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What Pope Francis Misses About the Morality of Capitalism

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“Defending capitalism on practical grounds is easy,” writes economist Donald Boudreaux at the Mercatus Center. “It is history’s greatest force for raising the living standards of the masses.”

What’s more difficult, it seems, is understanding its moral logic, spiritual implications, and which of each is or isn’t inherent to private ownership and economic exchange.

At what level, for instance, is freely buying a gallon of milk at a freely agreed-to price from a freely employed worker at an independent grocery store an act of sin, idolatry, and exploitation? Such basic transactions are, after all, the bread and butter of a system built on free enterprise and open exchange (i.e. capitalism). From here, it gets more complicated, of course, and even that basic starting point can surely involve corrupt actors and action.

Yet even Pope Francis, discernor of the discerning, seems to struggle in locating Point A of that basic logic, even when railing against its banner. I tend to presume that basic milk purchases are not, in fact, his actual target. But then he continues and without qualification, railing against markets at large and ripping at plenty of positives that dangle well outside the deserving injustices of cronyist corporatism.

The Pope prefers to argue not that capitalism “has its faults” or “demands a virtuous society,” but rather that it is a “new tyranny,” one that followed the ills of communism, but filled the void with something just as tragic. And here, one would hope the contrast in basic human realities and responses to these systems would be an easy enough starting point for reflection. The “practical” differences between capitalism and communism are tremendous, and surely that offers some clue as to what lies beneath.

Although Boudreaux doesn’t dwell too long on capitalism’s deeper spiritual or theological features — its affirmation of the dignity of man (made in God’s image), its empowerment of freely formed communities and institutions, its unleashing of collaboration, channeling of creativity, expansion of service to others, etc. — he aptly identifies the moral implications that the Pope routinely manages to miss:

If there’s any moral value at all (as there surely is) to an economy‘s capacity to enrich the masses, capitalism’s consistent history of creating widespread prosperity counts not only as a practical point in its favor but as a moral one as well. And the moral points earned by capitalism increase if there’s at least some moral value (as there surely is) to individuals being free to choose how to spend their own money and structure their own business and employment arrangements absent government dictates.

Indeed, capitalism should earn yet additional moral points from the Pope, given his insistence that “all of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” No institution in history comes close to capitalism’s success at inspiring multitudes of strangers, from different countries and with different talents, to cooperate for the betterment of humanity and of the natural environment.

The production and distribution of the very encyclicals in which Francis criticizes capitalism are capitalist achievements. They require the efforts of tree farmers (perhaps in Germany), of paper-mill workers (perhaps in Slovenia), of ink producers (perhaps in Canada), and of printers (perhaps in Italy). And each of these suppliers relies upon countless delivery vehicles (perhaps made in Japan), investors (perhaps in New York), insurers (perhaps in London) and designers of computer hardware (perhaps in China) and software (perhaps in Seattle).

A true marvel of capitalism is its continual weaving together of the efforts of billions of individuals from around the world into a unified global economy, with each person — as producer and as consumer — more free than under any other economic system to choose just how to participate. This process is peaceful, stupendously productive and requires no commands issued by any overseeing strongman or politburo.

This is just the beginning of that argument, to be sure, but the point bears repeating. Even capitalism’s easily perceived “practical benefits” ought to be enough to get us started. Instead, they are shrugged off or bypassed as positive ends rooted in sinister means.

Capitalism is, of course, just a system. It is a remarkable system, but as with any human structure, sin will remain. We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, and thus, the basic act of buying milk can sometimes, well, turn sour. But that doesn’t mean we rail against the basic liberty and systems that enable such transactions to take place, which is all that capitalism aims to do. To do so, particularly as one travels and publishes and consumes, causes a dissonance I cannot fathom.

If the Pope wishes to attack greed, blind consumerism, exploitation, and the “idolatry of money,” that’s a battle we should all join. But if he prefers to blame “markets” or “capitalism,” he’d do well to either start the moral argument where it begins or place the target where it actually belongs.

That, or just stop going to the grocery store.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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