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What Pope Francis Teaches Us about Free Markets

Are Pope Francis’s insights into our world’s social and economic situation perfect? No. Should we wish that his economic advisers would represent a broader range of views and include more pro-market voices? Yes. Nonetheless, Fratelli Tutti is anything but an unmitigated attack on markets and individualism, as some have been eager to depict it. It holds valuable advice for those who favor capitalism.

When Pope Francis released his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, half a year ago, the first reactions from the mainstream media were predictable. They reported the Bishop of Rome’s call for open immigration, but ignored his insistence on a “right of emigration” and rootedness. They noted his call for universalism and world government, but overlooked his rejection of empty humanitarian demands and his appeal for a reawakening of local traditions.

But they especially emphasized his attack on evil “neoliberalism” and exploitative capitalism. Similarly, freemarket voices have largely condemned the Pope’s call for fraternity and social friendship as little more than socialist blabbering coupled with economic illiteracy. And yet it is strange that so many observers and (supposed) readers of the encyclical would focus on its economic statements. Because as Philip Booth has noted, Fratelli Tutti, which “at 43,000 words” “is longer than the gospels of St. Matthew and St. John combined,” only “has about 100 words to say on free markets.”

All of this is rather frustrating. For Fratelli Tutti—despite its occasional unfair strawman attacks on the market economy—not only raises issues that every market advocate should embrace, but also gives important advice for the future of free markets in a world that is increasingly turning against them.

 

Individual Charity, Not Top-Down Pseudo-Humanitarianism

Take the parable of the Good Samaritan, the central story of Fratelli Tutti. For the Pope, it teaches the responsibility of us all—not (only) governments but individual citizens—for our fellow human beings. “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders,” he argues. When we face someone in need, someone starving, helpless, or dying on the side of a road, “the moment of truth” has come. Do we walk on, or “Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up?”

Pope Francis thinks this aspect of true friendship and compassion has vanished from much of today’s world. Too often we pass by suffering without a glance, like the priest and Levite of the parable. We package our “charity” in a pseudo-humanitarianism, which makes us feel good but helps no one. “[W]e look at those who suffer without touching them.” Indeed, we “[speak] about them with euphemisms and with apparent tolerance,” then “elegantly” turn our gaze away from them.

We look to our political leaders to solve these problems so that we don’t have to. But this is “childish,” in the Pope’s words; we should not expect the “powerful” and “experts” to be Good Samaritans. He believes “political life no longer has to do with healthy debates” but, as he wrote in Laudato Sì, more with “special . . . and economic interests” that “end up trumping the common good.” When we devise grand schemes to help those in need, there is always a danger that those programs might turn into another tool for Big Business and Big Government.

Christians, and all good men and women acting in charity, can make a much larger difference by being “willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference”—by simply helping our fellow human beings.

And by the way, help includes entrepreneurship. Pope Francis has no doubt that entrepreneurs have “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world” and “finding the best economic and technological means of multiplying goods.” Their skills are “a gift from God” that should not be underestimated.

Instead of building up ever larger political structures that impose “charity” top-down, it would be better to start small, “from below.” Going “case by case,” we should “act at the most concrete and local levels, . . . then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world.” Applying the principle of subsidiarity makes charity most effective: the best works of compassion are those of “spirits”—individuals—“that are free and open.” All other schemes are utopian. They quickly devolve into “an authoritarian and abstract universalism, devised or planned by a small group and presented as an ideal for the sake of levelling, dominating, and plundering.”

 

Community, Dignity, Solidarity

For all these positive words for a more free-market framework, the Pope gives several useful warnings as well. Here I focus on three.

First, the Pope, who is regularly depicted by the mainstream media as a globalist, humanitarian pseudo-hippie, makes clear that no globalization—whether of markets or politics—can be sustained without healthy counterforces of localism and decentralization. Unlimited globalization and an ever-increasing expansion of “mass culture” make us “more alone than ever.” Without a social fabric on the ground to support the individual in need, that person will feel lost and alienated—“uprooted, belonging to no one.” The sense of belonging cannot be replaced by social media channels, new technologies, or more money in one’s bank account. It requires strong local communities, identifying with one’s neighbors, being part of one’s polis; we need to “love our native land” and sink “our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place.” Globalization and the global market economy are all well and good, but they cannot substitute for the “communitarian dimension of life.”

Second, Pope Francis advises defenders of liberty for the individual and community to remember essential aspects of human dignity. Freedom should not be reduced to part of a cost-benefit calculus whose “sole criterion” is the “profit motive” (as he put it somewhat polemically in Laudato Sì). Rather, human nature “was created by God;” and since every human has been formed in God’s image, the person’s freedoms and dignity should be protected. “The dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances,” because “human beings possess an intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations.” We should consider ourselves God’s children and strive to cultivate virtues, maturing “in the moral values that foster human development.” Indeed, one might add, freedom requires these moral values. The market needs morality and a clear vision of human dignity.

 

Third and finally, Pope Francis repeatedly attacks radical individualism. The defense of liberty cannot be based on the claim that one should do whatever one wants to do. Nor is “a climate of respect for individual liberties” enough, he says. We need “something greater” that would enhance “freedom and equality:” “a liberty directed above all to love.”

We, in our communities, need to rebuild civil society and the “internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust” that have “ceased to exist,” as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate. Without these, “the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function.” To restore trust, Francis believes we need to regain “the concept of a ‘people’” working together toward a common good. We need a more “positive view of community and cultural bonds” that is more than individuals living next to one another and collaborating merely out of a temporary shared preference. To recover such a view, we must regain a vision of the human person based on “higher values.”

Making Markets Possible

Are Pope Francis’s insights into our world’s social and economic situation perfect? No. Should we wish that his economic advisers would represent a broader range of views and include more pro-market voices? Yes. Nonetheless, Fratelli Tutti is anything but an unmitigated attack on markets and individualism, as some have been eager to depict it. It holds valuable advice for those who favor capitalism.

Pope Francis calls us to embrace entrepreneurship and voluntary charity; to sow “seeds of peace” and walk “alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast” like St. Francis did. But we also need to regain a better understanding of what conditions make a market economy possible, healthy, and sustainable. To that end, we should take his thought more seriously.

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