What the Pope Gets Wrong About Capitalism

Pope Francis' first apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), is a beautiful document and a joy to read. I'll leave its theological implications to those who live in the Roman Catholic Church. What's got many people praising the pope today, though, is not his plea for good works but rather his critique of capitalism.

You could always detect a pinch of socialistic seasoning in the church's theological stew. But in this case, the pope doesn't simply point out that the wealthy aren't doing enough to help alleviate poverty. He uses the recognizable rhetoric of the political left to accuse free market systems of generating and nurturing that poverty.

The pope condemns the "new tyranny" of "idolatry of money," reasonably arguing that economic systems should not be accepted with blind faith but also saying that "as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems."

For starters, it's troubling that the pope fails to make any genuine distinction between Western poverty (terrible) and the poverty of the Third World (unimaginably terrible). But is it really true that "absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation" are the driving reasons for poverty and inequality? People in places such as Congo, Burundi and Mozambique live under corrupt authoritarian regimes where crippling poverty has a thousand fathers — none of them named capitalism. The people of Togo do not suffer in destitution because of some derivative scheme on Wall Street or the fallout from a tech IPO.

"While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially," the pope goes on to say, "so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few."

In truth, global inequality has been dropping for years. The World Bank estimates that global poverty was halved from 1990 to 2010. In fact, according to the World Bank, the United Nations' "millennium development goal" of cutting world poverty in half by 2015 came in five years ahead of schedule, despite a major global recession. The decline in poverty coincides, not coincidentally, with developing nations embracing more market-based systems.

Moreover, the pope falls into the trap of conflating inequality and poverty. Some countries enjoy income parity because most citizens are rich, and others do so because most citizens are poor. Put it this way: Egypt, Pakistan and Mongolia all enjoy more economic equality than the United States. The gross domestic product per capita here is $49,800. In Argentina, the pope's homeland, a place where wealth is more fairly distributed, it's $18,200.

Now, no reasonable person believes that any economic system is a cure-all. But how many reasonable people argue that market-based economies — and the underlying morality that drives them — haven't done more to alleviate poverty worldwide than any other system? For the most part, in fact, the more unfettered a nation's economic system is the more prosperous the population becomes and, consequently, the more it spends on charity and safety net programs. When we match up The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom with the World Bank's measure of per capita income, we find that the countries with the most unencumbered systems and the most financial "speculation" usually have the least amount of poverty.

Rather than credit those who do their best to balance this imperfect system that lifts millions out of impoverishment, the pope attacks them for the prevalence of imaginary economic Darwinists who callously keep equality from blooming. "Consequently," these people "reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control," Pope Francis contends.

Any form of control? Really? The Federal Register in this country regularly comes in at more than 60,000 pages. Or, to put it another way, it's longer than all 46 books of the Old Testament, the 27 books of the New Testament and every gospel the Council of Nicaea decided to toss, combined. And the United States, a place teeming with these economic Darwinists, also happens to be one of the most charitable places on the planet — even before we begin counting per capita spending on safety nets.

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  • Live Free or Diet||

    You could always detect a pinch of socialistic seasoning in the church's theological stew.

    Growing up, my father always said where the Church goes Communism follows. And the pattern does appear to hold, at least at a casual look. And why shouldn't it? Church communism goes back to Acts (Luke, scroll 2).

  • The Last American Hero||

    The Church was pretty instrumental in dismantling Communism in the Eastern Bloc. Haters gonna hate.

  • David Wall||

    Jesus' scribes were pretty clear on this:

    Matthew 19:23-26
    Mark 10:24-25
    Luke 18: 24-25

    Jesus did not think much of the rich. He was telling some young rich dude to give up all of his stuff to the poor. Notice he did not ask they guy if he earned his wealth or not, or whether it was ill-gotten gains. Just give it up. That's all Jesus focused on. The religious right never address this, very well do they?

  • OneOut||

    The Bible also chastised one of three servants who didn't invest his master's capital while the master was away. He did give an "atta boy" to the two who did invest and made profits from their investments with their master's money.

    So, what was your point ?

  • David Wall||

    What's your point? The Bible is inconsistent? That's not news.

    The point is Christianity is about self-sacrifice. (Do you know the meaning of the Cross?) Self-sacrifice as a religious philosophy is inconsistent with capitalism. Capitalism is about owning your own life and making the best out of life that you can. My point is about the sanctity of each of our own, individual life and happiness. The Church is agin' it.

  • cavalier973||

    The point is Christianity is about self-sacrifice.

    The point of Christianity is to glorify God through faith in His Son. Eternal life in God's kingdom is the reward for belief, eternal separation from God is the wages of unbelief.

  • MSimon||

    At this point He has billions of sons and daughters. Trouble is no one is writing books about most of them.

  • optimusratiostultum||

    so how do you sacrifice if you have nothing to give? One must earn and create something and then give it away of their own free will in order to sacrifice. It is not sacrifice to give away another's possesions.

    Examine Mitt Romney's tax returns and then Obama's, paying attention to the donation figures, who donated more in both raw numbers and as a percentage of income?

  • John C. Randolph||

    In Jesus' time, anyone who was rich most likely got rich through bloody plunder. Rich merchants didn't really come along until the renaissance.

    -jcr

  • David Wall||

    The Roman Empire created a lot of wealth through trade. Mercantilism was quite strong in many parts of the Roman Empire in Jesus' time. I am not a historian, but I do not think you are either.

    Jesus earned his living--and was paid presumably--as a carpenter as did just about everyone else. Not all wealth was plunder.

    It was not a lesson about justice, that is, giving plunder back that was not earned. If it had been, he would have told the young man to give it back to whom he stole it. The point of Jesus' lesson was wealth = guilt and sin.

  • Black Liberty Unchained||

    The point of the lesson was that in order to be a true disciple of Christ it requires sacrificing what you love and making following him your number one priority. Jesus knew that the young man valued money above all else in life. If the young man had loved a woman like he loved his money then Jesus would have asked him to give up the woman in order to be a disciple. Jesus is not teaching that wealth equals sin.

  • Black Liberty Unchained||

    Forgive me I aware that money is not wealth.

  • David Wall||

    Your argument supports my underlying point more than yours. My underlying point is that capitalism is the one system based upon the sanctity of the individuals life--to do the most with our life and love life to the fullest for the time we have here on earth. That is its everlasting moral underpinning. That should be moralities purpose--to give guidance in how to live a good life. Aristotle was the first philosopher to teach this. Jesus is teaching the young man to sacrifice his life on earth for everlasting life in heaven. It is an appeal to mysticism and irrationality. It is the underlying philosophy of both the Church and the Left. Look at the devastation both have caused. They are both "good" at reaping sacrifices and devastation. Please think about this before using religious arguments to support capitalism. They will fail.

  • cavalier973||

    No, the point of Jesus' lesson is that a guy who asked Him what he needed to do to get into heaven (that is, to enjoy an eternal relationship with God) had to first remove the thing that was keeping him from having a relationship with God.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    JCR,

    Do you have any proof of this? I haven't really investigated it but I'm currently about 85% of the way thru the 1001 Nights and merchants and markets are quite prominent. Of course, this takes place many hundreds of years after Jesus' time but I have the impression that this was going on for a long time.

    ... Hobbit

  • cavalier973||

    Jesus did not think much of the rich.

    Jesus liked the "Rich Young Ruler"

    17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words [a]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.


    Mark 10:17-27
    (emphasis mine)

    Notice, also, that Jesus wasn't going up to rich people and telling them to give up their wealth. This guy came to bug Jesus about what he needed to do to "inherit eternal life", so Jesus told him. It wasn't the wealth itself, though, but the primacy his wealth had in his life. The guy was basically worshipping a false god, and it was the one activity that was keeping him out of God's kingdom.

  • MSimon||

    sell all

    Is he authorized to give market advice? Had the market really peaked?

    And why sell?

  • Trinacria||

    But if wealth is evil, and I give my wealth to someone else, have I not burdened him with evil?

  • SQRLSY One||

    An old geezer friend of mine once told me, that HIS father had told him, “You see that guy on the street corner, yelling ‘share, share, share’??? You can bet your bottom dollar, he does NOT have a pot to piss in!” Limousine liberals to the side, exceptions to the rule… Some things never change!

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Except limousine liberals don't do a whole lot of sharing themselves. When you're genuinely rich, it's surprisingly easy to find ways to shield your wealth and temporally reallocate your earnings.

  • OneOut||

    Obama and Biden both gave virtually nothing before they were elected to the offices they currently hold. Obama has upped his charitable donations since his book royalties increased but Biden is still around 1.5% of his total income.

    Liberals don't give their money, only other's.

  • Free Society||

    Al Gore gave something like a few hundred dollars to charities in 2012. Meanwhile he supports taxing the bejesus out of everyone who earns a living less nobly than he.

  • Homple||

    The Pope knows as much about capitalism as he knows about screwing and ought to keep his yapper shut about both subjects.

  • David Wall||

    No, you are wrong. He knows exactly what he is trying to destroy. You are missing the point.

  • Juice||

    The decline in poverty coincides, not coincidentally, with developing nations embracing more market-based systems.

    Wait. What?

  • Free Society||

    Meaning it's correlation corresponds to causation. Correlation is not necessarily causation.

  • David Wall||

    This article is very uninformed. Mr. Harsanyi assumes the Pope is some reasonable, rational guy. He's the Pope for Christ sakes! He is the epitome of altruist evil, my friend.

    It's a straight-on con, Mr. Harsanyi. He is eliciting guilt in his well healed, but guilt ridden capitalist flock to raise more contributions so they can continue on with their "good" work, dontchaknow. The Church has been laying this guilt thing down for a couple of millenniums, now. You might want to read up on it, some.

    Christ.

  • paris1||

    David is trying, as are most libertarians who have responded to this clown's rants, to be civil and make the obvious points calmly and rationally. Just once though, I would like to see someone take this guy to task and rip him a new asshole!

  • Skonkey||

    "I would like to see someone take this guy to task and rip him a new asshole!"

    The pope?

  • paris1||

    Of course the pope. Who else would I be talking about?! He's no better than Michael Moore and how many scribes have laid into that dolt?

  • David Wall||

    It is a MORAL war we are in. Too many Libertarians are loath to take the moral high ground in the defense of capitalism when taking on both the Church and the Left. If they do not do this, they are bound to go the way of the conservatives and their religious-right fellow travelers--into the ditch and then the ash heap of history.

    Hopefully, a bit of a counter-wave is brewing against the gang in charge right now because they have screwed things up so badly it can't be ignored.

    So, Libertarians better bone up on the MORAL arguments for capitalism and be ready when the iron is hot. The next go around--'14 & '16--may be the last shot to get this thing done right for a generation.

  • paris1||

    Amen brother!

  • Bob1||

    I don't give a shit about your Randian moral arguments. The NAP and objectivism are stupid. If you want to win support, utilitarian arguments must be made. Capitalism must be defended on how well it serves the masses. Although the Church rejects utilitarianism, they place great emphasis on how economic systems affect the poor, and we should to. Books like "Losing Ground, "the state against blacks," and the "new jim crow" should be used to argue how the state creates poverty. Libertarians should respect the pope, and should argue for capitalism based on how capitalism helps the poor.

  • David Wall||

    Nice, Bob. The most good for the most people. Slavery was very utilitarian for the Southern Aristocrats. The black slaves were a distinct minority. Think you will get a lot of support for some lame notion that MORALLY allows slavery.

    I wish you luck with your utilitarian arguments.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Actually, Bob, what's stupid is the notion that explaining that capitalism helps the poor, although true, is going to win the argument. People are told from the crib that being selfish is bad, that not sharing is bad. When you decide that you should abandon the moral high ground in favor of pragmatism, you've just given the enemies of capitalism all the ammunition they need. You're arguing that we should be bad because being bad works. But, you're still arguing for what you've conceded is the bad. And any continuing poverty (and there will ALWAYS be poverty) just damns you further.

  • David Wall||

    Thanks, Bill. Your argument is the right one. I got a bit defensive with Bob's Jim Crow rabble-rousing nonsense.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Not a problem. There's nothing difficult in stating the truth as you see it. And you'll find most of the audience here does take the view that respecting the rights of others and expecting the same in turn (of which free market capitalism is just the expression of that principle in the economic realm) is the moral position. We come to that conclusion from a host of different traditions (Objectivism/Randianism, classical liberalism, anarchist belief, etc.), but generally share that common underlying assumption.

  • David Wall||

    But I think an even stronger moral argument is sanctity of the individual that capitalism provides. This goes right at the very heart of altruism. Not enough of us argue for making the most out of our lives, pursuing values that make us happy and that capitalism is the only system that specifically protects it. Respect for each other is important, but, I think, secondary, and in the end a less powerful argument.

    BTW: I am new to the site. With the exception of you and a few notable others, I'm disappointed at the lack of intellectualism here. Appreciate you raising the bar, though.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I didn't say respect for each other. I said respect for the rights of one another. Subtle distinction, but an important one. Respect for individual rights means we don't have to agree with one another or even like one another to deal with one another on civilized terms. It's when those rights are thrown out that men and women are forced to deal with one another on the most barbaric of terms. They have no choice. Everything becomes a contest of the will of those with the most power (be it the strongest warrior or the biggest mob). And those who refuse to wield power quickly find themselves its victims.
    Your argument for the sanctity of the individual that capitalism provides is just a particular, extremely important, case of the broader point of respect for individual rights. It's why a capitalist society can tolerate a bunch of people voluntarily forming a commune without batting an eye, while a socialist society would inevitably lock up any group of people who formed a market. It's why a capitalist society can tolerate people preaching altruism, while a collectivist society would necessarily suppress someone preaching the idea of individual rights.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    And welcome to the site. You'll find that a lot of people who comment here tend to do so very often. In some ways the comment threads take on a little bit of the role of a social network of like-minded people. And not everybody is intellectual all of the time. One of the tricks, if you want to call it that, is to pick up some of the shorthand and some of the assumed (sub-)cultural references that circulate among the comments.
    I'll give you an example. People reference their monocles and diamond mines as a stock joke. It's derived from the accusations libertarians often get of being greedy rich guys. It's mocking the accusation. Or people will reference their Koch Brothers conspiracy checks. Again, its poking fun at the left's conspiracy theories. Or people will respond to a government policy as being justified by FYTW or "Fuck You That's Why". It's gallows humor to observe the naked exercise of political power. People will note "Officer Safety" or "Stop Resisting" in response to a story of police brutality. It's a shorthand of noting that the justifications have become cliche. If you find your not clear about a reference, inquire on the thread. Most people will be willing to explain. Sure, people talk about things that don't relate to broad principles or the topic at hand. Like I said, the comment threads often serve as a proxy social network. If it's something you're not interested in, use the indentations to scroll down to another set of comments.

  • David Wall||

    Thanks for the replies. I'll hang with you guys a while. I'm interested in how Libertarians deal with moral issues. They are getting more exposure and will likely get more in the next few years. I hope they are up to defending capitalism on moral grounds like it needs to be. Right now I am skeptical.

  • cavalier973||

    Don't forget about STEVE SMITH!

    *shudders*

    Also, you will probably be raped by Warty at some point. It's like an initiation rite. We all enjoy a craft beer and artinsinal mayonnaise afterward.

  • cavalier973||

    "artisanal".

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Moreover, the pope falls into the trap of conflating inequality and poverty.


    Here is an article about poverty.


    For those without knowledge of basic economics, poverty is not defined in terms of absolutes. It has nothing to do with absolute measures of subsistence, or health, or quality of clothing or standards of living. It is simply based on income percentiles; if you rank financially in the bottom third of the population, then you are below the poverty line (the exact placement of the poverty line may vary from country to country).

    To put this concept in stark relief, consider this: if everybody in North America experiences a tenfold increase in wealth over the next 30 days, the number of people living below the poverty line won't change one iota. The "poor" grocery store clerks might have 6000 square foot homes and Porsches, but the "rich" people would have 30,000 square foot homes and McLarens (insert whatever ostentatious displays of wealth you prefer, if you're not into cars).
  • J_West||

    People in places such as Congo, Burundi and Mozambique live under corrupt authoritarian regimes where crippling poverty has a thousand fathers — none of them named capitalism.

    Since this is the week of the beatification of St. Mandela, I'd point out that all of these countries--and many more--are black majority rule. One would think that with the heavy hand of the oppressor imperialist white man gone, their peoples would vote themselves systems with free markets, minimal government, color blind racial relations, and honest courts to enforce contracts.

    Strangley, this has not happened.

    What the "social justice" critics are not looking at is that the poverty is the di direct result of the actions of these peoples. In the past, they have chosen African Socialism over capitalism; warlord Big Men over republican forms; massacring their neighbors over civil order; and driving the productive white and Indian sectors out of their countries (as is now happening in South Africa).

    When the time comes to pick up the bill, rather than assigning responsibility on the people who made these choices, the blame is laid on capitalism or colonialism or apartheid or something.

    Heaven forbid that the perpetrators ever be held accountable.

  • Free Society||

    Those people have society's that have only just begun to move out of the Stone Age in the last 200 years. While Europeans, Asians and North Africans were building civilizations, architecture, literature, philosophy and learning, the Sub-Saharan Africans were mutilating themselves and killing each other while the most civilized among them were simply dancing around the fire pit until colonial powers came along.

    It's not surprising that when you hand them technology and unrefined statist theories, they don't instantly transform into neighbor loving, freedom valuing beings.

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  • John Galt||

    The Pope is a super creepy mofo.

  • rogerfgay||

    Interestingly, the Pope's document never uses the word "capitalism." It's a stretch to force his comments into this critique of capitalism discussion that's been going on, which was triggered not by his document, but somebody else's inaccurate interpretation.

    But secondly, in this article, David Harsanyi fails to acknowledge the parallel between his view of third world problems and what's now going on in the West. The US doesn't have a properly functioning "free market" capitalist system. It's more controlled and manipulated than Europe. Political corruption is sucking vast wealth into the hands of a very view, the middle class is being obliterated, and we're getting mass poverty.

    Further: The original inaccuracy stated that the Pope spoke against "unfettered capitalism." He might be, but that's not really what he said. If he is, he's in good company. Adam Smith was against that too ... doesn't work, and he understood why. In this argument against the Pope, are we actually seeing propaganda for the corruption of the Political Class?

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  • Billyo||

    Harsaniyi's lament at the pope's misunderstanding is technically sound, but Francis puts whatever money he has into action in his daily life. That's worth a lot.

  • Free Society||

    And the anti-vaccine crowds also put their money where their mouth is, it doesn't mean their opinions are worth a pot of piss. They're damaging to say the least.

  • Jan B.||

    "But how many reasonable people argue that market-based economies — and the underlying morality that drives them — haven't done more to alleviate poverty worldwide than any other system? "

    I deny it. And so do others. Anyway, you should say "pretend-market-based economies," because the first thing the protestant rebels did when they overturned the Catholic states was pass laws to try to control the inevitable tendency toward monopolization (Charles Wilber's introduction to Amintore Fanfani's 'Capitalism, Protestantism, and Catholicism'). Free Market was and is a fiction.

    The Catholic states did not allow the comoditization of land, money, or human beings. The success of the protestant rebels to comoditize these elements is the measure of the ruin we now suffer. Francis has no plan, but Hungary does, and some say Poland will follow Hungary, and there are stirrings in other countries. We need to restore the Catholic confessional state. We need the old good rules about wages and profits. We need Catholic insistence on fertile sexual expression, because all other growth is speculative. We need the ten commandments. We need stable families. Your free markets are just like free love and free religion, fakes that fleece us. Enough!

  • Free Society||

    But your supernatural claims totally aren't fiction, much like your revised mythology-centric view of history. /derp

  • Car Scanner||

    Good post.

  • The Original Jason||

    Or, to put it another way, it's longer than all 46 books of the Old Testament, the 27 books of the New Testament and every gospel the Council of Nicaea decided to toss, combined.

    The Da Vinci Code is not a good book to use as a source…

  • trutherator||

    An appropriate caution, especially since the Nicea Council had nothing to do with the list of books they compiled. Also a wildly unfair characterization of the "Canon", because the ones they threw out were trash, like Dan Brown's "feminist gospel" that said women cannot go to heaven! Whatever idiot submitted that one was hopefully immediately put out of the congregation.

    The list was compiled at a different meeting, and it was the most credible list they could make. The included books had already established credibility and authority, with a couple of books in "dispute". Revelation was a "hard saying" for some of them. The other books "rejected" were never "rejected" because (1) they included obvious nonsense and (2) some good books but not considered by most Christians as authoritative.

    Paul's letters were already considered "scripture" (canonical) by Peter in his own epistles.

  • DenverJay||

    And, of course, the Pope lives in extreme luxury, as head of an organization that plundered more wealth from the New World than all the Colonial Powers combined, not to mention the wealth the Church gained from Morte Main, selling Dispensations, and all the other bullshit that Martin Luther rebelled against. Methinks the Pope might want to consult Matthew 7:3: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

  • Trinacria||

    The staggering intellectual chasm between John Paul II and Francis I is clearly evident in the above referenced apostolic exhortation. Consider the following wreckless departure from logic: Francis condemns the idolotry of material goods and the acquisition thereof, while appealing to those with material goods to give what they have to the poor. So wealth earned through work is bad, but wealth acquired through charity is laudable.

    John Paul II--to his credit--recognized the absurdity of this notion and condemned liberation theology as illogical and immoral. Now it's being embraced as doctrine. Pity.

  • trutherator||

    What so many Christians get wrong is that they think government helping the poor is the same as a person helping the poor. They don't consider that taxes are theft, misinterpret Jesus' response to Pharisees about Caesar's image on a coin and Romans 13. And misapply the laws of Moses.

    Caesar was a government-decreed "god". But "the Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof".

    In Matthew 17, told the disciples that taxation was an attack on freedom. He reminded them that kings and nobles and those who tell you how much to pay in taxes, do not put that burden on their own children. "Then are the children [of your taxman] free".

    Christians also forget that Romans 13 does not apply when any government does not meet the description as "God's sword" to stop evil.

    The anti-government campaigns of the earliest Christians against infanticide (by adoption), against gladiator battles (Saint Telemachus), refusing the decree to recognize Caesar as a god, against slavery (St. Patrick in Ireland), against aristocratic abuse (appeals in the Magna Carta to a divine natural law above kings), all these things are applications of the Christian Golden Rule.

    http://trutherator.wordpress.c.....nd-caesar/

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