Francis and the Market

In Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation released just before Thanksgiving, Pope Francis focuses mostly on the Christian imperative of sharing the Gospel. He devotes somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of this 50,000-word document to advice about how to preach a good sermon. But his comments on economics made the news. It’s tempting to dismiss this focus as just another case of the secular world fixing on its own preoccupations, as it has done by talking endlessly about how Francis doesn’t want the Church to talk endlessly about sex. But that’s a mistake. Francis composes particularly strong denunciations of what he regards as false thinking about economics.

He rejects the “economy of exclusion and inequality” and decries the fact that “today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest.” He takes aim at those who “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.” He denounces “the idolatry of money” and “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation,” and declares inequality “the root of social ills.”

These are provocations, to be sure, and ones worth thinking about. Unfortunately, many commentators have allowed their primal political instincts to take over. Leftists swoon: The pope is anti-capitalist! Free-market conservatives moan: The pope is anti-capitalist! Rush Limbaugh blustered that Francis “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and described his views as “pure Marxism.”

This doesn’t make much sense. To begin, Francis makes no gestures toward socialism, the obvious (and only) alternative. Although he looks to the political sphere for an alternative to life organized by economic relations—who doesn’t?—there’s no juxtaposition of the benevolence of the state to the cruelty of free markets. No doubt he’s quite aware that those who control government often enrich themselves and their allies rather than serving the common good.

In any case, the old capitalism-versus-socialism battle is not very relevant to twenty-first-century realities. We live in an age in which capitalism is globally triumphant. The question Francis is asking—or, at least, that I take him to be asking—is what to do about the fact of global capitalism.

What’s to be done about wage competition between workers in Bangalore, India, and Youngstown, Ohio? About the migration of people in search of economic opportunity? How will global finance be regulated? Pollution and climate change? And then there’s the mother of all questions, the one Francis brings to the fore: How can we include as many people as possible in the prosperity being created by the capitalist revolution sweeping the globe?

Good questions, but unfortunately Francis’ sweeping generalizations about economics are inaccurate, and even irresponsible. He ignores the ways in which state-dominated economies encourage corruption and often deepen rather than alleviate poverty while singling out trickle-down theories for harsh criticism. He effectively demonizes economic conservatives as moral cretins “in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent, and self-centered mentality.”

This rhetoric contributes to our already degraded political culture. Many of our bitter debates in this country, from the Affordable Care Act and entitlement reform to the government shutdown, reflect differing prudential judgments about how, when, and to what degree greater economic freedom—or greater government intervention—best serves the common good. It’s stultifying to relabel those judgments as odious ideological extremes.

We should set this heated rhetoric aside, or, better, treat his provocations as a challenge to triumphant capitalism rather than a call for its overthrow. That’s something we need, especially those of us who benefit from the wealth-creating power of capitalism. We’re often blind to its negative consequences, sometimes willfully so. Creative destruction sounds great—unless it’s your job or community or way of life that’s getting destroyed.

So we’re tempted to take refuge in half-truths. One draws attention to the way in which free markets generate economic growth. We all know what a comparison of Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela over the last few decades reveals: Liberalized markets in Chile have brought growth; crony capitalism and populist efforts to steer economic rewards in Argentina and Venezuela have brought stagnation. This is true throughout the world. Capitalism turns out to be the world’s greatest poverty-relief program.

I’d imagine the pope agrees, or at least I hope he recognizes this historical reality. He surely knows that many who live in the slums of Buenos Aires are economic refugees, fleeing the grinding poverty of rural villages. It’s the power of capitalism to generate wealth, even in Argentina, that gives them good reasons to leave their homes even for the slender prospects of life in urban slums.

But Francis wants to fight against our satisfaction with the wealth-producing power of free markets. GDP is not the sole criterion of the common good. Capitalism destroys traditional forms of life, breaks up communities, and reorganizes society in accord with its wealth-producing logic. It has to in order to open up space for competition, attain efficiencies, and encourage innovation. That was the history of modern Europe. That’s been our history in America as well. Thomas Jefferson championed the yeoman farmer as the foundation of democratic culture. That mythic figure was rendered obsolete by the Industrial Revolution.

Those of us who read First Things (or the Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard) are by and large integrated into the world transformed by capitalism. We have a profession, a job, an income, investments. We have a place, a stake, and to some degree a say. This tends to make us blind to the damage capitalism does. (The same is true for many liberals.)

Capitalism does help move people out of poverty, as Francis’ critics have pointed out. But the fact that the poor in America and elsewhere have TVs and air conditioning and antibiotics doesn’t make up for their loss of a secure place in society, something that traditional cultures provide, however impoverished they may be. On Sundays in Hong Kong, Filipino maids who have migrated there to find work congregate downtown. They’re instinctively seeking solidarity, a way of being with others that doesn’t boil down to labor and wages. It’s this problem—being someone with no place in society, no voice, no role—that Francis tries to bring to the fore when he speaks of “exclusion” and “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy.”

It’s not just the poor who experience a “dictatorship” of economic forces that doesn’t seem to care about them as persons. Many, far more than most economic conservatives are willing to acknowledge, find free markets harsh. Viewed abstractly, the problems of unemployment in the Rust Belt are solved by job opportunities elsewhere, for example in the oil fields of North Dakota. But most people want to be from somewhere rather than live as migrant workers. It is indeed an “impersonal economy” that cares not a whit about basic human needs for solidarity, stability, and a sense of belonging, needs that aren’t satisfied through buying and selling, no matter how efficient, no matter how conducive to economic growth.

When I was young, socialism felt like a real and alluring option. Like many others, I came to see that its claim to moral superiority is false, and that it’s very important to fight against the fantasy of a world without self-interest, which given human nature means a world without human beings. But then was then, and now is now. Socialism is no longer a threat, or at least not a significant one. For the last few decades, the Communist Party in China has been adjusting itself to the realities of human nature, not the other way around. That’s a sign of the changing nature of our social, political, and moral challenges.

It’s time to stop cheering for or booing capitalism. The same goes for exalting or demonizing government. The trader and village market arise at the same time as the ruler and sovereignty. The human drive toward political community is as fundamental as the drive toward market exchange. Both are connatural to the human condition, something socialism and free-market ideologies deny, which is the source of their anti-human tendencies—and often actions.

What we need are all-things-considered judgments about how, when, and to what degree economic freedom serves the common good, and how, when, and to what degree restraint and limitation by the state does. No “ism” from the Cold War era—which I fear Francis tends to evoke in his violent rhetorical negations—will deliver us from this task.

The Paradox of Liberalism

Nineteenth-century liberalism focused on political and economic freedom. Today’s liberals focus on using the power of the state to limit, control, and direct free markets. Although the earlier version seems very different from the later, statist form of liberalism, there’s an important continuity between the two. We need to keep that continuity in mind when thinking about contemporary cultural liberalism and its implications for the future.

Nearly two hundred years ago in England, the Manchester School argued that free enterprise was the key to social progress. (The Economist was later founded as part of this movement.) Everyone would benefit from the great economic engine and its output. Liberal intellectual leaders Richard Cobden and John Bright criticized economic regulations and political traditions designed to support the status quo by limiting free enterprise.

The Corn Laws became the prime liberal target. Passed in 1815 to protect domestic agriculture in England against foreign competition, its strict limits on imported grain were strongly supported by the aristocracy, whose wealth and power were closely tied to inherited estates and agricultural profits. As England industrialized, however, strong interests emerged that wanted cheaper food for the urban laboring classes. In 1838 the Anti–Corn Law League was formed, and in 1846 the laws were repealed. It was a decisive legislative victory for the free-market liberalism of the nineteenth century and a milestone in the evolution of English political culture.

However, it soon became evident that capitalism does not usher in the Kingdom of God. In the new industrial economy, some flourished, while many stumbled, and some fell and were crushed. Even those who managed to get along often felt disenfranchised. Moreover, like a rambunctious adolescent, the economy envisioned by the Manchester School tended toward cyclical booms and busts that both heightened expectations when times were good and deepened grievances when they were bad.

There thus emerged in England and elsewhere, including America, a system of philanthropic—and then government—intervention to ameliorate the downsides of a free-market economy. Over time, the modern system we know evolved. A social safety net catches those who don’t do well in the marketplace, various schemes for redistribution seek to preserve a sense of social solidarity, and all sorts of economic strategies are employed to dampen the regular busts. The upshot is the paradox of twentieth-century liberalism (in Europe it goes by the name “social democracy”): managed economic freedom.

Today’s liberalism explodes gender roles, marriage, and the family in order to create a free marketplace of “identity.” Liberals work for a future in which individuals will be able to craft bespoke lives for themselves, and thus maximize happiness by maximizing the satisfaction of desires. Given this vision of the common good, same-sex marriage is to lifestyle liberalism what the repeal of the Corn Laws was to economic liberalism: a decisive victory that signals political and cultural ascendancy.

Once again, however, freedom understood simply as expanded scope for personal choices without regard to ends doesn’t bring universal happiness. As was the case with the nineteenth-century laissez-faire economy, today’s laissez-faire culture is very tough on many, especially the weak and vulnerable. Marriage falters in the middle class and collapses for those at the bottom. Obesity, which is very strongly correlated with class, is on the rise. The decriminalization of marijuana, violent video games, pervasive pornography: We’re creating a toxic moral environment.

These problems are not surprising, because in many ways they recapitulate the consequences of the triumph of nineteenth-century economic liberalism. Today, traditional wisdom about how to live—a wisdom that includes sexual morality, norms of marriage, an ethic of honor and shame, and so forth—must be demolished in order to create lifestyle freedom. This freedom parallels an earlier phase in economic life—with the same uneven allocation of benefits. The strong thrive, the majority stumble, and the weak are crushed.

And so the paradox of liberalism—managed freedom—emerges once again, now in culture. We’re seeing calls for government intervention to address the problems of people who don’t flourish in a free marketplace of identity. Michael Bloomberg does not support traditional moral constraints. Instead, he wants to improve people’s lives by regulating them, as his efforts to limit sugary drinks illustrate. Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein proposes a less invasive strategy, one that seeks to avoid Bloomberg’s command-and-control approach to culture by using incentives to “nudge” people in healthy, productive directions.

Whether it comes by way of government regulations or choice-friendly nudges, I’m quite sure we’re heading toward managed lifestyle freedom. Economic history suggests that’s the logic of liberalism and its unworkable vision of freedom as unconstrained choice. Nineteenth-century economic liberalism promoted economic freedom. As it came to recognize the destructive effects of this freedom, the regulatory, redistributive state emerged that limited the economic freedom of the rich more severely than the poor (which was inevitable, because that’s where the money is).

Twenty-first-century cultural liberalism undermines traditional moral authorities that stand in the way of lifestyle freedom. But lifestyle freedom has destructive effects as well—hence the need for a regulatory state to intervene in personal life. Unlike economic regulation, however, the burdens fall on the weak, not the strong. It’s the freedom of the dysfunctional people who make bad choices that needs to be limited, not the freedom of the powerful or well-to-do. To a greater and greater degree, the bottom will be subject to the therapeutic condescension and regulatory benevolence of those at the top.

A Grand Wizard of Liberalism

Ronald Dworkin passed away recently. As a legal theorist, he was a great conjurer—I almost wrote sophist, but that’s not fair. He believed what he wrote. I didn’t know him, but his writing suggests someone with a remarkable ability to translate liberal sentiments into what look like arguments.

His last book, Religion Without God, published after his death, exemplifies this. He promises a view of religion that will “formidably shrink both the size and importance of the wars” over moral values in our society. The key move: redefine religion as deeply held moral commitments and religious freedom as “ethical independence.” Thus the major premise: The law must offer equal protection to all moral commitments. Sounds like a very appealing principle of government neutrality. But now the minor premise: Support for gay marriage and abortion on demand stem from deeply held moral commitments. The conclusion: The imperative to protect the ethical independence of everyone dictates that no laws can be passed impinging on the moral freedom of those who want gay marriage and abortion on demand.

We’re all familiar with the political corollary: “The liberal position becomes mandatory.” (Yes, he actually wrote that, and without a hint of irony.) Gay rights and abortion on demand? These liberal positions don’t constitute elements of one political and moral vision among others trying to gain sway over society and culture. By Dworkin’s way of thinking (which is typical of the liberal culture that has long lionized him), they are required by the meta-vision of ethical independence that stands above all possible political and moral commitments, promising to manage our disputes impartially with even-handed fairness.

In Dworkin’s world, liberals accord ethical independence to everyone who affirms that the highest good is ethical independence, which turns out to be only liberals like themselves. Everybody else must be kept in line. Thus does he dismiss the very idea of a culture war by eliminating the possibility of a moral position other than liberalism. No more arguing! Liberalism is mandatory! Children, return to your seats!

Moshe Halbertal’s fawning review of Religion Without God in the New Republic hails Dworkin’s “careful and sophisticated arguments.” (Robert T. Miller’s rigorous review in this issue puts paid to that far-fetched assessment.) After accurately describing Dworkin’s fundamental conviction that morality is entirely independent of religion, Halbertal draws a conclusion very much in the Dworkin tradition of sloppy, self-serving syllogisms: “A rather subversive and justified claim is therefore established: If religion, in the name of God’s superior revelation, commands something immoral, it undermines its own authority and ground, which ultimately rest on morality.”

If one is thinking of human sacrifices required by Aztec religion, this reasoning can seem sound. But like so many liberal pieties, it isn’t. Consider the case of Christianity. The ancient world made a clear moral judgment: Poverty and weakness and suffering are very bad. In that context, the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the poor . . . . Blessed are the meek,” were heard as immoral. The same is true today, sadly. Many regard aborting a child with Down syndrome as a moral duty, essentially saying, “Cursed are the meek and poor in spirit.”

Our moral judgments often turn out to be less than reliable, especially those judgments formed in an insular and parochial culture like modern liberalism. The Christian doctrine of original sin explains why. The Christian doctrine of revelation proposes a remedy. And therefore a rather subversive and justified claim is established: Ethical independence tends to decay toward self-serving moral reasoning, undermining its own authority and ground, which ultimately rests in the proper formation of conscience under the tutelage of divine revelation.

Religious Freedom

Although Dworkin thinks otherwise, we can’t avoid the question of the nature and scope of religious freedom as religious freedom. Redefining it as ethical independence may provide theoretical elegance, but it loses religion as a communal reality. It’s the faith of the Church (or of the synagogue or mosque or temple) taken collectively that has a uniquely potent public influence.

A particularly pungent ad about Muslims, Israel, and barbarism was placed on New York City buses and subways a couple of years ago. Controversy ensued. A court ruled that the Metropolitan Transit Authority could not remove the ad. Therefore, a policy was formulated to insulate the MTA from criticism. All religious and political ads must feature a prominent disclaimer: “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by _____. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”

A good policy, perhaps, given the passions evoked by religion and politics, though it leads to overkill. There is a disclaimer emblazoned along the bottom of ads for Marble Collegiate Church, a venerable New York institution with very little aptitude for controversy. After reading Dworkin, however, I began to notice subway ads for the School of Practical Philosophy. One announces, “Practical philosophy shows that, despite appearances, space and freedom are always available, and can be found.” The MTA does not deem the disclaimer necessary.

If the essential meaning of religious freedom—and thus our rules about the when and how of religion in public life in such matters as subway ads—is rooted in “ethical independence,” this differential treatment makes no sense. Once headed by Norman Vincent Peale (the author of The Power of Positive Thinking), Marble Collegiate Church brings Christ into the picture but reflects a tradition of practical Christianity focused on self-culture that, as far as I can tell, parallels the School of Practical Philosophy.

If our approach to religion in public life is guided by reality, however, singling out Marble Collegiate as religious makes a great deal of sense. It may be a milquetoast church, but unlike schools of philosophy, most types of religion, even mild ones, engage people at deep levels. The communal aspect of religion creates powerful bonds of loyalty. Religious rituals carve convictions into the soul.

To be sure, philosophy can influence some, and sometimes in profound ways. Perhaps Ronald Dworkin was that kind of person. But they’re rare. For every Thoreau, there are thousands of religious believers willing to make sacrifices for their faith, which is why religious institutions have such profound and immediate social implications, while philosophical schools do not.

Shout “Platonists are going to hell!” on the street corners, and you’ll get puzzled looks. Say the same about Muslims or Catholics or Christian Scientists or even atheists, and you’re likely to get yelled at, or even hit. This the sensible administrators at the MTA recognize, which is why they want to use the disclaimer to keep even the most anodyne religious convictions at arm’s length. It also indicates that they’re more perceptive than Ronald Dworkin.

Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Fr. Ed Oakes died on December 6. He was known as a leading scholar of Hans Urs von Balthasar. His most recent book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology, provides an excellent guide to the doctrinal debates about Christ and his saving work. But Ed was much more than a theological scholar. With a broad knowledge of literature as well as music, art, and drama, and widely read in science, history, and politics, he could write with verve about pretty much anything.

He also had strong reactions and articulate opinions, which made him an excellent conversationalist. No doubt that’s one reason he became friends with Richard John Neuhaus, who liked people who actually knew things (Ed had a great memory) and forcefully expressed their views. He had a precise mind, yes, but also a bold, exuberant, and sometimes combative spirit. As an intellectual, there was something of Sir Lancelot in him.

I saw him last month at the Jesuit infirmary at St. Louis University. Pancreatic cancer was overtaking him. He had to give up his teaching position at Mundelein Seminary to move back into his community to die.

He said leaving Mundelein was a painful ascesis. It meant giving up teaching, writing, students, colleagues, and his personal library of books, which meant letting go of his long, productive life. He knew—and with interior struggle accepted—that he was dwindling down to a gray, end-of-life infancy: diminishment and dependency brought on by debilitation and decay.

I said nothing. Death dissolves pieties. After a few moments had passed, he asked me how things were going at First Things. We bantered as we often had in the past before he tired and I took my leave.

I’ll miss you, Ed. Rest in peace. 

Articles by R. R. Reno