Ronald Reagan once said that an economist is someone who sees something happen in practice and wonders if it could work in theory. The new book, Pope Francis and the Caring Society, appears like a team of economists forced to study the encyclical Laudato Si’ in theory and then wonder if it might work in practice. Most of the team members answer the question with a qualified no.
Published by the Independent Institute, the work was written as a sincere effort to heed the pontiff’s call for “dialogue” on the economic and ecological issues underlying the controversial encyclical. It makes no attempt to discuss the papal document’s equally contentious theological issues. Rather, it provides the sound economic and ecological teaching that is missing in the debate. Such issues need to be addressed urgently to dispel confusion.
The foreword by the late Michael Novak notes that the book initiates a debate that has the added benefit of educating its readers on the Church’s teaching on many issues like natural law and other moral and economic principles that would otherwise remain clouded. This alone makes the book valuable.
Setting the Terms for a Debate
Edited by Dr. Robert Whaples, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, the book presents seven essays with economic perspectives that he feels needs to be represented. His own introduction provides a framework of the eleven strengths and thirteen weaknesses of capitalism as an objective point of departure to start a balanced debate.
In today’s brutal world, it is refreshing to see a civilized debate that is carried out with great respect and reverence for the papal office. The debate also allows for an array of views. The essayists ranged from the intrepid Samuel Gregg who takes the most critical stand to a surprisingly favorable Allan Carlson.
This is not a normal academic debate. The controversy is embedded in a post-modern narrative that is based on impressions, feelings, and emotions. Thus, the writers perhaps try too hard to give the benefit of the doubt or find angles that help explain the often clouded logic behind the encyclical. They also employ the hackneyed concept of the “media spin” on papal statements that they correctly contend distort them.
Addressing a Lack of Clarity
However, the media can distort them because they are unclear. All these problems are caused by the fact that Laudato Si’ and similar economic papal statements are ambiguous. They differ from papal documents that are traditionally ironclad with logic and clarity that stand on their own. The faithful are asked to decipher these new social encyclicals; others like the media use their ambiguity to advance their agenda.
Thus, the essayists that specialize in precision are faced with ambiguous documents that contain an ill-defined hostility toward modern markets that they find mystifying. They then look for ways to discern the intention and contexts of Francis’ declarations, especially highlighting his experience of living in the failed economy of Argentina.
The difficulty of the debate is further increased by the need to qualify everything. In their analysis, the authors constantly need to acknowledge the reality of poverty, which indeed must be acknowledged. They rightfully show concern for the suffering of the poor. They share many of the pontiff’s reservations about the consumer society and the devastation caused by extreme individualism. They decry the indifference of so many toward those suffering from want.
All these are general unquantifiable problems, which cannot be solved in purely economic terms. They are sociological, cultural and above all moral problems that are linked to economic factors, but require much more profound changes in society and souls.
While the economists feel obliged to add these sociological qualifiers to their critique, Laudato Si’ ironically does not reciprocate by acknowledging the great benefits of free markets. It is a broadside that shows little mercy for the dismal science.
How Things Work in Practice
However, in the final analysis, the authors must take a look at the bottom line. As economists in the Reagan tradition, they see things working in practice. They cannot fail to point out hard statistical evidence that the present economic theory is benefiting the world’s poor. The poor are not getting poorer in market economies as Francis claims. Pastoral concerns are important but they should not obscure the facts.
This is the great strength of the book. It respectfully yet forcefully presents the facts. The expertise of the authors is displayed as they are all quite in their element. They do not apologize for the achievements of free markets. The links are clear between private property and the real alleviation of poverty. The disasters of socialist policies are documented and unambiguous.
Areas of Expertise
Thus, each scholar presents compelling arguments to support the general thesis defending free markets and private property. Each brings to the table an area of expertise to add to the debate.
Acton scholar Samuel Gregg points out the disastrous effects of Argentina’s Peronist economics that blended populist and nationalist themes with a misguided teologia del pueblo (theology of the people). Likewise, Gabriel Martinez, associate professor of business and economics at Ave Maria University, points out that poverty is often caused or aggravated by anti-market institutions that create “uneven playing fields.” Redistributive schemes tend to harm the real interests of the poor.
Contrary to those who paint a free market system as uncharitable, scholars Lawrence J. McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park find that it enables voluntary charitable giving on a massive scale. Again, it is governmental redistribution schemes, favored by Francis, that strangle aid to the poor by destroying the engines of wealth creation. “History teaches that redistribution by politicians does not end poverty or create prosperity,” they conclude.
One of the central themes of Laudato Si’ is capitalism’s disregard for the environment. A.M.C. Waterman, a retired fellow from St. John’s University in Winnipeg, discusses the much-needed role of markets and self-interest “to induce individuals, corporations, and governments to behave in an ecologically responsible manner.” Philip Booth, director of research at St. Mary’s University in London, traces and highlights the importance of private property in the care of the environment. While praising notions of the traditional family found in Francis’ writings, author and scholar Allan Carlson has misgivings about his views that give “little attention to the importance of private property as a guarantor of family security and basic well-being.”
Church’s Long History of Developing Economic Thought
The concluding arguments of Independent Institute research fellow Robert P. Murphy are especially helpful to the debate. Dr. Murphy points out the founding principles of economics were first discovered by Catholic scholars during the Middle Ages. The Church has always been involved in seeking economic justice.
He points out that the proper role of the Church is “teach people the ends to pursue, while economists can offer guidance on the best means of achieving them.”
Dr. Murphy hopes that a review of the long tradition of the Church and the expertise of the economists will influence the debate about the wisest use of world resources and the best ways to diminish the suffering of the poor.
He writes that “dialogue” requires a “more thoughtful reading of the other’s perspective.” Pope Francis and the Caring Society provides such a perspective. It should be especially read by those on the left that often misrepresent Church teachings, including Laudato Si’, to their advantage.
However, there is room for disappointment in this hoped-for “dialogue.” In these postmodern times, the liberal tendency is to reject rational debate and resort to demagoguery and the repetition of slogans. The book is much more for those who defend right theory and want to make sure it works in practice.
(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)