I’m a non-Catholic who generally admires Pope Francis, but he loses me when “social justice” morphs into social-ism. While I’m loath to pick an argument with the pope on a theological matter, I believe that in his admirable zeal to minister to the needy, his apostolic exhortation (the first major written work of his papacy, delivered Tuesday) propagates fallacies about both Christianity and human nature that could confuse and conflict Christians, particularly Catholics, about capitalism.
The pope calls for governments worldwide to get more actively involved in restraining capitalism so as to divide societal wealth more evenly among their citizens. As far as I know, Jesus of Nazareth, upon whose teachings all Christianity, including Catholicism, is based, never advocated forced charity (which is what socialism entails), but here are five important additional, secular points, based on my combined expertise in people, public policy and productivity, plus my firsthand observations of how over 35 different societies distribute goods and services:
1) In Jesus’ (human) lifetime, government wasn’t really administering charity. Today, in the USA, rightly or wrongly (I’d argue wrongly) large percentages of citizens’ incomes are already being taxed by the government and redistributed to low-income people in various forms. The problem in the USA isn’t too little generosity – it’s too much generosity, of the coerced, indiscriminate type administered by government (e.g. we have one-sixth of the country on food stamps, which is far more than statistically can’t provide for themselves). If I stand in the middle of Beverly Hills and offer free pizzas to anyone who “needs” one, I’ll be out of pizzas quickly, and probably not one recipient will have truly “needed” the pizza.
There should be no government guarantees of charity. Those in need should have to appeal to their fellow Americans for assistance, which the truly needy would still get (because humans, especially Americans, are characteristically generous), but which those who aren’t truly in need and those whose needs are of their own making, e.g. drug and alcohol abusers, might not get – and in the absence of a guarantee thereof, those who can work would be much more likely to do so, at least enough to sustain themselves. A little fear is a good motivator – if you erase all fear about where people’s next meals are coming from, as we’ve essentially tried to do via government programs like food stamps, you also erase a lot of motivation to work.
And our Founding Fathers got that. As a lawyer, I know there’s some historical confusion among Americans about what they meant when they wrote, “promote the general welfare” into the Constitution as a proper undertaking of government. They meant for the federal government to mount a collective response in the face of a hurricane like Katrina, or the outbreak of a deadly disease like SARS, that the individual states and localities couldn’t be expected to handle and coordinate on their own. They did not mean for the federal government to be involved in guaranteeing individual Americans housing, food, clothing, etc. on an indefinite basis.
2) People will be less productive if they’re not able to accumulate anything above and beyond their needs – they’ll produce what they need and then relax. That’s not idolatry of money; it’s just plain human nature.
3) Accumulation of excess wealth by individuals is necessary to provide the investable resources that create the business enterprises that give most people their incomes. (Poor people don’t do a lot of hiring.)
4) Accumulation of excess wealth by individuals is also necessary to allow there to be purchases of nonessential goods and services, which is what many Americans spend their working lives producing. Imagine how many fewer jobs there’d be if basic needs were the only things produced and consumed in our economy (and spending on goods and services, both needs and wants, is a good thing in that it requires and rewards people for using skills, talents, gifts, etc. to create things of value – gifts don’t do that).
5) Some giving is good, but not all. Some helps people, but some simply enables people not to develop their own skills, talents, gifts, etc. as fully as they otherwise might. Given the small percentage of human beings (or any species) who are developmentally incapable of sustaining themselves and their offspring, there really should be no need for a great deal of charitable sacrifice in a capitalistic nation that affords all people opportunities to profit from their own skills and hard work. If the average adult citizen (taking into account both free riders and big givers) sacrificed just a little, voluntarily, which I believe they would, it should be more than enough to carry the relatively small group of truly self-insufficient citizens – if those were the only citizens being carried – without cutting substantially into the lifestyles of the carriers.
And that’s true even on a global scale. The reason there’s poverty in many parts of the world is not because the citizens of capitalist nations aren’t generous enough. It’s not because there’s unequal distribution of wealth. It’s because there’s unequal distribution of capitalism. The problems in those nations are systemic, often involving a lot of corruption, totalitarianism, anarchy, lack of respect for human and property rights, sometimes religious and cultural norms that subjugate and relegate huge segments of the populations, e.g. women, to low or no earning power, etc. We can help out on a temporary basis after a tsunami or an earthquake, as we always do, but we can’t fix those kinds of systemic problems with money.
Bottom line: Capitalism is Christian, because it incentivizes people to do the most with their skills, talents, gifts, etc.; it distributes goods and services far more effectively and fairly than government ever could; and the accumulation of wealth that it produces actually leads to more effective charity – voluntarily given – than government could ever force. It’s between each individual and the Deity (not for the government), then, to strike the right balance between saving, investing, spending and giving.
As Jesus’ words and deeds seem to very wisely suggest, the choice to help others gains its moral meaning when it represents an exercise of an individual’s free will, not when it’s coerced by government. Christians – Catholics especially, I think – need to keep this straight, because if they invite the government to impose their religion upon others, they necessarily also invite it to impose others’ lack thereof upon them. For instance, when Christians petition the government to impose their social-justice values upon others in the form of tax-and-spend wealth redistribution, it becomes difficult for them to then credibly object to the government similarly imposing others’ values about, for example, purchasing contraception coverage, upon Christians. In capitalistic terms, that’s a bad tradeoff – far better to let the Church do what it was founded to do and let government do what it was founded to do (which was not to redistribute the wealth of the citizenry).