Dear Pope: Be Thankful for Capitalism

Readers: Terry is thankful to be back with you after a couple or three weeks hiatus. He was managing some family affairs and was unable to write regularly. Today he is back with material sure to offend and provoke. Enjoy!

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Pope Francis is no doubt thankful for a lot of things, but capitalism is not one of them. He recently admonished us per his Evangelii Gaudium to despise capitalism. In his view, economic inequality is the direct result of the “tyranny” of the free market (Chapter 2, Heading 1, no. 53-4).

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

The Pope is wrong.*

Man on fire

Christianity has always had an ambivalent relationship with commerce. Jesus appears at times to have held the rich in contempt, telling us that it is easier for a rich man to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel to get into heaven. Or something like that–it’s been a long time since I went to Sunday School. Yet he also shared the parable of the talents, wherein a servant is admonished for not putting the silver he was given to good use. The old widow giving her mite as an offering was said to please God more than the larger but disproportional gift of the rich, yet one has to wonder which gift fed more poor people.

We should not expect any different, of course. Parables from all religious traditions are guides that, when functioning as they should, prompt us to think more deeply about the human condition. They are not meant to give us easy answers to simple questions. Shallow interpretations that take such stories at face value do more harm than good, especially when they mask blatant contradictions. Yet this is precisely what the Pope has encouraged with his Evangelii Gaudium.

The servants who invested their silver acquired more land and were praised. The one who buried his talents was admonished. In some interpretations, the word “talents” is taken to mean abilities, skills, and knowledge. Is the Pope saying they should have simply given them to the poor? That their silver or their “talents” were ill-gotten gain? That inequality must be rectified right then and there by redistributing wealth?

That view is simple-minded and destructive. If we are to learn anything from the parable of the talents, it is that what we have may be turned into more–if it is invested. The stock market that Pope Francis decries is precisely that–a system whereby talents are multiplied. Wealth is turned into more wealth. Talents are turned into more talents.

Pope Francis also excoriates “trickle-down” economics. Clearly he does not understand what is meant by the term or he would praise those who amass capital and put it to good use. Wealth trickles down, but those who hide under the porch won’t get wet. Putting one’s talents to work, no matter how modest, is the first step in stepping up.

All people who hurt for the poor need to learn how to distinguish honest commerce from crony capitalism. When markets are truly free from governmental coercion, one may easily identify the people who have materially benefited their fellows the most. They are the wealthy ones. We know that because under genuine laissez-faire capitalism, it is the only way to get rich. Even those who inherit their talents of silver must continue to put them to good use or lose them.

Under our current system, there is ample reason to be steamed up about inequality, but not because of true capitalism. The cause of such inequality is the ability of those with political power to tilt the table in their favor–crony capitalism. Separate government and the economy and the problem disappears.

Or I should say the real problem disappears. Inequality will remain, and it’s a good thing, too. Thank heaven we are not all alike. Some of us are better at one thing, some another. Some people excel at making money, some at playing chess. Inequality is the inevitable result of each of us being free to do our best when some people’s best is less than other people’s best. Fortunately, enough people are good at creating jobs to employ those of us who are better at having jobs. Rather than beef about it, the employed should send their employers and those who invested in them a turkey every year.

Even those who have trouble putting their talents to work benefit from the vast array of cheaper and higher-quality goods that the capitalists make possible. The faux problem–that some have less than others–masks the fact that all are better off when some employ their talents to become really well off. And, contrary to what the Pope says, there is ample evidence to prove it. The living standard of humanity skyrocketed when capitalism saved humanity from the grinding poverty of the Middle Ages. How quickly we forget.

So, Pope Francis, while you are blessing things today and giving thanks, remember those who create what you so eagerly want others to have. They deserve your praise, not your invective.

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*Since I am not Catholic, I did not burst into flames upon typing that.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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