Why does Pope Francis criticise the malign effects of capitalism on countries that don’t know capitalism?

On Sunday, Pope Francis made unprepared remarks in Sardinia, a part of Italy that has been especially badly hit by the economic crisis. Specifically, he said: ‘We don’t want this globalised economic system that does us so much harm. At its centre there should be man and woman, as God wants, and not money.’ He then commented that the current economic crisis was the ‘consequence of a global choice, of an economic system that led to this tragedy, an economic system centred on an idol, which is called money.’ This followed other strong criticisms of capitalism in earlier remarks. Indeed, before he became pope, Francis was a strong critic of globalisation.

I have commented in an earlier blog post about the error of arguing that ‘systems’ can have ‘goals’ or ‘idols’. It is acting, rational people who make good or bad moral choices. It is certainly legitimate for priests to criticise greed amongst the several billion people taking economic decisions each and every day, if they feel that this is an important moral issue. However, ‘systems’ do not take such moral decisions independently of human persons. The system produces what is willed by the persons who participate in economic life.

Pope John Paul II was right on target when he said in Centesimus annus, to a large degree echoing Rerum novarum: ‘If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer [to the question of “what sort of economic system we should prefer?”] is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”.’

This statement is precise and important. The late pope was not only right to suggest that the word ‘capitalism’ might be confusing but he also talked elsewhere in the encyclical about how capitalism must have people at its centre, must operate in a juridical framework, must avoid the problems of monopolies, and so on. Indeed, implicitly Pope John Paul was criticising the crony capitalism systems such as those in South America and Italy that use the apparatus of the state together with the power of financial interests to oppress the people rather than to serve the people. A free economy naturally has the human person at its centre. Models of so-called capitalism which are, in reality, closer to corporatism and cronyism, as well as being riddled with corruption, do not bear any relationship to a truly free economy.

The countries in which Pope Francis has made most of his statements about capitalism are Italy and Argentina. In making his statements, he has related them to the economic conditions in those particular countries. This is interesting because Italy is the least free country in the EU according to the Index of Economic Freedom – and a long way down the world list (unusually for a European state). Argentina is one of the least free countries in the world. To criticise capitalism in Argentina is like criticising the malign influence of cricket on French society. The pope’s statements about capitalism are confusing in the least. They seem to involve visiting countries which are not in any meaningful sense capitalist and blaming the problems of those countries on a system that they have not adopted.

It is fair to say that the pope’s criticisms of capitalism could at least partly be put down to a misunderstanding of the concept due to his experience in South America. However, his criticisms of globalisation are much more dangerous – he does not like it, even when it functions well. The pope’s position is dangerous because globalisation has been responsible for the most rapid reduction in poverty in the history of the planet. The pope is capable of doing real damage if his ideas are widely adopted. Very poor people could be made poorer if the pope is successful in changing the climate of opinion. Again, looking at the data forming the Index of Economic Freedom, a simple measure of globalisation unsurprisingly puts Argentina towards the bottom of the whole world, whilst Italy also performs very poorly by the standards of developed countries.

The Catholic Church claims to be the universal Church. State borders that exist for human necessity should not impose unreasonable constraints on economic activity, especially when that activity does so much to raise the condition of the poorest people. As the church’s latest encyclical, Caritas in veritate, stated:  ‘It [globalization] has been the principal driving force behind the emergence from underdevelopment of whole regions, and in itself it represents a great opportunity.’

The pope really should be reflecting on whether it really is globalisation and capitalism that is causing economic failure in Argentina and Italy or whether their failure is as a result of more serious problems that were analysed in a more sophisticated way by his predecessors. Indeed, it should be asked whether the current pope’s ambition to have trade and financial activity more heavily regulated by governments, such as those in Argentina and Italy, will not simply provide more opportunities for the cronyism which ought to be the focus of Francis’ criticisms.

Academic and Research Director, IEA

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

3 thoughts on “Why does Pope Francis criticise the malign effects of capitalism on countries that don’t know capitalism?”

  1. Posted 27/09/2013 at 10:29 | Permalink

    Thank you for the quote from Pope John Paul II. It is important to remember that the Catholic Church does have an indigenous tradition appreciative of the market and that the Syndicalist approach- which many Catholics in the global South fear to be the default position for Seminaries- represented a brief historical cul de sac.
    Sardinia is facing large scale structural unemployment for reasons wholly independent of the economic regime. Certainly, we have a duty to relieve the distress of those affected but does it really help to reify a mere means of exchange and raise it to the level of a malign Deity? Surely, to be without work is bad enough. Does it not further demoralize a person to suggest that her misfortune is attributable to the caprice of a Cruel God? Might not the result be a desperate attempt to appease this Mammon with atrocious cults? How does it help a Christian to be told that he is powerless to help himself, his community is powerless to help him, needful structural changes in the local economy are powerless to raise him up, Mammon has cursed him and he must suffer.
    What is the point of rejecting an imaginary Mammon if thereby we give ourselves into the hands of a Mussolini or Peron?

  2. Posted 17/11/2013 at 00:45 | Permalink

    Why are journalists so simplistic? I agree that Argentina seems to have many problems in implementing rule of law and other basic requirements for capitalism to work well (and so does Italy to a lesser extent), but Argentina in the nineties was ranked in the index mentioned above as one of the freest nations in the world. Indeed, in 1996 it was number 8, just 2 ranks below the United States.
    Funny when mr Booth says that the Pope lucks sophistication. He doesnt seem to have a lot of it either.
    This article is propaganda. Peronist style.

  3. Posted 17/11/2013 at 12:29 | Permalink

    Non-sense this article… Where did the sub-prime crisis started? Isn’t it in the country champion of capitalism? Didn’t this crisis make an enormous harm in thousands of households?? And shouldn’t the pope condemn severely this awful excesses? M. Booth, it’s not prohibited to think and to question oneself 🙂

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