For the sixth time since having been elected Pope nine months ago, Pope Francis criticized the “free market.” Evangelii Gaudium, or the Joy of the Gospel, was the title of an apostolic exhortation that he wrote in late November 2013 in which he criticized “unrestrained capitalism.” The pontificate believes that the free market is the “golden calf” of mercilessness and the oppression of the poor, the idolatry of which makes people forget about the poor.
One should say outright that statements made by high hierarchs about science and economics are risky. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian theologian, wrote that unqualified opinions expressed by Christians about scientific topics arouses mistrust towards them, and this mistrust then extends to the Bible that they preach.
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” wrote Augustine.
The Pope speaks about a “new tyranny” which, according to him, deepens poverty, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Even though no one doubts the generous motives of the Pope, statistics contradict his words. Poverty is not increasing, on the contrary, it is decreasing. Over the period of the past 25 years, more people overcame poverty than the total number of people that existed in the world in 1800. Salvation for the poor came with the introduction of competition.
In 1990, some 43% of the population of the developing world lived in extreme poverty; in 2000 this ratio had deceased by one-third. By 2010, the number of the extremely poor had halved.
The free market was the only salvation for the poor. In this light, the Pope’s opinion that “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” comes across as little more than cheap populism for many.
The nature of the free market today is indeed a much debated thing. The USA, generally viewed as the symbol of the free market, has introduced 81,883 regulations concerning the market over the past 200 years. Whilst it may be true that the market should be regulated to a greater or lesser extent, it is certainly not “uncontrolled” as the Pope likes to portray it.
Moreover, today the U.S. government distributes 40% of wealth, whereas it distributed only 7% a century ago. The bulk of this wealth comes from the very rich and is spent on such important spheres as defense, the construction of roads, health care and education… It was precisely the richest 1%, whose money is so loathed, that received 19% of total income in 2010 and paid 38% of the total profit tax; the richest 10%, meanwhile, paid 70% of the total profit tax. Perhaps the rich should pay more or less tax to the budget, but the share of their contribution is certainly higher than the Biblical tenth.
We should not expect miracles from the free market. We should not expect miracles at all. When it comes to the economy we must strive for that which is better and reasonable, and not that which is wishful and unattainable. The essence of a functional market is that no specific result is inevitable and the winners are not announced in advance. The market must create opportunities within the boundaries of which it is possible to make a choice. On this market those “wielding economic power” have to work on a daily basis in order to prove that they are competent.
Poverty is an unfulfilled liability for mankind. This is a fact. We need wealth and the greatest engine for creating this wealth is the free market. With increased productivity and decreased prices on goods, the market naturally assists the rich, but it assists the poor to an even greater extent. “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist of providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls,” observed Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist and political scientist.
In reality, capitalism is not based on the principle of saving the “fittest.” Quite the contrary, it stimulates competition among producers so that consumers do not have to compete for goods in shortage. In 1900, it required an average of an hour’s work for a worker in the West to earn enough to buy a liter and a half of milk. In 1930, he/she was able to earn enough money for that amount of milk in half an hour, whereas today this would take only a few minutes.
If all the profits of the rich in America were handed over to workers, notes American economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, the workers would only be 30 percent better off, “but over the last two centuries we’ve become 3,000 percent better off.”
The Pope’s criticism is wide of the mark. If we look at the realities of the modern world we can see that no countries exist with absolutely autonomous markets. For example, in the majority of countries in Western Europe, governments control 40% of their respective Gross Domestic Products. In many developing countries this percentage is way higher. In several countries government regulations are so numerous that they create problems in terms of the rule of law. Consequently, it becomes unclear what share of the economy should be put into the hands of governments in order to save the poor from poverty.
In his Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope rails against those who “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.” However, no one, save a narrow circle of anarcho-capitalists, shares this idea. It is one thing to advocate for decreasing state bureaucracy and concentrating less money in its hands, and another thing entirely to deny any form of regulation. The absolute majority of supporters of the free market are not anarcho-capitalists.
Pope Francis has a generous heart and has displayed modesty, which gained him popularity in a short span of time, but his voice will become more respected if it is based on facts. He was previously the Archbishop of the poor in his native Argentina and it is clear that in such a position he constantly witnessed the huge gap between the rich and the poor. However, the problem is not capitalism in Argentina and Latin America; these are countries dominated by corruption, protectionism and the total degradation of ownership rights. And when the right to private ownership is not protected and the role of the state is constantly increasing, of course, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
Even though the Pope is mistaken, it is not necessary for all other Catholics to follow his lead and become mistaken too. The attitudes of Pope Francis cannot transform the 2000-year-old institution of the Papacy into a socialist commune as there are simply no Catholic teachings as to how much income tax should be. Catholics are not obliged to trust the Pope in economic issues, particularly when statistical data presents a different picture. Pope Francis is only one representative among the many popes that have run the Catholic Church; each has had diverse opinions and attitudes as well as their own social doctrines and visions. Over the centuries these visions have tended to lean towards the political right.
Starting from Pope Leo XIII (whose pontificate lasted from 1878-1903), the Catholic social doctrine was based on the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, private initiatives, charity and social efforts are superior to the functioning of the state to distribute wealth. After the distribution of the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, popes have fought for a weakening of state power. They wanted to expel as much bureaucracy from the private sector as possible and, where its functioning was not a necessity, to have society assume that function. With the aim of making the poor better off, volunteerism and charity were seen as superior methods to the taxation of the rich. The Vatican has always regarded the functions of Caesars with skepticism.
The Church of Rome, as a historical institution of huge experience, knows Caesars full well. Who better can understand that there are no leaders perfect enough to trust with devising a “better distribution of income.” It is impossible to achieve social equality and paradise in this earthly life. We may live in a better world, may achieve equality before the law, but we will never live in a perfect world where everything is redistributed “equally” and “fairly.”
“Now it’s your turn to be part of the loyal opposition,” that is what conservative Catholics have now been told by their leftist co-religionists; those who have long cherished leftist ideas that are different from the Vatican’s official position. However, their trust in the Catholic Church stands higher than in the opinions of the Pope. Regardless of the fact that Catholic social doctrine was, and remains, rightist to date, the leftists have never felt themselves to be second rate members of the Church.
There is now a Pope with leftist views sitting in the Vatican for the first time since the 19th century. This unexpected lean towards the left after the greatest conservative and traditionalist Pope Benedict is painfully notable. But this does not mean that the St. Peter’s Basilica is now occupied by a Marxist Antipope. Catholics cannot hold a different position on abortion or euthanasia, but they can take any such stance on the death penalty, the economy and science that they deem to be most appropriate. In the belief of the Church, the eternal truth of Christ is not endangered by anything until earthly opinions acquire the status of dogma. Such a thing occurring would, however, be impossible in a place where Pope Francis extends his thanks to conservatives for their criticisms of his opinions. As for the rightist Catholics, they will have to live in rebellious obedience of Francis’s pontificate.