Pope Francis

Lighten Up, Francis

The Pontiff ought to stick to flock-tending and lay off capitalism.


Pope Francis carries his own bags, and sleeps in the Vatican guest house. I like that in a pope.

It's definitely better to have the kind of pontiff who flops out on a futon than one of those Borgia popes with such decadent tastes the BBC is forced to write a miniseries about him. That said, Francis sure gibbers a lot about economics, and when it comes to market forces the man is anything but infallible.

Take his latest and rather pointed jab at libertarianism. Sayeth his eminence, "I cannot fail to speak of the grave risks associated with the invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism at high strata of culture and in school and university education."

Having performed standup routines on college campuses for Students For Liberty, I can tell you nobody is losing sleep over fears of a libertarian takeover of academia. Hillsdale College and George Mason University produce handfuls of classical liberals every year, but that still leaves pretty much every other college on the planet. (In the same screed he also describes libertarianism as "fashionable," which comes as quite the shock to my online dating profile.)

Pope Francis no doubt sees libertarianism as hand-in-hand with the other evil he frequently warns his flock about: capitalism. Spake Francis in his 2013 Evangelii Gaudium, "Inequality is the root of social ills." He also opines, "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."

Ouch. Let us all light a candle for the departed soul of Milton Friedman, no doubt condemned to the toasty bosom of Purgatory.

Before we start breaking down these (literal) pontifications, let's get one fallacy out of the way: just because someone is an authority in their field doesn't mean they know anything about another field. If Paul Krugman started lecturing Catholics about theology, they wouldn't seriously listen to his musings on the filioque. What next, taking Krugman's economics seriously? Pope Francis appears to know about as much about economics as Prince Charles knows about lawn mower maintenance.

His Holiness' apprehension of evil people like myself springs from the assumption that we're all very selfish, and happy about it. But classical liberalism doesn't endorse selfishness as a virtue, it just champions individuals as the primary decision-makers of society. Yes, there are some folks who go on and on about how terrific selfishness and social Darwinism are, but it's not like we invite them to cocktail parties. In fact a lot of us volunteer and donate to charity. We just don't like being required to.

I stumbled onto libertarianism in part when it became apparent to me that the free market had lifted more people out of poverty than any government aid program. Rooting for rich guys in top hats doesn't emotionally resonate in a world where greed is mortal sin, but the counterintuitive thing about capitalism is that it harnasses self-interest to benefit society at large. The rising tide lifts all boats.

Adam Smith pointed out that your baker doesn't sell you bread out of the goodness of his heart, he does it to earn a living. When you throw self-interest and competition into the mix, bread prices plummet and scales of economy crank out enough bagels that for the first time in human history entire societies are more concerned about gluten intolerance than starvation.

If anyone in the Soviet Union had raised a serious alarm about "gluten intolerance," they would have been laughed out of the breadline and then probably shot for good measure. Socialism, despite the best of intentions, impoverishes people. Socialism has so ruined the economy of Venezuela that shopkeeps are weighing stacks of worthless money rather than counting bills, and people are resorting to eating zoo animals.

Finally, let's look at the pope's stated root of all social ills: inequality. If we lived in a feudal state where lords become wealthy by plundering serfs, inequality would indeed be a heinous evil. Fortunately we don't live in that zero-sum world.

Bill Gates didn't become a billionaire by impoverishing America—quite the opposite. And if we doubled everyone's income tomorrow many people would be lifted out of poverty, but the gap between us and whoever Bernie Sanders wants to hang this week would be even greater. Poverty and inequality simply aren't the same thing.

Again, I like Pope Francis. He seems to be a deeply compassionate and humble man. Also he wears a cape. There are lots of things to admire about him.

His failure to distinguish between personal virtues and macro economics is not one of them. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I suspect it's also publicly funded.