Pope Francis, Adam Smith and Eve, and God’s Invisible Hand

Finally getting around to reading Pope Francis’ speech in Bolivia. Maybe I just hear what I want to hear, but I’m not seeing this as anti-West or anti-free market (unless one reads Adam Smith as having the same prejudices).

Personally I think he is trying to speak ethics to the political-economy. If he is using language that sounds familiar to followers of the Left and Right political movements, it may be because that’s his primary audience. That is the population most prone to violent abuse by one side and demagoguery by the other. (See also: the history of Communist and Fascist regimes in Latin/South America, Africa, Europe and Asia).

The points criticizing “profit at any price” “capital [becoming] an idol] are right on. Capitalism is just a system; what really matters is creation and trade. Capitalism is only useful and morally justified when it facilitates more creation and trade, more markets, and more people’s access to goods/services. Otherwise you are indeed making Capital a fetish.

“Profit at any price” works another way. It’s not just externalities — those extra costs that aren’t explicit. I buy gas from Citgo and it funds the Venezuelan government’s crackdown on human rights activists. I buy a cell phone and support the exploitation of child miners.

It’s also losing sight of the real profits, the way more people would benefit in more ways. That’s called economic growth. The real kind. Not just when you bump up your GDP because you reclassified digital Whatsits as real Widgets.

I hear Francis apply the same criticism to aid when he says that “Welfare programs geared to certain emergencies can only be considered temporary responses [that] will never able able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free [non-compulsory], creative, participatory and solidary work.”

I.e. there’s something wrong if the international system that creates refugee camps but can’t stop the wars that make refugees, that profits from exporting food to hungry populations but not helping those populations grow their own food.

And how to you change the system? Francis has a suggestion: “Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new.”

Colonialism in Francis’ eyes is not just exploiting people, but denying them respect as human beings. It’s as wrong to physically enslave someone as it is to treat one family like they’re just consumers of your products, another like they’re just nameless faces for your fundraising campaign.

Not to mention justifying all sorts of heinous abuse in the name of “austerity”, “the war on terror”, “wealth inequality” or whatever banner the State wants to wave over yet another pile of corpses.

Don’t let someone tell you that safety, happiness and prosperity come when you grant a Government or Company more control over your life and property.

But what about a religious institution? Personally I worry that the Church is part of the same system of “great leaders, the great powers and the elites” that so tightly control humanity. It is likewise vulnerable to the abuses of power.

What’s the alternative? Francis says “Let us say YES to the encounter between peoples and cultures. Blessed are the peacemakers.”

That is what’s at the heart of the real human economy, the real civilization. It’s only in more person-to-person, community-to-community engagement that we can have a more just and efficient “administration of our common home.”

I agree with the Pope that this is possible. We have the natural resources, the intellectual capacity, and the technology. We have generations ahead of us to figure this out.

Of course there’s still the problem of “heart”. Obviously Francis sees the Church at the core of this turn towards a better world. He’d be a terrible Pope if he didn’t.

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