WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2015 – It has been said by some of his critics that Pope Francis, having grown up in Peronist Argentina, does not understand capitalism.
This may be true. But it is also true that the economic system that is now a way of life in our own country is not exactly free enterprise as the proponents of that philosophy, going back to Adam Smith, envisioned it. We have embarked upon a far different enterprise, bailing out failed banks and auto-makers and subsidizing farmers and sugar producers with taxpayer dollars, so that when it is criticized, it is difficult for those who believe in genuine capitalism not to agree.
Ideally, capitalism is the form of economic organization most consistent with other freedoms. Economist Ludwig Von Mises argued that the free enterprise system is the only form of economy which advances other freedoms we hold dear:
Discussing what genuine capitalism would involve, in contrast to the “crony capitalism” we now actually have, Von Mises writes:
F.A. Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, declared,
Whether or not Pope Francis’ understanding of free enterprise is imperfect, he is posing a larger question for us to consider. The purpose of life, after all, is not the amassing of material goods, and the purpose of society is not simply to provide the atmosphere in which greed is given full sway.
Our own society has provided its citizens with the most advanced standard of living in the world, yet our families are in decline, crime and drug use proliferate, our educational system is often failing, and the middle class has seen its wages stagnate, while the number in poverty is growing.
At the same time, those with the highest incomes, Wall Street bankers among them, seek to use the political process to immunize themselves from the cost of failure.
Conservatives, in particular, have often betrayed their own larger calling by embracing a crass materialism which in the end is not radically different from what Marxists embrace. To the extent that one believes that man is simply a material being and his purpose in this world is to increase his material wealth, the twin philosophies of Marxism and, say, the libertarianism of the followers of Ayn Rand, tend to merge.
Pope Francis, of course, is marching to an entirely different drummer. Jesus, after all, said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Simply because we believe that economic freedom is the best way to organize our economy does not mean that the amassing of wealth is the appropriate goal for individual lives. In his book “The Everlasting Man,” the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton provides this assessment of the materialist view of history:
Chesterton points out:
To believe that society’s most important purpose is to minister to man’s material needs–rather than his more complex spiritual requirements–is to misread man’s nature. Dante, writing in the 14th century in “De Vulgari Eloquentia,” described man in these terms:
In recent days, the behavior of some of our business and financial leaders has been revealed for all to see, holding up a mirror to the serious problems we face. It is particularly important for advocates of free market economics to make clear that this behavior is a challenge to capitalism itself.
The first principle of free markets, transparency and trust, have been challenged.
Pope Francis has performed a notable service if his visit causes us to take a closer look at our society. What values do we really hold dear?
Many Americans like to proclaim that ours is a Christian country. If Jesus were to return, would he agree?
Perhaps that is what the pope is asking Americans to consider. Beyond disagreements over the details of climate change or immigration policy is the question of what kind of society we want to be and what values we hold dear. We don’t really think about this question very much. It is time that we did.