Friday, May 17, 2013

Pope Francis I on the Autonomy of the Market

Yesterday, Pope Francis I reportedly blamed the "tyranny of capitalism for making people miserable."  

I imagine that some right-leaning Catholics will be quick to stress that the Pope isn't speaking ex cathedra (thus, believers are under no obligation to endorse the views he expressed in yesterday's address).  Others may suggest that his words were wretched out of context.  After all, the word "capitalism" appears nowhere in his address.  Arguably, though, that's just playing semantics; what the Pope refers to as the "absolute autonomy of markets" is what others prefer to call "capitalism", at least in its unrestrained form.  The libertarian must resist the temptation to counter that there aren't actual examples of absolutely autonomous markets; even if we grant that there aren't empirical cases of true, unfettered capitalism, the point is that the Pope evidently believes that it isn't fettered enough.

Those who suspect that the Pope is being misinterpreted should always go to the original source. Here's a snippet from yesterday's address that should lay these suspicions to rest:
While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules. Moreover, indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power. Added to this, as if it were needed, is widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The will to power and of possession has become limitless.
Whereas many on the right insist that only voluntary, charitable giving is what many ostensibly left-leaning Church hierarchs promote as solutions to poverty and inequality, it's noteworthy that the Pope explicitly recognizes the positive role that the State (or, "coercive giving", as many right-wing Catholics would have it) can play in rectifying socioeconomic injustice.  It also bears mentioning that this view does not set a new and dangerous precedent in Roman Catholic social teaching.  In a papal encyclical written over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII argued that:

It lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor; and this in virtue of his office, and without being open to suspicion of undue interference - since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good (Rerum Novarum, 1891).