In an earlier post, I already set out my own attitude of humility before the pope’s encyclical. I recognize the respect due both his office and his tremendous personal learning. There is no question that what the pope has said about the nature of truth is stupendously good.
In that post, I expressed a degree of unease with some of the economic thought, at least as I perceived it, in the encyclical. Looking it over again, here are the parts (more than any others) that cause me the most trouble:
In section 32:
The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone (italics original to the document).
And then just a little further:
Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth distribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development.
Now, when I read those parts of the document, I recognize a type of thinking about the economy that I would typically associate with western Europe and pre-Thatcherite Britain. At least, it is possible to interpret the document in that fashion. When I think about prioritizing “the goal of access to steady employment for everyone” I contemplate the kind of worker security initiatives that slowly bankrupted General Motors or government programs that subsidize anti-productive schemes for workers as a class.
I may be guilty of reading too much into the words I’ve selected because I know the pope is a western European accustomed to exactly the brand of economics which gives rise to my concern.
The great question, of course, is what does the pope mean when he says we must provide access to steady employment? Does he mean that we should educate citizens and provide a culture that gives individuals initiative and the desire to be productive so they will be worth employing? Or does he mean that we should attempt great governmental schemes of guaranteed employment for working age people? Or does he mean both? Or something else entirely? I’m not sure we can know because the pope says the church does not offer technical solutions.
And when he writes about protecting the rights of workers and retaining mechanisms of wealth redistribution it is difficult to imagine he is referring to any action of the free market. But again, it is difficult to say because he is purposefully vague. What I keep thinking is that some of those mechanisms could be exactly the things preventing a nation from attaining greater prosperity. Indeed, that very question is part of why the work of the Acton Institute is important, to make sure that the faithful (particularly seminarians and clergymen) do not assume that collectivist approaches are necessarily better for people.