Pope Francis and the Caring Society edited by Robert M Whaples, Independent Institute, Oakland Calif, 2017.
The question “is the pope a Catholic?” used to be rhetorical but tragically that is no longer the case in light of the concessions that Pope Francis may be prepared to make to the Chinese government. In early 2018 it seemed that he was about to recognize the Communist Party as a spiritual authority with the power to appoint bishops in defiance of the wishes of the Church leadership in China. I am not sure where that has gone since but this is a chilling prospect for those who are aware of the brutal official suppression of Christians in parts of China in recent times.
This is not the first fire that Pope Francis has lit because he is probably best known for his damning comments on capitalism and markets. The contributors to this collection are inclined to be charitable and attribute these views to a genuine passion to help the poor and his experience of crony capitalism in Argentina. The free enterprise Independent Institute in the United States has responded with a collection of papers led by the late Michael Novak who wrote the Foreword not long before he died in February last year.
Many of the contributors are Christian believers and they have bent over backwards to embrace the dialogue (an awkward posture). They hope that he might be prepared to learn some economics like the Polish Pope John Paul. They work through the economic issues, especially the power of markets to liberate the poor provided that there is a framework of law and property rights and a vibrant civil society to support charitable giving.
One of the Pope’s most baffling blind spots is his opinion that absolute poverty is still growing around the world. This ignores the well documented advance of a billion or so people in India and China due to the move away from collectivism on the land and some other market-oriented reforms. The editor could have referred to Chile as the success story of South America due to the reforms put in place under Pinochet on advice from some free enterprise economists. These have been substantially retained under the relatively leftwing administrations which have ruled since Pinochet restored democracy.
One of the contributors charted the evolution of Papal economic commentary from John XIII in 1961 who wanted the greatness of a nation to be measured by its redistribution of prosperity, followed by Paul VI who called for a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to help the emerging nations. Twenty years later John Paul II demanded that “the market be appropriately controlled…to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied”. Benedict XVI likewise insisted that markets “must be intentionally put at the service of society” backed up by global government “with real teeth”. Pope Francis is both the first Pope from the developing world and from South America so not surprisingly he has recycled these corrosive and economically illiterate mantras with even more insistence and enthusiasm.
Samuel Gregg contributed an outstanding chapter “Understanding Pope Francis, Argentina, Economic Failure and the Teologia del Pueblo.” Like Michael Novak he has a deep appreciation of the affinity between Catholic social thought and the free enterprise school of Austrian economics, a topic which he pursued during a spell in Sydney at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney in the 1990s. The Austrians stress the vital role of the entrepreneur and the danger of easy money, Keynesian deficit budgeting and all kinds of over-regulation with red and green tape
Gregg provides an elegant and concise history of the melancholy decline of Argentina during the twentieth century from the high point when it was one of the richest nations in the world and Buenos Aires ranked with the great cities of Europe. The decline started in the 1930s and became precipitous after the war under the charismatic populist Juan Peron who roused the masses and in years of (mis)government entrenched a deep “class” divide in the nation: workers against the middle class, Argentines against foreigners, trade unions against employers.
By the 1980s the nation was in such dire straits that a Peronist Prime Minister Carlos Menem surprisingly embarked on serious liberal reforms. Much of this was on the right track but the vital element of labour market reform was not achieved due to the Congress and the powerful Peronist trade unions. Large numbers of state-owned firms were privatised and shed labour to become profitable but the labour market could not adjust so the unemployment figures and the budget situation rapidly deteriorated. In the subsequent “Great Depression” liberal economic policies were, as usual, blamed for problems not of their own making.
The future Pope came to maturity in that economic environment and in 1998 he wrote a small book Dialogos entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro containing such gems as “no one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian” and “Neoliberalism brings about unemployment, coldly marginalizing those who are superfluous…[and] corrupts democratic values by alienating them from the values of equality and social justice”.
Several contributors pay attention to the Pope’s wayward and scientifically illiterate views on the environment and ecological issues with a summary of his position on these issues in the Conclusion by Robert Murphy. A chapter by Philip Booth on “Property Rights and Conservation: The Missing Theme” indicates that the Pope and his advisors know nothing of the very large literature on free market environmentalism. A chapter on “Capitalism and Private Charitable Giving” explains that Pope Francis looks to government intervention to save the poor and has no faith in private charity. “The Family Economics of Pope Francis” demonstrates yet again that he has a collectivist approach with little appreciation of individual rights including property rights.
Concluding with a comment on the China front. Given the profound ignorance and antipathy that the Pope has demonstrated towards the function of markets, property rights and individual rights it is not entirely surprising to see his willingness to form a partnership with the communists. Is he a Catholic? This must prey on the minds of those Christians who have suffered persecution and torture in China and those Catholics who see the militant atheism of communism as a mortal threat to the Church.