Acton Institute Powerblog

International Governance in Caritas in Veritate and The Road to Serfdom

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In his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI calls for an international political authority, “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.” He tasks it with issues like human rights, ensuring access to necessities including food and water, and managing the global economy. What might an effective international governing body look like?

The Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek asked the same question in 1944 in his book, The Road to Serfdom. Seeing his beloved Europe torn apart by war and gross economic inequalities, Hayek wrote, “we cannot hope for order or lasting peace after this war if states, large or small, regain unfettered sovereignty in the economic sphere.” He was referencing World War II, but it sounds like the Pope feels the same way about hoping for order and prosperity after this recession.

Neither Hayek nor the Pope have utopian visions of the world. The Pope reaffirmed the value of subsidiarity many times in Caritas in Veritate. Subsidiarity is the principle that decisions should be left to the smallest competent authority. In questions of politics and economics, this is often a local authority; it is rarely an international organization. Hayek said the same thing when he noted that “the problems raised by a conscious direction of economic affairs on a national scale inevitably assume even greater dimensions when the same is attempted internationally.”

These constraints make international governance difficult, and they all but rule out any effort by a world body to coordinate economic activity. Real problems still remain with a nationally-divided world, though. Hayek said that “it is neither necessary nor desirable that national boundaries sharp differences in standards of living,” and the Pope refers to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” in Caritas in Veritate. What, then, is to be done?

First, it is necessary to ask what stands in the way of people having their rights respected and their needs met. All too often, it is the state. The Pope criticizes much government-to-government foreign aid on the grounds that corruption and bad economic policy need to be fixed before money will do any lasting good. He also calls for Western countries to end the subsidies to agriculture that block farmers in poor countries from having fair access to global markets. When it comes to accessing investment, food, and water, poor governance has done much to hold back the world’s most impoverished people.

As an Austrian who witnessed the rise of Nazism, fascism, and communism in Europe, Hayek shared a similar critique of the unwillingness of many governments to give their people the freedom they need to flourish. His experiences impacted his vision of the international order, and Hayek ultimately proposed that “there must be a power which can restrain the different nations from action harmful to their neighbors, a set of rules which defines what a state may do, and an authority capable of enforcing these rules… it must, above all, be able to say ‘No’ to all sorts of restrictive measures.”

Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI could draw inspiration from this perspective. In order to promote general equity and a search for the common human good among nations, an international authority with the ability to check irrational and cruel decisions made by governments may be the best way to proceed. An international body with the ability to veto rights abuses, tariffs, excessive inflation, corporate welfare policies, agricultural subsidies, and other harmful laws might be the best way to encourage the solidarity of the “family of nations.” It would let markets tap into the ability of every person to create wealth and meet their own needs through the dignity of their own work. By promoting openness and checking destructive policies without trying to take on the job of managing everything in the world, such an authority could also meet the Pope’s requirement that global political authority be organized in “a subsidiary and stratified way.”

The United Nations may or may not be the best organization to carry forward this vision, and it is possible that some other body might be the future of internal governance “with teeth.” Between Hayek, the Pope, and everyone looking for the best way to heed the challenges of Caritas in Veritate, hopefully a productive framework for governing globalization so that it works for the benefit of everyone can emerge.

Matt Cavedon


  • Roger McKinney

    “…an international authority with the ability to check irrational and cruel decisions made by governments may be the best way to proceed.”

    What’s to guarantee that the “international authority” doesn’t become just as irrational and cruel as the governments it will supervise? After all, the members of the international authority will still be human beings. In fact, look at the UN. It is a corrupt and inneffective as any Middle Eastern state. And it is cruel because it deludes the oppressed into believing that it will provide peace and justice, while instead it is a tool of the kleptocrats who are oppressing them. Do I need to bring up Darfor?

  • Matt Cavedon

    When governments try to do a lot, they have a considerable amount of power. That power, as the namesake of this blog said, is corrupting and can devolve into irrationality and cruelty. When we consider some negative authority that has the power to block government actions without positively acting, though, perhaps we can use an authority to check government itself.

    Take, as examples, the WTO and the IMF. The WTO cannot do anything proactively. Whenever a country violates principles of free trade, though, it can strike down tariffs or regulations. Likewise, the IMF cannot make governments get bigger. It can, however, refuse to fund any country that does not liberalize public services and set up good monetary policies.

    Not all authorities have to be proactive governments. As Hayek pointed out, perhaps the ideal international authority would merely be able to say “No” to national governments that wanted to restrict the economic and political rights of their citizens.

  • Joe DeVet

    I think as a matter of practice, this is a “good idea” impossible of implementation. We need look no further than the UN to see the pernicious effect of world governing bodies. It might be said the UN is not what the Holy Father had in mind–he wants something with “teeth.” God forbid! The UN with teeth would institutionalize socialism, population control including abortion, fanatical environmental ideas like fighting global warming, and all manner of mischief! You could not have a body like this without further defeating the principle of subsidiarity.

  • Matt

    The UN with teeth would be awful because it has no binding charter on what it wants to decide, and what direction it works in. The WTO, on the other hand, has negotiated a number of troublesome trade disputes and made countries remove protective barriers without mandating any kind of tax changes, welfare measures, or bureaucratic expansions. It seems that the second organization here has more authority and respectability, too, so I would say it should be our point of reference for possible reform.

  • MaryAnn

    Why is every one so willing to cede their freedom to any world governing body? By their nature, they cannot rule or judge justly, and cannot be made to do so; they are too far removed from the people they govern. Also, let’s remember that the Pope spoke of Christian Charity based on the Charity shown by Jesus Christ’s death on His Cross as being the guiding principal for governance. That kind of Charity is radical and transformational, and must begin in the hearts of individuals. It simply cannot be transplanted to some behemoth world governing body.

  • Roger McKinney

    Matt, the WTO and similar organizations are not good examples. They have no “teeth”. They must rely on states to voluntarily agree to join the WTO and voluntarily submit to its rulings. The real problem is with those who refuse to join, or join and pretend to obey the rules while violating them.

    Hayek wrote, “we cannot hope for order or lasting peace after this war if states, large or small, regain unfettered sovereignty in the economic sphere.”

    If you take that line in context with other of Hayek’s writings, you will understand it to mean that Hayek saw socialism as the cause of war. Hayek would see the way to peace as one in which the state got out of economics all together except for the natural law role of protecting life, liberty and property. Hayek would never have endorsed an international government, let alone one with teeth.

  • Matt Cavedon

    Hayek wrote that “there must be a power which can restrain the different nations from action harmful to their neighbors.” I believe he may have been sympathetic to an international authority that could block states from implementing nationalist and socialist measures. This is not the same as a “government,” per se. I agree that he would not have endorsed that, and I don’t believe that the Pope’s aims are best served by one, either.