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The Pope and Capitalism


Pope Francis offered his judgment on modern capitalism in his 50,000 word address, Evangelii Gaudium:

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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Kevin Williamson responded with  The Problems of Selfishness in The National Review Online.


As the chief executive of the largest and most successful institution in human history, Pope Francis naturally takes an institutionalist view of things; like all of his predecessors, at least so far as I am aware, he fails to appreciate that the actual result of the free-market economy is not to transfer power away from states to corporations but from states and corporations to people. The “truly human purpose” he seeks may be found in many millions of households in poor countries, where bellies are more full and roofs more secure than they were a generation ago, owing mainly to the expansion of global trade. The pope writes that it is an error to believe that “economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” This is true. But then, neither will the building of churches, legislatures, or courthouses. People still have to be good. But it is easier to feed the Lord’s sheep where food is plentiful.

The pope is a very good man, and what very good men have in common with very bad men is that they tend to assume that the world is full of men who are similar to themselves. Thus, his rhetorical reliance upon “states, charged with vigilance for the common good,” an aspirational sentiment rather than a factual statement. States should act in the public good, but there is that problem of selfishness, which everybody sees in the market but overlooks in politics.

Political self-interest is no less selfish than is economic self-interest, and states have something more dangerous than even the most ruthless operator in a free market: coercion. Pope Francis might consider the case of President Obama, whose vision of the public good includes millions of federally subsidized abortions, and ask himself whether “vigilance for the common good” explains what politics is or what he wishes it were. The longstanding Catholic skepticism of economic liberalism is one of the last remnants of the Church’s skepticism of liberalism in toto, Rome having given up explicit denunciations of things such as the freedom of conscience (cf. Ubi Primum) some time ago.

It is natural that a man who sees the world the way Barack Obama sees it would view all power relationships as zero-sum: If somebody else gets a little more power, he has a little less. But there is no reason for Pope Francis to take that view. If ever the Church’s economic thinkers get over their 19th-century model of the relationship between state and market, they might appreciate that spontaneous orders and distributed economic forces could produce some truly radical outcomes in a world in which a billion or more people shared a vision of justice and mercy. The pope’s job in part is to supply that vision; unhappily, the default Catholic position seems to be delegating economic justice to the state, under the mistaken theory that its ministers are somehow less selfish than are the men who build and create and trade for a living rather than expropriate. Strange that a man who labored under the shadow of Perón has not come to that conclusion on his own.

The Pope’s criticism of capitalism was also retorted by economist Greg Mankiw as noted in Carpe Diem:

1. Throughout history, free-market capitalism has been a great driver of economic growth, and as my colleague Ben Friedman has written, economic growth has been a great driver of a more moral society.

2. “Trickle-down” is not a theory but a pejorative used by those on the left to describe a viewpoint they oppose.  It is equivalent to those on the right referring to the “soak-the-rich” theories of the left.  It is sad to see the pope using a pejorative, rather than encouraging an open-minded discussion of opposing perspectives.

3. As far as I know, the pope did not address the tax-exempt status of the church.  I would be eager to hear his views on that issue. Maybe he thinks the tax benefits the church receives do some good when they trickle down.


The Catholic church grew for centuries in partnership with a feudal society that dispersed power from family lineage and hard statist rule.  This power structure was largely threatened by capitalism, its recognition of individual rights and its allocation of resources based on market forces.  Capitalism relegated both economic and political power to those the church could not control.

Is the inequality the Pope finds so objectionable less now than it was under the feudal society the Catholic church supported for so long?  The more functional question is whether equality is such a noble end that we should sacrifice economic growth for it, and if so how much.  The poorest nations have the greatest economic equality.  Are the people under the capitalist system he condemns better off under the alternate political systems tried in Russia, Communist China, Venezuela, Cuba, etc?

There are several political continuums to describe the political debate: liberal to conservative, individual rights to the collective or to state power, capitalism to socialism, or pragmatism to ideology.  But perhaps the most telling is the continuum from economic self interest to political self interest.

The characteristics of selfishness do not disappear when we bestow greater power on the state. One has only to note the incredible increase in the number of the one percenters in the  nation’s capital in the last few years to recognize this.

There is much to criticize about capitalism until you examine the outcome of the alternatives.

The core difference in the conservative and liberal views of man is that the conservatives accept the imperfection of man and builds restraints into the system.  The more liberal view is that man and his society can be perfected even if it requires force to subdue his nature.  The imperfections of man apply as much to the political sphere as to the economic; a point that is not recognized by Pope Francis  and others who feel the state is the key to salvation.

Milton Friedman noted the problem with political self interest in this classic  interview with Phil Donahue:

And Margaret Thatcher noted the importance of the balance of equality and growth in this throw down in the British Parliament.

Would the Pope rather have the poor poorer if it also made the rich poorer as well?  The Pope is wrong in his assessment of capitalism and the power of his pulpit gives his opinion great power.  One should remember the last century in Europe and how the state handled the power he so profoundly and morally protects.

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What Would Jesus Really Say?

It is interesting to note the response to  the president invoking the name of Jesus to justify higher taxes on the wealthier Americans.  It seems that those who act horrified at the use of Christian references in the political discourse when invoked from the right are suddenly quiet when such references are used to justify their own ideology.

Aside from the fact that America is home to many religions that do not worship Jesus, this is the worst kind of political pandering.  Does the pro-choice crowd really want to invoke Jesus to justify their position? How would they like it when the pro-life crowd uses the same justification as Obama to justify his confiscatory policy?

Would Jesus approve of taking money from families to reward political donors with tax money to invest in failed solar projects?  Would Jesus distinguish between voluntary act of one giving his own money to help the needy as opposed to politicians taking it to spend as they wish?  Would Jesus assume that all money spent by government is spent wisely, as opposed to how one would spend their own money?

To assume that all government expense benefits man while those who create the wealth do not is naïve and ignorant. In fact the very way that the government tries to help the poor does little to truly help them.  We have spent trillions to help the poor, yet their number seems to increase.  Perhaps there is better way to help them?

Those in government sell you on their altruism but their stock in trade is power.  Congressmen use their office to enrich themselves , to use inside information, and pay themselves far greater amounts than  those who pay their taxes are able to earn.  Those who advocate government aid the most give the least from their own pocket.  Biden’s charitable contributions should be embarrassing to any leader.  They use the poor as a tool to gather power and riches for themselves.

I wonder what Jesus would say about that?

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The Narcissism of Minor Differences

Bloodlust by Russell Jacoby is a tour of the roots of violence from biblical through modern times.  The essence of the book is that it is not those that are different that pose the greatest threat, but those that are similar.  Since Cain and Abel those who acted most violently against us were those only slightly different.

One can examine the violence between the Sunnis and the Shias in the middle east.  They both accept the basic tenets of Islam but often fight violently over their visions.  The Catholics and Protestants, two Christian sects, battled for centuries in Ireland.  The Puritan and Huguenots were brutalized by other Christian sects in Europe. More died from the hands of other Christian sects in Europe than from the Muslim invaders of the eighth century. Few people can identify a Hutsi from a Tutsi in Rwanda, but that did not stop a horrible slaughter.  Our own Civil War, our bloodiest so far, pitted brother against brother.

There were other factors besides ethnic and religious differences, but these lay at the core and seemed most evident as sides were drawn.

Perhaps this explains why assimilation did not protect the Jews in Europe. It seemed that the more they tried to be like their Christian hosts the more violent reaction became to them.  Again it was the slightly different that caused the biggest reaction; the remaining differences, rather than the similarities weighed heavier.

America certainly had its history of violence and not all of it can be explained by “this narcissism of minor differences”, but we have evolved to a point of acceptance of differences that makes us very different.  Ancestors of slaves are now elected to the highest offices; women have gone from the kitchens to leadership positions in public and private offices.  Widespread anti-Semitism, with roots that were centuries old in Europe, never took root here. While slavery was a blot on our history, what other country paid so heavily to eliminate it?

And perhaps this explains the bitter partisanship of our political world. While there are fundamental freedoms we nearly all agree upon there are a few critical distinctions that amplify our differences. But our political differences are less and less defined by ethnic and religious differences, with a few exceptions and more defined by economic consideration.  Whether you have a 401k or shop at Walmart is often more of a determinant of political leaning than race or sex.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment or exceptionalism of the United States is the incredible luxury to be able to identify our differences based on ideas rather than blood and tribe.


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Rebelyid on the Cordoba House Mosque

The zoning of the Mosque is an issue for the city.  We may have an opinion, but it is a local zoning issue.

We either have religious tolerance or we do not.  We either believe in freedom of religion or we do not. We cannot be just a little bit pregnant here. If that site was used to build a church or a synagogue would we have heard a peep? If the answer is no then we are being clearly discriminatory.

Either we hold all Muslims accountable for the action of the few on 9/11 or we do not.  If we do not hold all Muslims accountable then the Mosque should present no dilemma.  If the 9/11 terrorists were all Christian would we hold all Christians accountable?  I hesitate to ask the same question if the terrorists were Jews, because I fear many would hold all Jews accountable.

Much of the language surrounding the Mosque controversy has crossed the bounds of prejudice.  Many of us only hear of Muslims when the news involves terrorist attacks or acts of violence.  Too many seem unaware that moderate Muslims even exist. Examples are Fareed Zakaria and Irshad Manji.  We have allowed the news to feed our prejudices.

Irshad Manji

Newt Gingrich’s analogy is shameful. To compare building a Mosque in New York to Nazis building a memorial at Auschwitz is both morally and intellectually fraudulent.  To suggest that we will allow the Mosque when the Saudis allow churches and synagogues is pure demagoguery. Are we to set our standards by the most repressive examples?  Are we to lead by principle or follow by spite?

Newt Gingrich

A far better analogy was when the Carmelite nuns wanted to build a monastery near Auschwitz and the Jews were offended that another religion would try to usurp what they now considered holy ground. The Pope deferred to the sensitivity of the Jews and pressured the nuns to relocate which they did. The difference is that no single religion is claiming ground zero to be theirs.  Ground Zero is American.

Nuns at Auschwitz

George Bush chose to lead. When 9/11 hit he quickly cautioned America not to hold all Muslims accountable for the actions of a few. Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie understands this.  But clearly many other Republicans do not.

If this building goes forth the next act should be to clear the way for the rebuilding of the St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox Church that was destroyed on 9/11 across the street from the site.

St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox Church before it was destroyed on 9/11

Muslims have a PR problem and many would consider it deserved.  Yes it would be wise to understand the funding sources for this undertaking, but once again we would never ask such from another religious group.  The Muslim religion has a problem that only they can solve.  We can either choose to be open and support the moderate elements or side against the entire religion.

While we are certainly sensitive to the feelings of the victims and their families,  should this have priority over basic principles and local law?

Perhaps this situation should be defused by relocating, but the damage done by the extreme rhetoric on this issue will continue.  It is amazing how many Muslims scholars I have found on Twitter with  the #tcot (top conservative on Twitter) hash tag.  I have learned that Muslims build churches where they have conquered.  Haven’t all churches done this? I have yet to find a bible that could not be used to sanction violence or intolerance in a mind already so predisposed.

Muslims have a real problem confronting and delegitimizing their radical elements.  We do not help them by trying to delegitimize their entire religion.

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A Different Standard

When critics of Israel are labeled anti-Semitic, the question arises, “when is criticism of Israel not anti-Semitic?”

Alan Dershowitz answered this question as clearly as it can be;  it is anti-Semitic when you hold Israel to a standard that you would hold no one else to.  It becomes a prejudice when you hold one group to a standard you would expect no one else to bear.

The opposition to the Cordoba House or Ground Zero Mosque has crossed that line.  Yes, yes I know we are addressing the sensibility of the issue to the families and the greater community of those lost at Ground Zero; we are not addressing the rights of the Muslims to worship as they please or build mosques anywhere else.  And yes I realize that many Muslims also oppose the location because they fear it is making relations worse when the stated purpose is to make them better.

And yes I realize Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the project has raised points, even when the wounds of 9/11 were fresh that were very discomforting at best, patently offensive to many.  But tolerance is not about tolerating only comfortable positions.

But in the voicing of our objections are we not holding American Muslims to a different standard?  Do we hold all Muslims accountable for the actions of the most radical 7% to use Charles Krauthammer’s number, even if that number equals eighty million worldwide?  Should we even hold them accountable if the percentage were higher? Either we do or we do not.

Would we be raising objections if the center were for a Hindu or Buddhist center?  If not then we are holding them to a different standard.

Muslims have a very real problem addressing their radical element.  Yet this monumental problem is not likely to be solved outside of their religion.  We can either support their moderate elements or alienate their entire religion.

Yes, we should respect the feelings of the Ground Zero community and on that issue it would be better to relocate the Mosque.  But we should tread cautiously with our rationale, for if we choose to hold any group to a different standard our own standards become suspect.