Earlier this week, Pope Francis released his first major writing as head of the Roman Catholic Church — his Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel” — to much fanfare from American progressives and more than a few groans from the right. While the pope’s message confirmed a lot of social doctrine that conservative Catholics can be thankful for, his defense and advocacy of a moral society contained one glaring omission — a defense of the free market.
In fact, he seemed to come down fairly hard on libertarian economics, characterizing them as “trickle-down theories” that have “never been confirmed by the facts,” and tend “to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits.”
But conservative and libertarians shouldn’t blame the pope for his characterization of the free market — we should blame ourselves. The pope is the head of the church, not squarely in the camp of any political or economic theory; it is his duty to promote its truths, preserve its traditions, and show us the way to salvation through penetrating teachings and hard questions. And as his questions and teachings this week showed, we have failed to broadly and convincingly make the moral case for the free market.
There is much to goad the average libertarian in Pope Francis’ critique. Most sound economists we know would likely convulse at the his contention that the benefits of economic freedom are not overwhelmingly “confirmed by the facts,” and would launch into an intelligent and true defense of economic freedom, citing the unparalleled spread of prosperity, the steep rise in life expectancy, the sharp decline in infant mortality, the virtual end of any permanent lower class, and any number of other demonstrable truths. And they would, in all likeliness, fail to sway the pontiff, as well as millions of other intelligent and moral people. (Matt Lewis: Why Pope Francis’ message is welcomed by many conservatives)
Because as Gov. Chris Christie recently observed, “politics is a feeling.”
American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks experienced this firsthand, and the evening moved him to spend the years since tirelessly espousing the moral, human case for the free market. Despite being one of libertarian economics’ most knowledgeable champions, Dr. Brooks was defeated at a Thanksgiving-table discussion. Why? Because while he correctly bemoaned things such as high corporate tax rates and the government’s role in the housing crisis, his liberal sister rested her point on a newspaper account of a woman and her child forced to sleep in a car. Who cared if Dr. Brooks — with all his numbers and figures — had the greater cure for human misery? In the eyes of his family, his sister cared most about human beings.
It is essential to make this case, because economic freedom is the sole economic system that allows man the freedom to create and succeed through his own faculties, satisfying his material needs as well as nurturing his spiritual nature — his happiness. Because of this, it is the only economic system compatible with christian morality.
But like every single society of men, there is more than enough room for the devil. And the greed and consumerism Pope Francis rightly criticizes is a weakness of human nature, not of freedom. As libertarian economist Milton Friedman challenged decades ago, “Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? … And what does reward virtue? You think the Communist commissar rewards virtue? … Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.” (RELATED: VIDEO: Milton Friedman vs. Phil Donahue)
Dr. Friedman’s point, though, was likely lost on a young Argentine priest who would one day lead The Church: While in the 1970s Dr. Friedman’s teachings and students helped save neighboring Chile from economic ruin, leading to the end of its anti-Communist military junta, the man in charge — Gen. Augusto Pinochet — became the face of free-market reform in Latin America. Mr. Pinochet was not exactly a poster boy for caring, and despite the great successes of the Chilean economy, to many in Latin America, free markets became synonymous with the harsh excesses of his rule.
But while libertarians must stress the moral, human story of economic freedom, we must also guard against progressives’ claim to the moral high ground. Despite what some vacuous pundits might draw from Pope Francis’ words, the path to salvation is not through Obamacare. Christ was clear in his instructions to his followers: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” — meaning, in part, the taxes we pay to government are paid to the government, and won’t help us out with St. Peter.
Finally, while we conservatives and libertarians may disagree with the pope on the details, his message is dead on. And despite their victory lap, the other side doesn’t get it: Man is not a material creature nurtured by minimum wage laws, moved by Dodd-Frank; he is a spiritual creature, nurtured by freedom, moved by caring.
In short, it’s the humanity, stupid.