American right tears into pope's attack on free market

Pope Francis' lament about social inequality and unfettered capitalism, has commentators telling him to stop interfering in economic matters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 December, 2013, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 3:16am

It is Christmas, markets are subdued and many people are enjoying a holiday, good food and drink, even if they do not believe the Christian story about peace on earth and goodwill to all men heralded by the birth of a baby God-man 2,000 years ago.

Against the backdrop of supposed peace and calm, a vicious spat has erupted in the US embracing economics and religion.

American airwaves and newspaper headlines have burst into life over a document written by Pope Francis which states that unfettered capitalism is a new tyranny and exhorts world leaders to fight poverty and global inequality.

Francis has been savaged by commentators from Rush Limbaugh to conservative priests and judges, who have loudly proclaimed themselves as more Catholic than the pope, and told him to stop interfering in economic matters.

Can we … stand by when food is thrown away when people are starving?

Talk show host Limbaugh denounced the pope's economic views as "pure Marxism".

Some economists though, including Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs on the Freakonomics radio channel, have supported the pope's concerns about major injustices and distortion of modern capitalism that need to be remedied in the name of equity - and economic growth.

The viciousness of the attack on Pope Francis says a lot about American views on the markets and money and the role of governments in remedying economic injustice.

The pope's strictures are part of a long papal tradition going back to Pope Leo XIII and his "Rerum Novarum" (Of new things) encyclical letter of 1891, where he declared that the free operation of markets must be tempered by moral considerations, and that wages should be sufficient "to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner."

In his letter "Evangelii Gaudium" (The joy of the Gospel) earlier this month, Pope Francis attacked the worship of money and abuses of modern capitalism.

After praising modern advances in technology, communications, education and healthcare, Francis cautioned that the age of knowledge and information had led to new kinds of power.

He then went on, sternly taking the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" as his trigger.

"Today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away when people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed on the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."

He continued in a similar vein, declaring that the theory of trickle-down economics, "which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system …

"The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

He offered a tough message both to governments and to the rich beneficiaries of modern capitalism. He declared that the current financial crisis originated in "the denial of the primacy of the human person … man is reduced to one of his needs alone - consumption."

Francis noted that the wealthy are making exponential gains, and the gap between rich and poor is growing as the "result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control …

"To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market."

It would have been good if Pope Francis had had a better editor to group and list his points more sharply.

In Europe, the response has been that Francis has delivered a stern warning to governments to live up to their responsibilities to protect the poor and vulnerable and to make sure they have opportunities to work and make a living.

Respected economists, including Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich, have said similar things. Good American capitalists, including carmaker Henry Ford, recognised that if workers earned a living wage they would be able to afford to boost economic growth all round.

But the free, unfettered market holds sway in the US.

The pope gently rebuffed Limbaugh, telling the Italian La Stampa newspaper that, "the Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended."

Professor Lant Pritchett, from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, asked in a Bloomberg View column: "Why is Pope Francis promoting sin?"

Pritchett claimed that, "By dwelling on inequality, the pope is promoting envy. The Catholic Church, I had always understood, disapproves of envy, deeming it one of the seven deadly sins."

Former US vice-presidential candidate and tea party favourite Sarah Palin said that some of the pope's statements sounded "kind of liberal" while former judge Andrew Napolitano damned the pope's letter as "about economics, and it reveals a disturbing ignorance".

For all this, Francis has tradition on his side, the tradition of the Catholic Church to speak out on moral and social issues.

What has happened in the US is that the super-rich have joined with the New Right and the Moral Majority and Christian evangelists with the claim that the invisible hand of the market is the hand of God. Adam Smith must be turning in his grave at such a claim.