Pope Francis and the free market

Pope Francis and the free market

How do you feel about this statement concerning big, national economies and how nations do business? “[S]ome 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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. … Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

The statement is difficult to understand, but not if put in plainer English: Many still think trickle-down economics left free of government fussing will help more people thrive. If only government freed the markets of laws protecting the poor, money would trickle down to them if only they would wait for it. The rich 1-percent would steer the markets to their benefit, which in turn would see to it that money would spread out to the less rich automatically. Interestingly, the statement declares that the theory has never been confirmed by the facts even if it is widely invoked. You would think that some invisible hand of the market would steer things so that everybody would get some of the pie.

The above statement is gospel for the 1-percent who benefit from trickle-down economics, as long as government protects it. Those who disagree would be concerned for the other 99-percent, but their activities toward government against trickle-down would be greeted by the hostility of the well-to-do for derailing the gravy train. Often enough, the huge majority’s advocates would be called “communists” for suggesting things like taxing the rich at a higher percentage, since that sounds like confiscation of private property, the way they used to do in Warsaw Pact countries before the U.S.S.R. collapsed.

Here in this unquestionably capitalist country, trickle-down enjoys great popularity not just among the wealthy but among the vanishing middle class. The premise of the middle class is that trickle-down economics will propel them into wealth and prosperity automatically, again if government makes permanent the system, granting dissidents their First Amendment rights to speak in protest, but generally ignoring them for their counter-culture stance. They have achieved some few wins, like a graduated income tax in this, the most lightly taxed among the developed countries. But their wins are under continual attack.

It might help to mention that the controversial statement was made by Pope Francis two years ago. If the statement does not sit well with you, an American capitalist believer in trickle-down economics, you might ask what competence Francis has to say something so contrary to our way of getting and spending. Should he not confine himself to obviously religious subjects like the immorality of keeping people poor unfairly — the seventh commandment? Let those in the economic field take charge of economics and those in the religious field tend their own back yard. It seems simple.

Perhaps even more outrageous to the above objector is the premise Pope Francis starts from. All the economy exists for the benefit of all the participants, not just the shareholders or CEOs. You would think everyone knows the purpose of any company or enterprise is to make money. Can you imagine any firm uninterested in declaring a profit? As important as this is, it takes second place to the fair wage and working conditions every worker deserves because of his/her human dignity, the thing that labor unions were formed to protect. Not that there is anything new in this: in 1891 Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (Of the [Industrial] Revolution) spelled out these foundational rights of labor.

How can popes and all the other teaching authorities in the church be so far removed from the bedrock economics of the developed world? Now you can see why some devout Catholics have been pummeling Pope Francis for preaching basic, traditional social justice in a world that makes consumerism and the amassing of wealth the very reason for living.

This huge split has happened before. Today we wonder why some argued for the allowance of slavery a century and a half ago. Back then, slave traffickers demanded that popes and bishops retire to their sacristies and allow what they thought the Bible allowed.