What does the Pope say?

Last week Pope Francis passed on his thoughts about economics, which were somewhat controversial among those who would fully support the pope’s (that is, traditional Roman Catholic) social views.

Libertarians are happy with neither side of Francis. Compare and contrast, as the American Enterprise Institute did, the pope to economist Greg Mankiw:

Pope Francis:

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.

Greg Mankiw responds:

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.

(Points for Mankiw for bringing up that last point. I wondered last week how the pope’s stated economic views would go over the next time a Catholic church has a stewardship drive.)

Christopher Bedford contrasts the pope to libertarians:

While the pope’s message confirmed a lot of social doctrine that conservative Catholics can be thankful for, his defense and advocacy of a moral society contained one glaring omission — a defense of the free market.

In fact, he seemed to come down fairly hard on libertarian economics, characterizing them as “trickle-down theories” that have “never been confirmed by the facts,” and tend ”to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits.”

But conservative and libertarians shouldn’t blame the pope for his characterization of the free market — we should blame ourselves. The pope is the head of the church, not squarely in the camp of any political or economic theory; it is his duty to promote its truths, preserve its traditions, and show us the way to salvation through penetrating teachings and hard questions. And as his questions and teachings this week showed, we have failed to broadly and convincingly make the moral case for the free market.

There is much to goad the average libertarian in Pope Francis’ critique. Most sound economists we know would likely convulse at the his contention that the benefits of economic freedom are not overwhelmingly “confirmed by the facts,” and would launch into an intelligent and true defense of economic freedom, citing the unparalleled spread of prosperity, the steep rise in life expectancy, the sharp decline in infant mortality, the virtual end of any permanent lower class, and any number of other demonstrable truths. And they would, in all likeliness, fail to sway the pontiff, as well as millions of other intelligent and moral people.

Because as Gov. Chris Christie recently observed, “politics is a feeling.”

American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks experienced this firsthand, and the evening moved him to spend the years since tirelessly espousing the moral, human case for the free market. Despite being one of libertarian economics’ most knowledgeable champions, Dr. Brooks was defeated at a Thanksgiving-table discussion. Why? Because while he correctly bemoaned things such as high corporate tax rates and the government’s role in the housing crisis, his liberal sister rested her point on a newspaper account of a woman and her child forced to sleep in a car. Who cared if Dr. Brooks — with all his numbers and figures — had the greater cure for human misery? In the eyes of his family, his sister cared most about human beings.

It is essential to make this case, because economic freedom is the sole economic system that allows man the freedom to create and succeed through his own faculties, satisfying his material needs as well as nurturing his spiritual nature — his happiness. Because of this, it is the only economic system compatible with christian morality.

But like every single society of men, there is more than enough room for the devil. And the greed and consumerism Pope Francis rightly criticizes is a weakness of human nature, not of freedom. As libertarian economist Milton Friedman challenged decades ago, “Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? … And what does reward virtue? You think the Communist commissar rewards virtue? … Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.” (RELATED: VIDEO: Milton Friedman vs. Phil Donahue)

Dr. Friedman’s point, though, was likely lost on a young Argentine priest who would one day lead The Church: While in the 1970s Dr. Friedman’s teachings and students helped save neighboring Chile from economic ruin, leading to the end of its anti-Communist military junta, the man in charge — Gen. Augusto Pinochet — became the face of free-market reform in Latin America. Mr. Pinochet was not exactly a poster boy for caring, and despite the great successes of the Chilean economy, to many in Latin America, free markets became synonymous with the harsh excesses of his rule.

But while libertarians must stress the moral, human story of economic freedom, we must also guard against progressives’ claim to the moral high ground. Despite what some vacuous pundits might draw from Pope Francis’ words, the path to salvation is not through Obamacare. Christ was clear in his instructions to his followers: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” — meaning, in part, the taxes we pay to government are paid to the government, and won’t help us out with St. Peter.

The second of Jesus Christ’s two commandments is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Nowhere in the New Testament is Christ quoted as saying that government (and in his days that meant the Roman Empire) should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit prisoners in prison. Christ said that you should feed the hungry, you should give drink to the thirsty, you should welcome the stranger, you should clothe the naked, and so on. Nowhere in the New Testament is it written that you should take someone else’s money to do those things; the responsibility is on you, and the judgment will be on you.

(To those Christian liberals who will quibble with this theology: Explain the pope’s, and the Catholic Church’s positions on abortion, artificial birth control, divorce and same-sex marriage in a liberal-friendly way. And while you’re at it, explain why Christ would mandate non-believers to do anything. And if you’re spending government funds on what you as a Christian believe in, that would seem a violation of the so-called separation of church and state.)

The alternative to these points of view is that people have been misreading what the Pope said. American Thinker ponders that point by reading Yahoo! News! and Reuters:

It would appear that both — along with the rest of the media pretty much ignored what the Vatican actually said about Evangelii Gaudium. In a lengthy summation of the exhortation, The Vatican News Service (the Holy See Press Office) devoted all of one-half of a paragraph to the Pope’s message about economics.

In relation to the challenges of the contemporary world, the Pope denounces the current economic system as “unjust at its root”. “Such an economy kills” because the law of “the survival of the fittest” prevails . . . “A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual”, of an “autonomy of the market” in which “financial speculation” and “widespread corruption” and “self-serving tax-evasion reign.”

CatholicOnline responded to the many stories with a rebuttal: “Is the Pope an enemy of Capitalism? Evangelii Gaudium explains his views.” …

So just what is the Pope saying in his exhortation?

Pope Francis’ views on economics and capitalism have likely been influenced by a life spent in Argentina — a country with an annual inflation rate of over 10%, where the poor live in slums and the rich live in gated communities, and where Liberation Theology came of age. But it’s also evident that he is only saying our current economic system needs to be fixed, not tossed in the garbage. And it’s not just our economic system that needs fixing.

Pope Francis also says in the exhortation that politicians should not pander to or prey on the poor for votes, that countries with high debt are doing a disservice to the poor, and that welfare programs are not the answer to the problem of poverty. He also calls for a greater emphasis on Catholic teaching on the principle of subsidiarity, which is absolutely opposed to all forms of “collectivism.” So while Pope Francis is criticizing capitalism’s negatives, he is certainly not endorsing socialism.

The exhortation needs to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked apart depending on one’s political viewpoint. In his exhortation, Pope Francis chides both liberals and conservatives, society in general, self-centeredness, secularism, totalitarianism, the Catholic Church, the division that exists among Christian Churches, the “silent complicity” that enables human trafficking, and even priests who deliver boring homilies.

Overall, Evangelii Gaudium might be best summed up as a call to the faithful to renew themselves in Christ. And, in general, Pope Francis is saying to the entire world, ‘C’mon people, we can do better; we need to do better!’ It’s almost as if he is saying, ‘with all the intelligence and brainpower in the world today, it’s hard for me to understand why things are getting worse instead of better.’

What Pope Francis might be saying to all of us is that there is an awful lot that needs fixing in this world, and all it starts with each of us fixing ourselves first.

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