Tuesday, November 26, 2013

So-called "conservatives" get in on the act of misrepresenting the Pope

The supply of mischaracterizations about today's remarks on economics by Pope Francis is creating an even greater demand for people to point out what the Pope actually said.

Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy takes the Catholic Church to task for being against free market economics on the basis of remarks Pope Francis made in an Apostolic Exhortation earlier today opposing the idea that invisible hand of the free market is sufficient for the bringing about of justice:
It appears that he is agin’ it (full document here). 
I’m not going to go into the wrongheaded economics here. Instead, what I think is curious about this document is a longstanding peeve of mine. Ever since the Galileo incident, the Catholic Church has generally tried to be careful to get its science right before it opines on ethical matters related to science. It takes seriously questions of bioethics and has developed internal expertise on those issues. Yet when it comes to economics, the Church seems to have no qualms about opining on issues of economics without even the slightest idea of what it is talking about.
Now first of all let's take note of the assumption implicit in this charge: that economics is some kind of hard science. Really? I would love to hear the argument for that. Economics is surely a moral science (Adam Smith was, after all, a moral philosopher), but it is hardly a hard science. If it were, you wouldn't see the wide divergence of economic opinion on even basic economic questions.

But  more importantly, Zywicki's criticism betrays the fact that he isn't to make even basic distinctions. The Pope is primarily making a moral point here, and where he does make economic assertions (as he does about the empirical fact that a free market does not automatically produce a just society), they're clearly accurate.

Of course Zywicki, who claims the intellectual high ground in relation to the Church, doesn't even bother to argue that the Pope is wrong--either on the ethical fact that we should take some kind of action in addition to just letting the free market work or on the economic fact of what the free market does and doesn't inevitably do. All he does is make snide remarks over what he thinks the Pope said.

In instead of an argument Zywicki simply employs and assumption about what the Pope said that is clearly inaccurate. The title of his post was "The Pope doesn't heart the free market." And he links to an equally inaccurate post titled, "In which the Pope informs us that the free market is very, very bad."

But the Pope didn't say the free market was bad; he said the free market was insufficient.

In order to criticize something, you have to be accurate about what you are criticizing. The Pope thinks that a just society requires more than just watching the invisible hand do its work. So what's Zywicki's refutation of this? He needs to offer one if he wants to appear as something other than what many supposedly conservative economic thinkers seem to be, which is not advocates for the free market, but apologists for large corporations.

Economics in its limited, social science sense has to do with the "laws" (as that word is loosely used in economics) of production, consumption, distribution, and so on. If a person or group of persons does X, then Y happens. But economics, in the larger sense of being a moral science, has to do with the normative decisions we make on the basis of these economic "laws." The former is empirical, the latter is ethical.

Writers like Zywicki would do well to understand the difference.


Derve Swanson said...

Nicely written, calm and rational response to Mr.Zywicki`s snark. I like how you felt the need to promptly, yet respectfully correct his spin...
You get a loud second here for gently setting the record straight.

Anonymous said...

Something this "blogger" clearly fails to understand is what the Catholic Church is promoting. Communism is referred to by Pope Pius XI as "undermining the very foundation of Christian civilization". Clearly the church opposes Capitalism for a number of reasons cited by Francis. What the church holds as ideal, and I believe Francis is getting at, is the distributive state.

From an economic standpoint the Church could easily find grounds in opposing Capitalism. After all, the great Hilaire Belloc writes that really the only difference between the Servile state and the Capitalist state being the illusion that we are free.

Servile state is defined as the few being in control of the human agents and the production, while the human agents are enslaved to the few.
Capitalism is defined as the few in control of the human agents and the wealth they produce. The main difference being that the human agents are apparently free to do what they will...

Looking at our economy, I am starting to believe Belloc right on his definition of capitalism...

Singring said...

'But the Pope didn't say the free market was bad;'


I give you: The 'senior policy analyst' of the Family Foundation of Kentucky.

You can trust him when he tells you the sky is green, the water dry and that the Pope just so happens to agree with everything he believes, if you just squint really hard and leave out every other word.

The gospel of Francis according to Martin Cothran.

Maybe a word-count would help?

Thomas M. Cothran said...


Did you actually read the Pope's quotes? He's not condemning markets; he's condemning markets that operate outside moral restraints.

Singring said...

'He's not condemning markets; he's condemning markets that operate outside moral restraints.'

I never said he was condemning 'markets'.

I don't condemn markets. Even the most stringent, radical Socialists I've ever met don't condemn 'markets'. They condemn 'free markets'. There is a difference.

I said it was ludicrous and an exercise in logical pretzel-making on the part of Martin to claim that the Pope didn't say that free markets are bad.

In response to your comment: How can a market with 'moral constraints' possibly be a free market? Particularly when the Pope argues - not theoretically, but practically - that there must be more regulation and redistribution exercised by societal force.

Here are some of his quotes:

On 'trickle-down' economics:

'This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.'

How can anyone - especially when they call themselves 'policy analysts' - read that sentence and not come away with the clear understanding that the Pope is critiquing not some abstract morality, but the actual, specific instance of a system which relies on trickle-down economics.

He even explicitly aims this comment at the 'prevailing economic system'. If that is not a direct critique of current economics, then what is?

How about this one:

"While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is 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."

This is a clear endorsement of increased governmental control and redistribution. Or what do you see in these words?

I should disclaim that, personally, I couldn't care less what the Pope has to say on anything.

I just find it fascinating how (fiscally) conservative Catholics are now having to play mental hopscotch to square the Pope's proclamations with their ideology.

It's a womderful display of rationalization.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Pope Francis promoting a materialistic worldview where poverty is about money or economics, never a cultural issue? Doesn't he dehumanize the poor by portraying them as helpless victims with little responsibility for their situation?

Lee said...

Any explanation why the Catholic countries in Europe and Latin America have tended to lag economically behind Anglican England, Catholic/Lutheran Germany, and Reformed Switzerland, and the U.S. and Canada?

At least until they all discovered the religion of socialism, and so anything goes now.

Michael Novak, a Catholic, wrote that he believed the Catholic Church was at least somewhat hostile to capitalism. It's been years since I read the book, like 1982, but if memory serves, the book was named "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism."

Lee said...
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Lee said...
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Lee said...

Greg Mankiw (former advisor to GW Bush) wrote the following:

I see that the pope has decided to weigh in on economic issues:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, 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 sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

A few reactions:

First, throughout history, free-market capitalism has been a great driver of economic growth, and as my colleague Ben Friedman has written, economic growth has been a great driver of a more moral society.

Second, "trickle-down" is not a theory but a pejorative used by those on the left to describe a viewpoint they oppose. It is equivalent to those on the right referring to the "soak-the-rich" theories of the left. It is sad to see the pope using a pejorative, rather than encouraging an open-minded discussion of opposing perspectives.

Third, as far as I know, the pope did not address the tax-exempt status of the church. I would be eager to hear his views on that issue. Maybe he thinks the tax benefits the church receives do some good when they trickle down.

Mankiw's statements apparently challenge your assertion that "where [the Pope] does make economic assertions... they're clearly accurate." Mankiw is questioning here the validity of the use of "trickle-down economics" as a serious characterization.

Going on, you say:

> But the Pope didn't say the free market was bad; he said the free market was insufficient.

But in a later post, you take conservatives to task for saying the free market is perfect. Isn't that the same rhetorical trick?

Conservatives seem to be saying that free markets are better than the alternative.

Not perfect. Better.

Lee said...

Glenn Reynolds at instapundit.com has an interesting take on the Pope's capitalism kerfuffle.

Glenn says, "The thing you have to understand is that the Pope is from Argentina, where “capitalism” has meant “state-enabled vampire cronyism” since before he was born. Unsurprisingly, in that same time period Argentina has gone from one of the world’s richest countries to . . . something less."

Capitalism does not simply mean the absence of communism or socialism. The primordial soup from which government evolved was thuggery. The guys with more thugs and clubs told the other guys what to do. Government is the biggest, most successful gang. Like most gangsters, they do favors for their friends. Where ordinary citizens have to live by one set of rules and the government and its cronies get to live by a another, more favorable set, that's not really what Adam Smith had in mind.