Ben Boyce


Pope Francis on the idolatry of the ‘Free Market’

Posted on July 2, 2014 by Ben Boyce

Once in a great while, you leap to your feet in amazement on seeing a headline that strikes to the heart of your political concerns.  That’s what hit me when I pulled my copy of the NCR (National Catholic Register) from the mail on my kitchen table.  “Cardinal staunchly defends Pope’s critiques of capitalism,” read the front page headline.

That caught my attention, for sure. I knew immediately that this would be the topic for my next Sun column.  The promised review of Thomas Pikketys’ best-selling masterwork, “Capital in the 21st Century,” will have to wait until after the Praxis Book Club meets in mid-July.

The NCR article quotes at length from Pope Francis’ chief spokesman, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, chairman of a group of eight cardinals advising Francis on reforming the Catholic Church.  Cardinal Maradiaga was speaking on June 3 at an event organized by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, titled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.”

The Cardinal bluntly criticized lack of concerted global action in the face of increasing income inequality and ongoing conditions of poverty around the world. He vigorously defended the Pontiff’s searing critiques of the “free market’ system,” saying the world’s economic system is founded on a “new idolatry.”

I was astonished and deeply gratified by the Cardinal’s specific name-checking of the ideology of libertarianism as a modern doctrinal error.  As a long-time member of St. Leo’s Parish, and former chair of the Social Justice Committee, I have endured many discouraging years as an aspiring (although not always exemplary) practicing Catholic. As an active member of the Sonoma-based Praxis Peace Institute, I was one of the co-authors of a book, “Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism” edited by Praxis Executive Director Georgia Kelly and published in 2012 by Cosimo Press (and stocked at Readers’ Books).

The Praxis writer’s collective issued the book as a response to the growing influence of libertarianism in American politics. The rise of a militant right-wing conservative movement that has adopted large chunks of the libertarian agenda is a sign that the time of political sorting and reckoning is at hand.  Avowed libertarian Sen. Rand Paul and Ayn Rand admirer and 2012 vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan are the current leading contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.  This is a very live issue.

Speaking with the Pope’s authorization, Cardinal Maradiaga stated: “The libertarian deregulation of the market is much to the disadvantage of the poor.  This economy kills. This is what the Pope is saying.  Elimination of the structural causes of poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed.  We are no longer to trust the blind forces and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market … that became the thief from the world’s poor.”

The Cardinal’s brief was to explicate Pope Francis’ Evangilii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which is the first official doctrinal statement from the newly installed pontiff. The Pope placed his exhortation in context as simply a contemporary restatement of the traditional social doctrine of the Church, dating back to ancient times, and in its modern form to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891.  Every Pope since then has upheld the rights of workers to join unions and the social necessity and political duty to provide a living wage and decent working conditions to all.

Pope Francis writes: “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 sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

Pope Francis hammers at the injustice of growing inequality. He sees this income gap as a “result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace.  In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.”

He also speaks of growing corruption of public morals as the world is bent to serve the interests of an elite global capitalist class, whose indifference to the poor sets the tone for the culture at large.  He specifically points to “self-serving tax evasion” as an outcome of a harmful ideology that knows no limits.  The Pope is unambiguous on this topic: the ‘invisible hand’ of capitalism is not the hand of God.

American culture seems to be fertile ground for libertarian ideology. Our hyper-competitive and narcissistic society fosters Ayn Randian libertarianism, which ultimately amounts to an adolescent dream of a Nietzschean world of self-appointed overlords without social limits or legal constraints on their self-centered actions.

Libertarian economic conditions constituted the norm in the first Gilded Age of ‘laissez faire’ capitalism, the McKinley Era at the end of the 19th century, for which the libertarian/conservative movements seem to still pine. That was a time when there were minimal taxes on corporations, no taxes on the wealthy to support social services, no worker’s rights, no EPA environmental regulations, no minimum wage, no social safety net to prevent families from tumbling precipitously from marginal employment and insecure housing into abject penury and homelessness.  That’s the historical reality that libertarianism actually delivers.

We are still recovering from the latest crisis consequent to a 30-year spree of unregulated capitalism of the kind touted in libertarian economic doctrine. One would think the recent global financial system meltdown would have finally buried the quaint libertarian notion that markets are self-regulating. Even the high priest of free market fundamentalist economic orthodoxy, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, a devoted Ayn Rand libertarian, recanted publicly on this point. He testified before Congress in 2008, as the ashes were still falling from the ceiling in the aftermath of the bonfire incinerating the wealth of an entire generation: “Our model could not comprehend this outcome…”

This false religion should be dead. Only plutocratic money keeps it alive.

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