"Laudato Si" is not anti-capitalist, as some claim
The criticisms of Pope Francis’ economic vision have been harsh and unrelenting: National Review says “Laudato No,” Maureen Mullarkey in The Federalist called it “An Extravagant Rant” and David Brooks in The New York Times echoes their basic premise: The growth that lifted so many from poverty in the past century would not have happened if Pope Francis’ economic ideas held sway.
I understand where they’re coming from. Pope Francis is a harsh critic of the economic excesses of the West. For those used to hearing ideologues rail against the capitalism, the Pope can sound like one of them.
He is not.
Here is what the Pope actually says in Laudato Sí:
“In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity,” he writes (No. 129). “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world.”
Of course, that’s not all he says. He also continues the project that the Church is always undertaking: To rescue the human person from the ideologies that would reduce our dignity by defining us merely as consumers or political pawns.
To Catholics, the market and the state need to serve us, not the other way around—as St. John Paul spelled out in in 1991’s Centesimus Annus: “People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve.” (No. 49).
Given the choice between the state and market defining us, Laudato Sí chooses “none of the above.”
“Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation,” he writes (No. 198). “While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable.”
Western eyes might read his critique of market excesses as a critique of capitalism—but we forget that capitalism is not a single monolithic system.
In their book Good Capitalism/Bad Capitalism William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm point out that there are four capitalist systems.
One is oligarchic capitalism—where the upper class gets capitalism and the lower classes get the shaft. This was the capitalism Pope Francis saw in Argentina, and he lived through the Great Depression that it sparked there. He hates it, and so should we.
Another is state-guided capitalism: This is the capitalism of China or Dubai—and, increasingly, of the West, where as Alisdair McIntyre put it, “What we confront today is a new leviathan: the state and market in a monstrous amalgam.” This is the system that marries corporate greed to government greed to our ruin, according to Francis.
Another capitalism is “Big Firm Capitalism.” This predominates in America, and Pope Francis specifically criticizes it, using the example of large firms crowding out small farming, hunting and fishing (No. 129) and diminishes us all: “This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume,” he writes (No. 203). “But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power.”
The fourth kind of capitalism is Entrepreneurial Capitalism—the “business creativity” which Pope Francis praises and the subject of much economic thought recently, often using the moniker “think small.”
This is an economy that puts people in the first place, and values products by how they create real value in customers’ lives. What would this kind of economy look like? I think the old parable of the investment banker and Mexican fisherman sheds some light on the question.