Pope Francis Reminds Us That Capitalism Has an Ugly Face
Pope Francis insulted millions of Americans in a recent speech, telling them that the Economy to which they sacrifice their lives is immoral. It throws people away as if they were used kleenex. It ignores starving billions. It doesn’t care about youth unemployment, which in some countries is more than 50%. It pays no attention to the wisdom of the old. it squashes regional differences, as if making everyone like their neighbor is a good thing. Worst of all, it depends on war to maintain itself. It is kind of the Pope not to point out that these are decisions made by the filthy rich and their oligarchy, and not by the people themselves, but he says something that threatens their control, if anyone were paying attention: “I believe that we are in a world economic system that isn’t good. At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman, and everything else must be in service of this man. But we have put money at the center, the god of money. We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”
How is our new Catholic Calvinist, David Brat, going to cope with that news, what with his love of Ayn Rand, and the general Calvinist idea that wealth in this world is a sign of eternal salvation in the next.
“I believe that we are in a world economic system that isn’t good. At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman, and everything else must be in service of this man. But we have put money at the center, the god of money. We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”
Calvinists also believe that “God’s divine providence [has] selected, elected, and predestined certain people to restore humanity and reconcile it with its Creator.”7 These “Elect” were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children? The poor, the weak, the infirm? God was punishing them for their sins.
Not everyone agrees with this view of Calvinism. Here’s an example.
Also in contrast to modern capitalist dogma, Calvin was very clear that wealthy people became wealthy through no virtue of their own. Many were wealthy because they conducted business unethically and exploitively, some were born into it, and some actually worked hard for the money. But without fail all were wealthy because God had predestined them to be so for God’s own secret reasons.
For an explicitly Catholic look at libertarianism, see this by Elizabeth Stoker. It would really be great if someone would ask Brat which of these represent his view of Calvinism and libertarianism, and what he thinks about the Pope’s statement. But you don’t have to be religious to grasp the wisdom of Pope Francis’s view of the economy. Thomas Piketty cites the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the central document of the French Revolution:
Social distinctions can only be based on common utility.
This is close to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice:
First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;
Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:
1. They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
2. They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
Or, you could read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:
Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.
Each of these quotes reminds us of something important: humans matter, and the interests of the richest among us aren’t entitled to any more deference than the interests of the poorest. Pope Francis asks us to consider the outcome of the economy as it currently exists:
It’s proven that with the food that is left over we could feed the people who are hungry. When you see photographs of undernourished kids in different parts of the world, you take your head in your hand, it incomprehensible.
Where are the US politicians with their heads in their hands? Which politicians ask questions about the purpose of the economy? Which humanitarian organizations ask questions about the purpose of the economy? There aren’t any. Everyone thinks Capitalism is the only way to organize an economy. We all join the American Celebration of Capitalism as the triumph of civilization. What the hell is wrong with us?
Maybe we should all be paying more attention to this Pope. Maybe this discussion is the way we change things.