The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:01:09

Moral problems aren’t solved by better economic policies

Katie van Schaijik, Dec 19, 2013

Hanging out, as I do, with political conservatives and libertarians, I've encountered a depressing amount of Pope bashing lately.  Even Catholics who want to defend him will typically do it by pointing out that the Pope is not infallible in economic matters.  All of them seem to take it more or less for granted that Pope Francis is a socialist, if not a marxist. When he says that free markets alone won't bring about a just society, they take him to be calling for state-enforced income re-distribution. They think they prove him wrong by reminding him that capitalism creates more wealth than any other system known to man, while socialism (besides punishing the producers) leads to stagnation and worse.

Finding I get nowhere with these types by saying over and over again, "You are misunderstanding him; he's not condemning free markets; he's condemning economic absolutism—the imagination that "more wealth" means "more justice," today I thought I'd try an analogy to explain better. Here's what I said:

If a teacher comes into a classroom with 20 cupcakes—exactly enough for each of her students to have one—and two students grab and eat three each, they're being greedy, aren't they? They've been unjust to others in their class, haven't they?

Someone will say, "But economics isn't a zero sum game!"  I know that.  I'm not talking economics, I'm talking morality. I'm talking about this concrete situation. Try to stick with me.

If there are 20 kids and 20 cupcakes, we can say (can't we?) that each child has a "right" to one cupcake.  This isn't something we "decide"; it's something we perceive.

Every single one of us (sociopaths perhaps excepted) has enough moral intuition to grasp such basic moral truths.

Now suppose four of the children, seeing what's just happened, offer to split their cupcakes with the four who were "cheated" by the greedy grabbers. They have mitigated the injustice by their generosity, haven't they? They've increased the happiness and humanity of the classroom, where the greedy grabbers had detracted from it. 

Now, suppose the grabbers, having been rebuked for their selfishness and greed, were to reply, "The problem is that the teacher didn't bring enough cupcakes!"  Suppose they were to say that they know a place where the teacher could have gotten 24 cupcakes for the same price, so that there would have been no problem.  

Picture what would have happened next.  Some of the kids in the class would have yelled out, "Hey! Why should you get three when the rest of us only get one?!" So, now the grabbers say, "Fine then, get 60 cupcakes. Or, even better, buy a cupcake-making machine, so that all of us can have as many cupcakes as we want all day long!"

Now imagine the chaplain of that school wanting to address the situation. What is the problem as he sees it? Is it a deficiency of cupcakes? Does he think a classroom cupcake-making machine would resolve it?

No. His concern isn't with cupcakes, it's with kindness, fairness, generosity, solidarity among the students. He will try to show the students that the problem is moral not economic, and it's solution is moral, not economic.

Now, when the chaplain, in his sermon, speaks of how there were enough cupcakes to go around; when he tries to show that the selfishness and greed of the grabbers did an injustice to their classmates and poisoned the atmosphere of the class; when he highlights the beautiful moral example of the children who spontaneously offered to share their cupcakes, is he:

1) Condemning those who have found a way to get 24 cupcakes for the price of 20?

2) Insisting that from now on, all teachers should hand out only one at a time, so that it's impossible for any child to grab more than his fair share?

3) Opposing cupcake making machines? 

4) Displaying an ignorance of economics?

5) Claiming that anyone who tries to make more cupcakes for less money must be one of the greedy grabbers?

No, no, no, no and no.

Now think of the Pope as Chaplain to the World. He holds, as an article of faith, that the bounty of the earth as God gave it to us is ample for meeting the material needs of humanity.  There is plenty to go around.

He sees that, as a matter of fact, countless millions are in a condition of abject poverty, while millions of others are so glutted with money that their souls are drowning.

He says, "We are out of whack."  He tries to open the eyes of the world to the condition of the poor.  When rich power brokers reply, "Capitalism creates more wealth than any other system out there!" he says, "Lack of resources isn't the problem, and wealth creation is not the solution I'm looking for."

Do you see what I mean?

The Pope is not proposing socialism in place of capitalism.  He is proposing generosity in place of greed.