That His Holiness knows little about economics, and understands even less, shouldn’t be held against him. It’s not his field after all.
Alas, he insists on making resonant statements on economics that are as weak on intellectual content as they are strong on ideological bias. Reading his 224-page manifesto, one has to acknowledge sadly that his bias is Marxist, which is to say demonstrably unsound and potentially harmful.
If His Holiness isn’t careful this may backfire on his theology as well. After all, Christ himself accepted economic inequality: “For ye have the poor with you always…” Since then it has been understood that the Church’s mission isn’t to eliminate such inequality but to teach Christians that it’s trivial compared with the ultimate equality of all before God.
The Pope attacks “rampant capitalism” as the cause of inequality and therefore social unrest. Those who believe that economic growth will trickle down to enrich the poor are “naïve”, he writes. I’d call them observant.
It has escaped the pontiff’s attention that it’s precisely “economic growth encouraged by a free market” that has ever succeeded in making sure people aren’t deprived of what Dr Johnson called the necessaries: food, shelter, clothes and what have you. Comparing, say, West to East Germany or South to North Korea as trial cases in which cultural differences don’t come into play, the Pope could see that free markets not only make some filthy rich but also prevent most from being dirt poor.
Conversely, the more diligently are egalitarian principles applied to an economy, the more likely it is to spread real poverty, the kind defined not as some having less than others but as most having nothing at all. Attempts to force ‘equality’ on people have invariably made them equal only in a bread queue, concentration camp or executioner’s cellar.
Our poor, munching junk food in front of their flat-screen TVs, are unimaginably wealthy by the standards of most people living in countries pursuing economic egalitarianism – or any of those where markets don’t operate vigorously.
Rather than seeing societies in terms of hierarchies based on ranks (similar to the Catholic Church actually), the Pope clearly sees them the way Marx did, as battlefields on which two hostile classes fight it out until one of them is dead.
“Without equal opportunities,” His Holiness writes, “the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode.” This is nonsensical, as the briefest of looks at any current conflict will confirm.
And how does he propose to equalise opportunities? Suppose a rich man can afford to send his son to a good school, rather than to an idiot-spewing, ambition-stifling comprehensive, while a poor man can’t.
Leaving aside the fact that free schools have become so describable precisely because of the destructive impulse injected into society by egalitarians, the only way to level the playing field would be to dispossess the rich man – and ideally to shoot him pour encourager les autres.
This has been gleefully tried in half the world, with the inevitable outcome of a murderous tyrant squeezing his bulk into the seat vacated by the rich man. If the Pope has a different plan in mind, I’d like to hear it. Meanwhile suffice it to say that five millennia of recorded history have failed to produce one.
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets… by attacking the structural causes of inequality,” continues Pope Francis, “no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”
And there I was, thinking it was atheism, destroying our civilisation and bringing out the worst in human nature, already compromised by the Fall. His Holiness effectively, if one hopes unwittingly, joins Marxists in promoting envy as the principal social dynamic. Rather than telling people to thank God for whatever they have, he encourages them to cast a covetous eye at those who have more.
Anyway, exactly where in the world does he find the absolute autonomy of markets? All Western governments are busily destroying even their relative autonomy. In but a handful of countries the public sector, largely dedicated to promoting egalitarianism so dear to the Pope’s heart, already accounts for half the economy, give or take ten percent.
This undermines the markets, creating the worst poverty problem, not to mention a moral one: a vast increase in the number of the relatively poor living off state handouts. (Thus Burke: “the moment that government appears at market, the principles of the market will be subverted.”)
The Pope’s native country obviously didn’t imbue him with respect for free markets. Neither does he realise that the only way of promoting his egalitarian agenda is to make private property insecure. Yet secure property is a necessary, though not sufficient, remedy against tyranny.
His Holiness would serve the faithful much better if he told them that their lives should be guided by spiritual, not material concerns. Modern economies, he could say, place an unprecedented array of consumer goods at their disposal.
Some have access to more, some to less, but all have within their grasp what historically can only be seen as fairytale cornucopia. Therein lies the opportunity to have a materially easy life; but therein also lies the danger of leading a spiritually impoverished one.
Variously ingenious trinkets will never fill a spiritual vacuum, but that doesn’t mean that pursuing material comfort is wrong. What’s wrong is to do so at the expense of what really matters in life, thus creating a spiritual vacuum.
The life of the spirit won’t be jeopardised by either poverty or wealth – but it can be obliterated by a single-minded devotion to wealth, or for that matter by a single-minded (also destructive and doomed) devotion to ‘equality’.
Perhaps His Holiness could have quoted Aquinas: “There is not necessarily greater perfection where there is greater poverty; and indeed the highest perfection is sometimes wedded to great wealth…”
It’s St Thomas rather than Karl Marx who could provide a more reliable inspiration for a pontiff commenting on the economics of modern life. Marxist drivel is best left to the experts, such as EU officials or our own Ed Miliband.
It’s the Church’s intrusion into secular affairs that partly caused the Reformation. Doing the same thing from a vulgar Marxist perspective can cause something much worse.