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An Economics Ode to Joy

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In the weeks since the June 18 release of Laudato Si, the discussion has bifurcated into the realms of prosaic, progressive pantheistic pronouncements that Earth requires tender ministrations post haste on one hand. On the other hand, there are those who assert the encyclical gets it right on the value of protecting human life but miserably wrong when Pope Francis identifies free-market economics as greed’s handmaiden intent on destroying the planet for a quick buck.

Never mind whether you ascribe to theories declaring human activity is causing catastrophic climate change or remain skeptical, your writer is joined by many who stress His Holiness is mistaken on economic matters. I and others such as National Review recognize progressives conveniently ignore whole portions of Laudato Si on human life grounded in Roman Catholic doctrine while embracing Pope Francis’ speculation that pursuit of wealth is akin to the “dung of the devil.”

There is an undeniable majesty to the papacy, one that is politically useful to the Left from time to time. The same Western liberals who abominate the Catholic Church as an atavistic relic of superstitious times and regard its teachings on sexuality as inhumane are celebrating Pope Francis’s global warming encyclical, Laudato Si, as a moral mandate for their cause. So much for that seamless garment.

Pope Francis’ “characteristic line of thought,” writes National Review in its July 20 issue:

[C]ombines an admirable and proper concern for the condition of the world’s poor with a crude and backward understanding of economics and politics both. Any number of straw men go up in flames in this rhetorical auto-da-fe, as the pope frames his concern in tendentious economic terms: “By itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” We are familiar with no free-market thinker, even the most extreme, who believes that “by itself, the market can guarantee integral human development.”

There are any number of players in social life – the family, civil society, the large and durable institution of which the pope is the chief executive – that contribute to human flourishing. The pope is here taking a side in a conflict that, so far as we can tell, does not exist.

Summing up, the editors take issue with Laudato Si’s “neo-Malthusian” message in which Pope Francis “laments ‘technocracy’ and consumption that seems to him ‘extreme.’”

This latter objection strikes us as particularly objectionable: The economic progress of the late 20th century and early 21st century – which is to say, the advance of capitalism – particularly in the areas of agriculture, medicine, and energy, has not so much enabled consumption that is excessive in the rich world as adequate in places such as India and China, where famine, once thought to be a permanent and ordinary part of life, has largely disappeared. This outcome was made possible not by the political oversight of economic activity that the pope contemplates but by its partial abandonment.

The pope’s stridently anti-development vision would be the opposite of a blessing for the world’s poor. Laudato? No.

To which I can only add, quoting the Beatles, it’s getting better all the time. That song’s once-abusive protagonist makes incremental changes to improve his lot. Similarly, humanity has innovated and prospered to the benefit of a large swath of the Earth’s population. Prior to release of his most recent book, The Conservative Heart, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks spoke with the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn last weekend:

When he was a child, Mr. Brooks notes, one of four people lived on less than a dollar a day. Today, though we still have far to go, the advance of trade and a globalized economy has shrunk that figure to one of 20.

The liberation of hundreds of millions from desperate poverty ranks among the greatest success stories in history. But it’s a story that remains largely untold and mostly unheralded. In his new book, The Conservative Heart, Mr. Brooks puts it this way: “Capitalism has saved a couple of billion people and we have treated this miracle like a state secret.”

AEI aims to change that. “We should be shouting it from the rooftops,” he says. “If Beethoven were alive today, he would dedicate the “Ode to Joy” to this miracle. In the very first verse of that poem – which inspired Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – we hear, ‘Beggars become Princes’ brothers!’ If this is so, it is because of free enterprise.

Critics of free markets, says Brooks, “are limited by materialistic assumptions about wealth and its production.” Does this sound like any recent Vatican resident to readers?

Capitalism, [Brooks] insists, succeeds not because it is based on greed, but because the freedom to trade and do business with others is in harmony with our God-given nature. So he has no patience for those who fear the moral argument.

“We need to know Adam Smith who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well we do the Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations,” he says. “Because when you do, you begin to understand we are hardwired for freedom by the same Creator who gave us our inalienable rights.”

Mull that over for a few minutes while you enjoy listening to the glory of Beethoven and the delight of the Beatles. Both capture what the poet William Wordsworth indicated when he wrote the immortal lines in The Prelude: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very Heaven!” while remembering The Who’s adage: “You can dance while your knowledge is growing.” Why must Pope Francis be so pessimistic when all the empirical facts refute the economic claims he makes in Laudato Si?

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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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