Both criticism and praise have been directed at Pope Francis for his latest fiery tirade against the evils of “unfettered capitalism,” during a speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia. The phrase “unfettered capitalism” is ubiquitous in reporting on the event, but according to the Vatican translations of the Pope’s remarks, that’s not quite what he said.
The relevant passage, with a bit of the surrounding context, reads as follows:
Even within that ever smaller minority which believes that the present system is beneficial, there is a widespread sense of dissatisfaction and even despondency. Many people are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns.
Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
I do not need to go on describing the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship: you are well aware of them. Nor is it enough to point to the structural causes of today’s social and environmental crisis. We are suffering from an excess of diagnosis, which at times leads us to multiply words and to revel in pessimism and negativity. Looking at the daily news we think that there is nothing to be done, except to take care of ourselves and the little circle of our family and friends.
With all due respect to the Holy Father, my hackles rise at the sound of Orwellian phrases like “the bondage of individualism.” People can’t be truly “free” unless they’re dominated and controlled by collective institutions? We’ve been hearing that line from the Left for over a century now, through such absurd reductions as claims that only welfare dependence can make people “free” enough to pursue their true calling as artists and poets.
Granted, this is the Pope speaking, so much of his brief against “individualism” refers to spiritual isolation – people living on their own instead of joining together in communities. The question we must ask is how that sense of community will be fostered. Encouraging people to embrace their neighbors and work together voluntarily is laudable. On the other hand, imposing “community” from above leads to stagnation, strife, and ultimately the sort of dictatorship no one would describe as “subtle.”
These warnings about “subtle dictatorship” fold too neatly into the Left’s great project of making law-abiding people feel like criminals, so they will accept the dramatic expansion of State power. You’re living your life, pursuing your ambitions, investing your capital – which can refer not just to bags of money, but to the labor capital each and every one of us owns, and should tend with pride – and following every complicated law imposed by the regulatory apparatus… but you’re still a criminal, because your refusal to submit enthusiastically to collective political authority makes you an accessory to a “subtle dictatorship” that only social-justice activists can detect.
Whether the Pope means for his critique to be taken in such a direction or not, he should realize that the kind of rhetoric he employs is extremely useful to the non-subtle dictators of the world. They love the notion of invoking religious authority to slake their thirst for power, and crush resistance to their authority by labeling dissenters “selfish.” Every dictatorship of the industrial era has accused its enemies of selfishness, often before slaughtering them in vast numbers.
The Pope should also know better than to position socialism as the solution to greed. On the contrary, socialists are incredibly greedy, as the lavish lifestyles of left-wing Men and Women of the People attest. Even in nations that haven’t been completely flushed down the socialist toilet yet, the people who rail against the way other people “pursue money” tend to be filthy rich and accustomed to fabulous luxury themselves.
As with politicians including Hillary Clinton, they often accumulate their money through completely non-productive methods that don’t create jobs or raise the standard of living for the poor by bringing them better goods and services at lower prices.
The embrace of left-wing politics doesn’t reduce the level of “greed” in society – it creates more poor people, while concentrating wealth in the hands of a politically-connected aristocracy. Societies with a higher level of more evenly-distributed poverty aren’t less “greedy.” They just have more people worrying about where their next meal will come from, and fewer prosperous working people with excess capital to invest.
And I would submit to the Pope, with a vast body of evidence culled from both history and current events behind me, that nothing “sets people against one another” and “puts at risk our common home” more than collectivist left-wing politics. People who are left free to cooperate voluntarily, invest capital, tend to their families, and work to pursue their ambitions generate immense wealth, which can be used both to improve the lives of the down-trodden and care for the environment. Collectivist economics, on the other hand, produce bitter poverty beneath clouds of smog.
Let me put it this way: it is objectively better to be “poor” in America than occupy what passes for the “middle class” in a long list of other nations. Compile a list of those nations, and I guarantee you that every one of their governments will take a dim view of the private ownership of capital.
Where’s all that “pessimism and negativity” the Pope complains about coming from? From the Left, of course. They create and exacerbate social crisis in order to gain more power and money, as farmers plant seed so they can harvest crops. They round up armies of the dispossessed to make war against the freedom and property of others. They advocate the ever-greater use of compulsive force against citizens who have made good-faith efforts to comply with every law of the land.
And, in case it has escape the Pope’s notice, they are increasingly hostile toward religious institutions of the sort he presides over, precisely because religious faith inspires responsibility and voluntary community, which are anathema to those who are hungry for power. They’ll be happy to use the Pope’s anti-capitalist rhetoric for their own ends… while they level the financial guns of the State against churches for defying their ideology in other ways.
“Greed” does not dissipate when political power becomes the coin of the realm. Actual coins are better, because they convey freedom – the freedom to work as you wish, and spend your earnings as you see fit. It is the business of leaders such as the Pope to call strong, free people to greater acts of charity and community, not give political cover to those who would impose collectivist visions of “justice” upon them. If Pope Francis doesn’t want his words to be taken that way, he should make that clear, in language that will dismay the leftists currently applauding what they universally perceive as his assaults on capitalism.
Capitalism is not synonymous with “greed.” Capitalism is freedom. It has a far greater capacity for generosity than any of the grisly alternatives. In fact, the benefits it conveys to the poor, and to the Earth, as a matter of course are far superior to the forced “charity” of the centralized State. I’d love to illustrate that point with an example of unfettered capitalism, if the Vatican can direct me to one, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for directions. In truth, the problem lies with the fetters, not the capitalism.