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A polite rebuke of Pope Francis’ economic confusion

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Review of Pope Francis and the Caring Society, edited by Robert M. Whaples; The Independent Institute, Oakland, CA; 2017, 234 pp.

Having toiled in the free-market research universe for nearly two decades, perhaps the most common misperception I’ve encountered is “whataboutism.” Readers know of which I write: “What about BP and Deepwater Horizon?” or “What about Enron?” and, perhaps most stridently, “What about the mortgage-lending industry’s complicity in causing the Great Recession?” When this rhetorical strafing fails, there’s always the “What about the poor?” and the “What about the environment?” macro-strategies.

What the above interrogatives completely ignore is free-markets invite both predominantly good and too-often bad behavior. In short, free-markets operate as a social phenomenon not as an abstraction. This observation seems to have eluded even some of the world’s most intelligent individuals, including Pope Francis. Such is the conclusion respectfully and respectively drawn by the contributors to Pope Francis and the Caring Society, a nifty and concise primer on economics, free-market principles and Roman Catholic obligations to nurture the poor and Planet Earth.

Editor Robert M. Whaples has performed a necessary service by offering this collection of seven essays. Not only are there essays by Acton’s own Samuel Gregg, but as well an introduction and conclusion authored by Whaples and foreword by none other than one of the guiding spirits of the contemporary Catholic economic enlightenment, the late Michael Novak. Other contributors include Philip Booth; Allan C. Carson; Gabriel X. Martinez; Lawrence J. McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park; Robert P. Murphy; A.M.C. Waterman; and Andrew M. Yuengert.

With little overlap, each author proceeds from the premise that the free-market concept isn’t an “ism” in the first place. It’s not an ideology that requires blind allegiance. Neither does free-market imply an inherent defense of any given business or industry. Instead, free-market is a set of principles predicated on less is more. Less as in: Less government interference and concomitant less business cronyism with government. More as in: Increased personal freedom, overall prosperity and mutual cooperation.

Results will vary based on human competence and virtue among other inputs, and the authors assembled together by Whaples acknowledge this freely. Obviously, rapacious greed and environmental indifference are moral wrongs as are practices that ignore the plight of employees, their families and the greater communities in which they live. In this regard, they are in agreement with Pope Francis. As noted by Michael Novak: “The image of the poor and humble Christ is brought to the fore wherever Francis goes. But I am worried whether he has a very good theory for how you get the poor out of poverty. And the main practical task of our generation is breaking the last round of chains of ancient poverty.”

Too often it seems the answer Novak is hinting at is what many critics of the free-market discern as shorthand for unfettered capitalism. Not so, writes Whaples in his Introduction (and as anyone reader familiar with Jesse Eisinger’s The Chickensh!t Club about the finance and mortgage industries fiasco can attest). Whaples performs the calculations necessary to depict capitalism objectively and free from ideological shorthand. Of the 11 advantages of capitalism listed by Whaples, two that deserves prominence for Christians in general and Catholics specifically are: “Capitalism enables greater philanthropy and charity. It makes us richer so we can and do give away more to those in need” and “Capitalism makes people wealthy enough to demand improvements in environmental quality and to create technologies to solve these problems – in the most significant ways (for example, the air we breathe), the environment is cleaner in the richest countries.”

Conversely, Whaples presents 13 downsides of capitalism, including Number Eight: “Capitalism often panders to our worst nature. Advertisements focus on whatever is cool and whatever sells (especially sex), a focus that permeates and degrades society. It enables people to buy bad things for bad reasons.” And Number Six: “Capitalism encourages and feeds on envy.” It should be noted Whaples also notes capitalism’s tendency for such corruption as cronyism as well as plagued by booms and busts.

Within the essays are nuanced readings of Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, his epistle Laudato si and the writings of his papal predecessors. While acknowledging Pope John Paul II as a champion of free markets, Yuengert warns subsequent champions not to overstate his enthusiasm.

[H]e did not represent a rupture with the tradition of previous popes. He did not abandon the Catholic tradition’s insistence that the market cannot be left to operate autonomously, with the state doing no more than guaranteeing property rights and enforcing contracts. He accepted both the promise and the limits of the market: “It would appear that … the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs…. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market.

Yuengert continues – and is supported by Gregg’s potent analysis in a subsequent essay – that Francis’ views derive from his experiences with a capitalism that was only nominally free market.

Francis is the first pope from the developing world and the first from Latin America. His immediate predecessors, all native Europeans, experienced functioning markets within societies that constrained those markets and provided labor protection and safety nets. It is not surprising that a Latin American from a small economy in a global market, burdened by external debt and cursed with poor economic management, might see the market as an oppressive force rather than as an engine of growth.

Gregg notes that Francis’ views are colored by parochial concerns in Argentina:

Although John Paul II did critique a form of capitalism, Centisimus annus (1991) made it clear that capitalism properly understood was not simply an economic system that worked better from the standpoint of utility but also part and parcel of a free society and an arena in which people could realize important virtues. On a moral level, by contrast [the future Pope Francis, in his 1998 book, Dialogue entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro,] appeared to see fewer redeeming features in a capitalist economic system and to be more skeptical of the market economy’s capacity to create real opportunities for human flourishing.

Time and space, unfortunately, limit this discussion to the above tiny sampling of the wealth of economic and faith-based wisdom between the covers of Pope Francis and the Caring Society. The authors go to great lengths to defend Pope Francis while gently but firmly explaining to him – and by extension other readers of this slight but significant tome – that informed debate in the realm of faith and economics should be polite while at the same time edifying.

It is also a reminder to free-market advocates to abjure mindless ideological arguments while at the same time ignoring the empirical facts experienced by others. The divide between those who agree wholeheartedly with Pope Francis’ reservations regarding capitalism and those who embrace free markets as not only an invisible but as well a magical hand is a knowledge-based gap. Bridging that gap requires patience, education, honesty and compromise from both sides, which makes Pope Francis and the Caring Society a must-read for anyone seeking to further reduce world poverty through the virtuous creation of wealth.

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Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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