Sunday, December 08, 2013

Breaking the Chains

Peggy Noonan had a timely and topical reaction to Pope Francis’ attention getting statement on economics in Saturday’s WSJ. Be a Saint, Not a Scrooge:

All this has been portrayed as an attack on free-market economic thinking, but it struck me more as an attack on mindless selfishness, greed and go-with-the-flow acceptance of the unrightness of the world. It made me think of Charles Dickens. The pope's message in part is: Don't be Scrooge. He cared only for money, had no respect for the poor—he thought they should die and decrease the surplus population—wasn't the least bit interested in treating his employees justly or with compassion, and missed out on all the real joy of life, until he wised up.

But is Francis saying more than that? Is he hostile to capitalism, and do we see this hostility in the pointed use of phrases such as "trickle-down," a term the left uses to disparage the idea that created wealth, when invested or spent, spreads and benefits others?

I don't know, I don't think so, and we'll see. I don't think he's saying be a leftist but something more revolutionary and fundamental: Be a saint. Be better, kinder, more serious and loving, and help create systems that reflect good, kind, loving people.

The pope has a way of colorfully saying, through words and actions, that the church is on the side of the poor—the materially and spiritually poor—and always has been. I think he's saying that here: that the Church has a bias for the poor and impatience toward those who would abuse them. And he is speaking not infallibly but as a matter of a worldview rightly shared.

The popes of the modern era have been more or less European social democrats, of the economic left. I've never heard a pope worry about the depressive effects of high tax rates, have you? Or the dangers of high spending? Popes are sometimes geniuses but not economists.

That last point is one that needs to be kept in mind. Popes are in the business of saving souls not prescribing economic policies.