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Environment Encyclical Is ‘Well Intentioned, Deeply Flawed’

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Samuel Gregg, Acton’s director of research, writes in The American Spectator today about Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical which addresses environmental issues. Gregg says that part of the encyclical’s intent is to add to the global discussion regarding the environment and to the climate change debate. However, Gregg believes that the encyclical, rather than enlightening, is muddying the waters.

To be sure, there is much about today’s global economy that merits criticism. The encyclical rightly underscores the problem of bailing out banks at everyone else’s expense (189). Does anyone doubt that, if the world faces another series of major bank failures, governments will behave in exactly the same way, thereby reinforcing the moral hazard problem that’s at the root of so much of the financial sector’s on-going dysfunctionality? The encyclical also suggests, correctly, that despite the events of 2008, there has been a major failure to reform the world’s financial systems (189). Likewise the pope’s tough words for those who regard population growth as somehow damaging the environment and impeding economic development are spot-on (50).

Nonetheless, many conceptual problems and questionable empirical claims characterize the encyclical’s vision of contemporary economic life. In terms of environmental degradation, Laudato Si’ appears oblivious to the fact that the twentieth century’s worst economically driven pollution occurred as a result of centrally-planned state-industrialization schemes in former Communist nations. Anyone who’s visited Eastern Europe or the former USSR and witnessed the often-devastated landscape will quickly attest to the validity of that insight.

Gregg is very concerned with how the encyclical distorts certain financial realities that affect the environment. Those who support free markets are not monsters willing to plunder the earth at any cost:

It is untrue, for instance, that being in favor of free markets means that you’re necessarily unconcerned for the environment and obsessed with profit. Many free market supporters have devoted their lives to devising ways to align economic incentives in the direction of environmental conservation. Nor is it just to say that free marketers are uninterested in future generations. It has been, for the most part, people who favor free markets who have been arguing that the current recourse to debt by Western governments in order to avoid making hard but necessary fiscal reforms is laying up enormous trouble for future generations. Those of a more-interventionist or Keynesian disposition are generally silent on this subject or don’t think it is a real problem.

Lastly, you could probably count on one hand the number of promoters of free markets who believe that economic freedom alone will assure all-round human flourishing. Take, for instance, Adam Smith. Not everything in Smith’s thought is reconcilable with the Catholic vision of man. But Smith’s vision of commerce and market exchange is rooted in a wider civilizational vision that (a) stresses the need for a strong civil society; (b) acknowledges that there are some things that only governments can do and that there will be times when government economic intervention is needed; and (c) underscores the importance of commercial, classical and, yes, Judeo-Christian virtues prevailing in a society if a free economy is going to flourish and benefit the majority rather than just privileged elites who enjoy close ties to the political class.

Finally, Gregg acknowledges the pope’s deep love for the poor but laments that – in this encyclical at least – the pontiff seems unwilling to engage in serious moral and economic discussions regarding the environment.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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