Pope Francis has been in the news lately with blistering criticisms of capitalism. According to a New York Times‘ article:
Pope Francis does not just criticize the excesses of global capitalism. He compares them to the “dung of the devil.” He does not simply argue that systemic “greed for money” is a bad thing. He calls it a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves men and women.” “In Fiery Speeches, Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism,” July 11, 2015
As far as SLL knows, the Pope has never defined the capitalism he condemns, so SLL will do it for him. Here is the definition from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production, and the distributions of good that are determined mainly in a free market.” It’s not a perfect definition, it omits the term “voluntary exchange,” but voluntary exchange is the necessary foundation of free markets so this definition will suffice. Importantly, the definition notes that economic decisions are made by “private decision rather than by state control.”
Those are the two choices: private decisions or state control, in other words, freedom or coercion. This choice is obscured or ignored by capitalism’s enemies and many of its so-called supporters. Capitalism is the economics of freedom, but while freedom is a necessary condition for capitalism, it is not sufficient. The legitimate function of government and its exercise of coercive power is to protect individual freedom: the freedoms to think and express one’s self, to produce and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, to voluntarily exchange one’s production and property, and the freedom of one’s person and property from violence or the threat of violence, either domestic crime or external invasion.
Freedom has not been embraced by an institution whose stock in trade since its founding has been telling people what to do. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Catholic Church became the dominant institution in Europe. For several centuries apostasy, or even questioning church dogma, was punishable by excommunication, torture, or death. The Catholic Church was a state, coexisting with secular states and, because of its religious authority, in many respects superior to such states. Popes and clergy invested rulers, launched crusades, fought wars, involved themselves with palace intrigues, subversion and revolution, rewarded allies, persecuted enemies, taxed the populace, and accumulated wealth and power. It was the vast gulf between what the Catholic aristocracy preached and what it did that outraged Martin Luther, ignited the Reformation, and embroiled Europe in religious wars.
The Reformation, Gutenberg’s printing press, the Renaissance, and the discovery of the New World brought the Middle Ages, aptly termed the Dark Ages, and the primacy of the Catholic Church to a close. It remained a powerful institution, but it was challenged by the Renaissance’s spirit of scientific inquiry—epitomized by its persecution of Galileo—the Enlightenment rejection of autocracy and promotion of individual rights, and the emergence of capitalism, championed by Adam Smith and adopted, albeit not completely, by the leaders of England’s breakaway colony in the New World.
The Catholic Church’s power dwindled. While Catholicism promised salvation for the faithful in the hereafter, capitalism delivered the goods, so to speak, in this life. In the 48-year period between the Civil War and WWI, when the US got as close to laissez-faire capitalism as any country has ever been, before or since, it realized more technological, industrial, scientific, and economic progress than Europe had experienced during the Dark Ages.
It is malignant sophistry to say that that progress did not reach the lower strata of society, the poor and downtrodden for whom the church professes concern. Millions of Emma Lazarus’s tired, poor, huddled masses, the wretched refuse of teeming shores, streamed to America, the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, in search of freedom, opportunity, and a better life, and found them. Some of them were motivated by “greed for money” and made fortunes. The US and its fortune-seeking capitalists, many of whom then became fortune-dispensing philanthropists, improved the temporal lives of more people than the Catholic Church had during the entirety of its existence. Capitalism is responsible for creating an entirely new class, the middle class. Pope Francis recently admitted he had, in his preoccupation with the gap between rich and poor, overlooked the middle class, perhaps because it is a such an obvious consequence of the capitalism he maligns.
In the New World, Latin America—where the Catholic church forcibly maintained a dominance for which Pope Francis recently apologized—mostly failed to realize the benefits of capitalism. Aside from anarchy, the alternative to liberty and its concomitant, capitalism, is statism and its concomitant, coercion. Latin America has had all varieties of the latter, with right- and left-wing dictatorships at the extremes and kleptocratic, corrupt, welfare-state regimes of no consistent ideology occupying the middle ground.
Pope Francis wades into enraptured crowds of Latin American poor. It is statism, not capitalism, that has produced their poverty, as he should know from the history of his native Argentina. Its economy reached its zenith in the early 1900s, when it was the world’s tenth wealthiest by per capita income and came as close as it ever has to capitalism. Since then, a succession of repressive autocrats have led it through multiple recessions, depressions, inflations, deflations, currency devaluations and revaluations, debt binges, debt repudiations, corruption, and scandals. The tenure of current president Christina Fernández de Kirchner parallels that of another female Argentinian president, Isabel Perón. Kirchner presides over an economic basket case, but like Evita galvanizes her impoverished supporters with expressions of love, promises of bounty, and demonization of her opponents. Argentina’s long run of problems cannot be laid at the doorstep of capitalism.
The Pope has made his feelings about capitalism clear. It’s inconceivable that he would support anarchy; by default he must believe the solution to poverty and the inequality of wealth he decries lies with governments and coercion. There is a tendency among those who have criticized him to nevertheless give him the benefit of the doubt: he cares about the poor, he just doesn’t understand how the world works or what is the best way to help them. However, if he is going to label the supposed excesses of global capitalism the “dung of the devil,” he has an obligation to correctly label the system he is condemning.
There is not an economy in the world that is unfettered capitalism; they run a gamut from mixed economies characterized by varying levels of state intervention and private activity to totalitarian command economies. Statists have long misattributed perceived economic flaws to capitalism rather than governments and used such misattributions as an argument for more government intervention, which produces more problems, which means more government. If Pope Francis does not have the time or inclination to analyze the relative responsibility of governments versus private, profit driven businesses and entrepreneurs for income inequality, environmental degradation, and other perceived ills, he should keep his mouth shut.
The Pope ignores capitalism’s history of lifting masses of impoverished people from their poverty, including the recent ascension of hundreds of millions in Asia as China and India make incremental moves away from state economic control towards private economic activity and freer markets. Any honest humanitarian looking for the best way to alleviate poverty would enthusiastically embrace capitalism; it has a far better record than statist systems, which have produced more poverty than they’ve ever alleviated. This Pope, unlike some of his predecessors, ignores the wholesale misery and slaughter visited upon the world by statist regimes. That gets us back to the underlying fundamentals of capitalism versus statism: liberty protected by government versus coercion and control.
Pope Francis condemns love of money, but not love of power. Power stems from the ability to initiate force against unarmed victims, Mao’s gun barrel. If, as Catholic doctrine holds, everyone is a sinner from day one, how can some of us be trusted to hold a gun to the rest of us? The short answer: no one can be so trusted, such power corrupts all imperfect humans. It would seem only natural, consonant with church teachings, that Pope Francis would thus be deeply skeptical of state power and champion capitalism’s mutual consent and voluntary exchange. Capitalism has bestowed a cornucopia of benefits and dramatic improvements in standards of living. The statist, collectivist love of power has produced multiple houses of horrors, most recently the twentieth century’s.
Liberty, voluntary exchange, mutual consent, and the protection of property and contract rights secure individuals’ sovereignty over their own minds, bodies, and souls, the freedom to pursue their own interests. That is the real crux of the animus directed at capitalism—liberty’s economics—from proponents of both statism and religion. The Pope will never say that his condemnation of capitalism is a condemnation of individual autonomy, nor that it is an embrace of statist collectivism and coercion. Those, however, are the choices. Unfortunately, history has never moved in a straight line forward. A general embrace of his ideology would be a giant step backward. Justice requires accountability for one’s ideas, and Pope Francis is not being held to account. His vision is not the road to salvation, any more than Lenin’s, Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s were. It is the road to a not-at-all-subtle dictatorship that will “condemn and enslave men and women.” The Pope would see us in a collectivized hell on earth—a new Dark Ages—and the Catholic Church once again reigning supreme over the misery.
In closing, a quote from The Golden Pinnacle:
“Balzac wrote, ‘Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.’ Unfortunately, for most of human history, that statement has been correct. The savers and the innovators have had their labors plundered by their rulers or their priests. The kings acquired their fortunes through the outright theft of taxation or the stealth theft of debasement of the store of value. The holy men acquired theirs through blackmail—ostracism, damnation, and death awaited those who did not render unto the gods’ representatives here on earth. You can bet that the day after Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple the priests invited them back in, because without the ‘contributions’ they extracted from the moneychangers, who performed a useful and productive function, the priests couldn’t survive.”