It has been said by some of his critics that Pope Francis does not understand capitalism, having grown up in Peronist Argentina. This may be true.
But it is also true that the economic system which is now a way of life in our own country is not exactly free enterprise as the proponents of that philosophy, going back to Adam Smith, envisioned it.
We have embarked upon a far different enterprise—bailing out failed banks and auto-makers, subsidizing farmers and sugar producers with taxpayer dollars—so that when it is criticized, it is difficult for those who believe in genuine capitalism not to agree.
Ideally, capitalism is the form of economic organization most consistent with other freedoms. Economist Ludwig Von Mises argued that the free enterprise system is the only form of economy which advances other freedoms we hold dear:
Very often, people misunderstand what it means, believing that economic freedom is something quite apart from other freedoms and that these other freedoms—which they hold to be more important—can be preserved even in the absence of economic freedom. The meaning of economic freedom is this: that the individual is in a position to choose the way in which he wants to integrate himself into the totality of society. The individual is able to choose his career, he is free to do what he wants to do.
Discussing what genuine capitalism would involve, in contrast to the “crony capitalism” we now actually have, Von Mises writes:
The real bosses are the consumers. And if the consumers stop patronizing a branch of business, these businessmen are either forced to abandon their eminent position or to adjust their actions to the wishes and to the orders of the consumers.
The sovereign is not the state, it is the people. In the market economy, everyone serves his fellow citizens by serving himself. This is what the liberal authors of the 18th century had in mind when they spoke of the harmony of the rightly understood interests of all groups and of all individuals of the population. And it was this doctrine of the harmony of interests which the socialists opposed. They spoke of the ‘irreconcilable conflict of interests’ between various groups.
F.A. Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, declared that,
Economic freedom is an indispensable condition of all other freedom, and free enterprise both a necessary condition and a consequence of personal freedom. Free enterprise has developed the only kind of society which, while it provides us with ample material means, if that is what we mainly want, still leaves the individual free to choose between material and non material reward.
When we defend the free enterprise system we must always remember that it deals only with means. What we make of our freedom is up to us. We must not confuse efficiency in providing means with the purposes with which they serve….It is the glory of the free enterprise system that it makes it at least possible that each individual, while serving his fellows, can do so for his own ends. But the system is itself only a means, and its infinite possibilities must be used in the service of ends which exist apart.
Whether or not Pope Francis’s understanding of free enterprise is imperfect, he is posing a larger question for us to consider. The purpose of life, after all, is not the amassing of material goods, and the purpose of society is not simply to provide the atmosphere in which greed is given full sway.
Our own society has provided its citizens with the most advanced standard of living in the world, yet our families are in decline, crime and drug use proliferate, our educational system is often failing, and the middle class has seen its wages stagnate, while the number in poverty is growing.
At the same time, those with the highest incomes, Wall Street bankers among them, seek to use the political process to immunize themselves from the cost of failure.
Conservatives, in particular, have often betrayed their own larger calling by embracing a crass materialism which, in the end, is not radically different from that which Marxists embrace. To the extent that one believes that man is simply a material being and his purpose in this world is to increase his material wealth, the twin philosophies of Marxism and, say, the libertarianism of the followers of Ayn Rand, tend to merge.
Pope Francis, of course, is marching to an entirely different drummer. Jesus, after all, said that, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Simply because we believe that economic freedom is the best way to organize our economy does not mean that the amassing of wealth is the appropriate goal for individual lives.
In his book, The Everlasting Man, the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton provides this assessment of the materialist view of history: “The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings.”
Chesterton points out that, “Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.
Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration; and even the more active quadruped has not inspired a book for boys called Golden Deeds of Gallant Goats or any similar title.
But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows leaves off.
It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south. And if you leave things like the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all. ‘The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of men. Economic history would not even be history.’
To believe that society’s most important purpose is to minister to man’s material needs—rather than his more complex spiritual requirements—is to misread man’s nature.
Dante, writing in the 14th century in De Vulgari Eloquentia, described man in these terms:
That as man has been endowed with a threefold life, namely vegetable, animal, and rational, he journeys along a threefold road: for in so far as he is vegetable he seeks for what is useful, wherein he is like nature with the plants; insofar as he is animal he seeks for that which is pleasurable, wherein he is like nature with the brutes; in so far as he is rational he seeks for what is right—and in this he stands alone, or is a partaker of the nature of the Angels.
In recent days, the behavior of some of our business and financial leaders has been revealed for all to see, holding up a mirror to the serious problems we face. It is particularly important for advocates of free market economics to make clear that this behavior is a challenge to capitalism itself. The first principle of free markets—transparency and trust—have been challenged.
Pope Francis has performed a notable service if his visit causes us to take a closer look at our society. What values do we really hold dear? Many Americans like to proclaim that ours is a Christian country. If Jesus were to return, would he agree? Perhaps that is what the Pope is asking Americans to consider. Beyond disagreements over the details of climate change or immigration policy is the question of what kind of society we want to be, and what values we hold dear. We don’t really think about this question very much. It is time that we did.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © October, 2015 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation and republished with gracious permission.