat couches this in terms of a pro-market position within the Pope’s overall framework (that overall framework is “capitalism is evil,” so this is pretty problematic.) Over at Reason, Matt Welch couches it as an “economic” and thus “scientific” response to the Pope’s “theological” backwardness.  Welch tries to meet the Pope on the Pope’s own excessively abstract terms, and as a result his argument suffers from the same problem: its application to a particular policy debate is unclear.  The anti-capitalist says “capitalism caused the financial crisis;” the capitalist says “capitalism has saved hundreds of millions from starvation.”  What does that tell us about whether we should extend the Bush tax cuts, or pass Dodd Frank, or enact protective tariffs, or anything else?

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