Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pope Francis on an Ethical Approach to Economics

In the first Apostolic Exhortation of his Pontificate, “Evangelii Gaudium” (Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis writes about a just economy. His thoughts included this:

“54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about great­er justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. ..” Emphases added.

I think that is correct, and well in line with what previous Popes have said, especially with the qualification "inevitably" properly understood. But what do we do about it? The Holy Father, quite rightly, does not offer specifics. Four sections later he writes

“58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determi­nation and an eye to the future, while not ignor­ing, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of econom­ics and finance to an ethical approach which fa­vours human beings.”

Certainly. But the practical question of how we get to this “ethical approach” remains. The Holy Father is “urging…political leaders… to face this challenge.” That the state should guard the interests of the people is correct. But how do you do that without unfettering the government? Who guards the guardians? Let’s remember the Holy Fathers warning against having “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic (read: political) power.” It’s the oldest conundrum in political philosophy: Who fetters the fetterers?

The scandal of “capitalism” is that, economically, it seems to work. An economic system that encourages men to look after number one, has managed, in spite of itself, to produce a surplus of goods. That these goods are not always distributed justly is another question—and it is the one that concerns the Holy Father--but the surplus is created. One problem, for a Christian, is that an economic system that encourages men to look after number one is quite likely to encourage behaviors that can prevent people from going to Heaven. And the related conundrum for the Church is: an economic system that is quite likely to prevent at least some people from going to Heaven also seems to be the best available means for enacting the “preferential option for the poor”—if by that is meant moving the poor out of material poverty. Before you can give to the poor, you need to have something to give. Despite what the Holy Father wrote, the argument that a “capitalist” economy produces more and better goods than a “socialist” economy seems to me to be empirically verifiable. “Capitalism” although with the enormous glaring flaw just described, seems to work, economically, while “Socialism,” beautifully moral in principle, does not. There is also no evidence that socialism, theoretically moral though it may be, produces more morally upright people. To believe so, to paraphrase the Holy Father, would require “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic (read: political) power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic (read: political) system.” The crimes of socialist regimes when in power: the U.S.S.R., China, the Third Reich, Cambodia are to well known to need repeating.

Towards the beginning of his essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell writes “…Nadezhda Krupskaya, in her little book on Lenin, relates that towards the end of his life Lenin went to see a dramatized version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and found Dickens's 'middle-class sentimentality' so intolerable that he walked out in the middle of a scene.” A little further on, Orwell gives a hint as to why a man like Lenin would find Dickens intolerable “The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places…There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it WERE overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong AS A SYSTEM. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property… His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Emphases in the original.

Pages later, after describing the horrors of industrial age England, Orwell writes that there is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old tyrant, and comes to the conclusion “The central problem–how to prevent power from being abused–remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. 'If men would behave decently the world would be decent' is not such a platitude as it sounds.’” Emphasis added.

So we’re back to where we started, where Plato started where Juvenal started: How do we get men to behave decently without exchanging one set of fetters for another, fetters more permanent because claiming justification and the right to use force from the will of the people. There is not a systemic solution to this, not a capitalist solution, not a socialist solution, because it is a problem at the level of the person. Engaging that problem, the problem of you and me, is exactly the job of the Church.

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