Give thanks for the pope’s anti-free market views

November 27, 2013

By Richard Beales
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Wall Street bigwigs often lean economically right and socially left. In what looks like a manifesto for his papacy, Pope Francis takes the opposite stance. He might not, however, object to the relatively uncommercialized American Thanksgiving holiday. And over their turkey on Thursday, the rich might ponder a financial system that the pope says “rules rather than serves.”

Francis’ skepticism of free markets and concern about the absence of ethics in finance and economics were shared by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. But Francis’ simple style and consistent rejection of the traditional trappings of office lend his words particular weight. He rails against inequality and “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Though Francis is guided by his Christianity, no particular religion is needed to agree that pure capitalism, whatever its big-picture merits, leaves many people marginalized.

There are some unarguable remedies mentioned in Francis’ so-called apostolic exhortation, including the rich helping the poor and initiatives to improve healthcare and education. The Catholic Church already does some of this. The Economist estimated in 2010 that the church and related entities like hospitals and schools spent around $170 billion a year in the United States, and that America accounted for as much as 60 percent of the church’s global wealth.

Francis probably expects more from his church. End-2012 cash deposits of 4.1 billion euros and portfolios under management worth 6.3 billion euros at the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, the Vatican bank which recently released an annual report for the first time, must represent only a fraction of the church’s worldwide assets. It’s easy to imagine the Holy See could rival the efforts of, say, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with its $40 billion endowment if it corralled its resources.

The pontiff certainly wants more from governments and ordinary people. As well-fed American families give thanks, debate over the political implications of his advocacy of solidarity and shared responsibility may be best avoided. But recalling that the Thanksgiving holiday’s origins relate to collective effort meeting the basic needs of a human community, not to financial success, would at least be a nod in Francis’ direction.


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All praise for the Pope’s attention to this matter. However, the real solution is not in “the rich helping the poor”: alms will also be the poor cousin compared to correct economic policy.

The key to liberation economics in this world is the restoration of a level of national autonomy through import tariffs. Heretical though this idea is in economic circles, it provides the means for national governments to take control of their national systems, and to build robust and diverse economies.

This is not advocacy for the return to punitive tariffs of 50%+, but rather a modest tariff regime, adopted by all countries, of 15% on all goods and services imported into each country or trading block.

Such a regime would help both rich and poor countries. It is hard to see any downside; yet it will not be given a moments thought by those who are the true opinion makers. Yet, we can only hope.

Posted by GrahamLovell | Report as abusive

No surprise here…the church has always been ‘liberal’ and critical of free market values except where its own investments including real estate are concerned: In that case the Church is ‘bullish’ on free-market freedoms to do what is expedient.

Posted by kbill | Report as abusive

Its also interesting to me how the IMPROVING plight of the poor and hungry in the world can be so thoroughly ignored by the Church, the other representative NGO’s, and the media.

The absolute numbers and percentages of humans living in abject poverty, and living with food insecurity have dropped significantly since the 1970’s. The number of people with a living wage, adequate food, clean water, and basic medical services has RISEN significantly — in most cases thanks to the largesse of free-enterprise and its benefactors.

There is still work to do, but as the presumed leader of the Catholic church once declared to one of his female followers, “The poor you’ll have with you always.”

Meanwhile, if one is in the business of selling guilt and despair as ‘free-market’ commodities (as are the Church, the NGO’s, and the media) it’s expedient to ignore the numbers and the improvements so that the soft intellect of their followers (and contributors) continue to obsess on the decreasing need as though it were at crisis proportion still.

Posted by kbill | Report as abusive