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American Conservatives And Papal Economics

Over the course of the 35 years prior to the election of Pope Francis last March, American conservatives grew rather accustomed to having their broader social and economic belief systems confirmed by the Catholic prelate.  Both Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were largely understood to be sympathetic to conservative views, and John Paul in particular was revered as an anti-Communist and thus an advocate of liberty and autonomy in the conduct of human affairs.

Needless to say, therefore, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has presented these conservatives with some challenges.  Like his predecessors, this Pope has insisted repeatedly that his pronouncements are not meant to be viewed as political statements but as declarations of human dignity and need.  But, of course, that has not stopped conservatives from bristling at many of his pronouncements, fretting openly about the first Jesuit pope and his purportedly leftist leanings.

Consider, for example, Pope Francis’ recent pronouncements on “legitimate” income redistribution.  Roughly two weeks ago, at a meeting with the leaders of the United Nations, he declared that “A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State…”

Naturally, this set off American conservatives, leading many to shake their heads in disapproval, warning that this type of talk always and everywhere leads to trouble.  The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas responded in typical fashion, writing that:

Charity and philanthropy are better than wealth redistribution because they create a bond between the giver and the receiver, unlike an anonymous government check.  These donations also establish an expectation that the receiver has a moral responsibility to use the money or services wisely and be accountable to the giver…

Redistribution, or whatever name you give the practice, is socialism.  Socialism often leads to mutually shared poverty.

Is Thomas being fair?  Is it reasonable for him to insist that philanthropy and charity are the best and only means by which to aid the poor?  Is the expectation of some economic redistribution necessarily a sign of socialism?  Moreover, are these claims of Thomas in keeping with mainstream conservative or capitalistic thought?

While we understand the conservative impulse to object to the thought of governmentally-induced wealth redistribution, we also think that Thomas’ knee-jerk rejection of Pope Francis’ statement is damaging, both to public discourse on an important subject and to the credibility of capitalists and conservatives.

The following quotes, from two very different conservative sources, not only address Thomas’ concerns but should also serve to inform conservative opinion on the type of fairness Pope Francis tends to advocate.  The first, which notes the beauty but ultimate inadequacy of private charity, comes from one of history’s greatest and most revered conservative observers of politics and policy, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Memoir on Pauperism both correctly assessed the economic perversions of state charity and acknowledged its necessity.  To wit: 

I recognize that individual charity almost always produces useful results.  It devotes itself to the greatest miseries, it seeks out misfortune without publicity, and it silently and spontaneously repairs the damage.  It can be observed wherever there are unfortunates to be helped.  It grows with suffering.  And yet, it cannot be unthinkingly relied upon because a thousand accidents can delay or halt its operation.  One cannot be sure of finding it, and it is not aroused by every cry of pain…

The second bit comes from Adam Smith, the godfather of contemporary capitalist thought.  It would, of course, be a fool’s errand to try to enlist Smith in the rationalization of the modern welfare state.  At the same time, there can be no doubt that both his moral scheme, as advanced in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the economic ideas expresed in The Wealth of Nations argue in favor of an equitable society, one in which sympathy and “fellow feeling” advance the chief value of justice and ensure both the morally- and economically-correct distribution of wealth.

It is the great mulitplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.  Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, the price of a great quantity of theirs.  He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society…

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society?  The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain.  Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society.  But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole.  No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.  It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

As with any appeal to authority, these quotes are, in and of themselves, proof of nothing.  At the same time, though, given their respective sources, conservatives would do well to heed the advice in both, and to bite their tongues before reflexively attacking those, like Pope Francis, who see a role for the state in alleviating poverty and ensuring justice.

Based upon the evidence to date, we think it fair to conclude that Pope Francis’ experience in economic matters is limited–which may well be why he has explicitly declared that he has no interest in dictating public policy.  But that’s not to say that his every pronouncement is mistaken, or a sign of latent socialism.  American conservatives would do well to remember that, just as they would do well to look for the far more abundant common ground with the modest yet spirited pope.