Pope Francis's Critique of Capitalism and the Quest for the Good Life

Last month, FT Alphaville’s Izabella Kaminska picked up a potent critique of free-market capitalism from Pope Francis’s first Apostolic Exhortation.The Pope’s critique is well worth reading. See paragraphs 52-60 and 202-208 here. I must confess, I’m not a regular reader of papal exhortations—indeed, papal pronouncements of any variety tend not to make my “to read” listI’m not Catholic. but the snippets Kaminska selected gave me pause.

At a time when income inequality is growing and economic opportunity remains elusive for many, Pope Francis wagged his finger, preaching, “No to an economy of exclusion; no to the new idolatry of money; no to the inequality which spawns violence.”

Going further, he argued:

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.Apostolic Exhortation, paragraph 204.

Francis’s remarks prompted questions around the sustainability of the post-Cold War (for lack of a better term, neoliberal) global economy; the feasibility of politicians generating solutions to mankind’s needs; and, whether the biggest deficit confronting people today is neither financial nor material, but spiritual in nature.

Back to the future?

Roughly 35 years ago, one of Pope Francis’s predecessors called into question a political and economic system that deprived humans of dignity, liberty and opportunity. While it may be a stretch to argue that Pope John Paul II defeated communism, it would certainly be fair to say that Pope John Paul II inculcated courage amongst populations living under the Soviet yoke, and gave spirit to Poland’s Solidarity movement — both of which contributed to communism’s demise in Europe.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union — an inevitable outcome according to progressive post-Cold War narratives — a new era of globalization dawned, broadly characterized by free capital flows, market-driven pricing mechanisms (e.g., interest rates and exchange rates), deregulation, and privatization of state enterprises. Twenty-two years on, it would be heroically difficult to argue that humanity as a whole is worse off than it would have been under communism.

But Pope Francis seems to be asking, “has the pendulum swung too far?” Has free-market capitalism truly led to greater dignity, liberty, and opportunity, or have we become party to an economic system that now stifles these necessities?Previous popes, including John Paul II, critiqued free-market capitalism as well. Since the communists “lost” and the capitalists “won” the Cold War, it would seem the merits of the papal critiques of capitalism were unfounded. Regardless of one’s opinion, it’s worth pondering whether 25 years from now we’ll reflect on this period as an inflection point on the way to a more inclusive (define it how you will) economic system.I acknowledge the argument that there’s no viable political/economic system to take the current one’s place (à la Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man). Maybe. Maybe not. How much tinkering on the margin (e.g., global adoption of capital controls) would it take to bring about a fundamental remaking of the international order?

Render therefore unto Caesar...

Beyond Pope Francis’s questions over the ethics of free-market capitalism linger questions of whether politics — at least in the liberal democracies — is capable of solving the socioeconomic problems attendant with yawning inequality and dwindling opportunity. Looking at the health, wealth, and employment outcomes in the United States, as well as the political sclerosis exhibited in the face of these challenges, the failures are manifest.

Yet in the face of fractious politics, Pope Francis still believes there is a place — and even a hope — for politicians to solve these challenges:

I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! … I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.Apostolic Exhortation, paragraph 205.

Perhaps this is all just a clever way of absolving the Catholic Church from taking responsibility for the poor and sick in its earthly ministries, and allowing it to focus its efforts on the glory of the hereafter. After all, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” quoth The Bible.Matthew 22:21. The Bible: King James Version. Oxford World’s Classics edition.

I’m not so cynical. Politics has a critical role in solving these challenges, but I suspect that going forward, the solutions will emerge from the micro level, not the macro. In other words, it starts with individuals and then proceeds through local politics to national politics. Indeed, perhaps the current failures of politics in solving economic challenges is a function of the scale at which policy discussions of import are taking place.For more on this, see “If mayors ruled the world: a conversation with Benjamin Barber” in Prospect Magazine.

The quest for the good life

But where does this leave us? According to Pope Francis, living under economic systems that fail to serve the bulk of humanity and hoping that politicians will serve enlightened interests. Assuming that individuals’ earthly, material problems are solved, Pope Francis’s critique raises a larger — if implied — question: what’s it all about, man?

A couple years ago, a friend and I were discussing the economic prospects for our generation over pints of Guinness. “Ultimately,” he said, “people will have to find a source of meaning beyond which consumer goods they own.” Agree, disagree, or be indifferent to the statement; but I think it captures the sentiment of an issue to which neither economics nor politics offers a solution, though both purport to do so: man’s search for meaning.

I suspect that the ballast of meaning will be an increasingly sought-after (and marketed) commodity in the years to come. Pope Francis has rather cleverly positioned the Catholic Church as a conduit to finding meaning, and I’m sure it will continue to prove a fount of solace and inspiration as it has for millions.

The quest for the good life has been a noble and slippery pursuit for thousands of years. And despite Pope Francis’s critiques of political and economic systems, I suspect that the source of meaning will be found within individuals themselves. In this respect, our best preachers may be the sages from antiquity: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage and wisdom remain a proven compass not only in the search for meaning, but also as a guide for participation in political and economic exchange.