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Pope Francis, Religion, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand

L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP

L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP

Given the widely acknowledged fact that countries and populations enjoy wealth and prosperity precisely to the extent that they embrace capitalism, why does Pope Francis call capitalism “the dung of the devil” and jet around the globe aiming to rid the world of it?

Economists and other intellectuals have spelled out at great length the overwhelming historic evidence in support of the fact that capitalism—the system of individual rights, limited government, and rule of law—is the political-economic cause of prosperity. And one need not read lengthy books to get the message. Journalists regularly report on the relevant facts in bite-sized pieces that any active-minded person can fit together into an edifying mosaic over time.

In just the past few days, in anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, several prominent thinkers have published articles packed with evidence showing the life-serving nature of capitalism. George Will, for instance, writes: “The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in ‘absolute poverty’ ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981.”

Alex Epstein writes that, thanks to technologies made possible by relatively free markets,

Since 1980, the world has increased its use of coal, oil, and natural gas by over 80 percent—because that is the most cost-effective way to produce energy. At the same time, the average life expectancy of our world’s 7 billion individuals has gone up 7 years—7 years of precious life! Every other metric of human well-being has also improved, from income to access to health care to nourishment to clean water access. The most growth has been among the poorest people in the world.

Specifically in regard to “climate change,” which is one of the Pope’s favorite “problems” to blame on capitalism, Epstein adds:

According to the international disaster database, climate-related deaths are down 98 percent over the past 80 years. In 2013, there were 21,122 such deaths worldwide compared to a high of 3.7 million in 1931, when world population was less than a third of its current size.

Donald Boudreaux observes that capitalism “is history’s greatest force for raising the living standards of the masses,” noting that Pope Francis somehow misses this:

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the average person lived on about $3 per day (reckoned in 2015 dollars), and each denizen of today’s developing countries—those places touched least by capitalism—scrapes by on $7 per day. In contrast, the average person in today’s market-oriented industrialized world lives on $110 per day, and the average American lives on $150. Now, thanks to capitalism, billions of us . . . live lives that not even the most powerful Byzantine or European potentate dared dream of just a few hundred years ago.

Such economic facts are indisputable—as is the economic theory that explains them.

Ever since Adam Smith founded the science of economics in the 18th century, his ideas and those of countless other economists—from Jean-Baptiste Say to Ludwig von Mises to Henry Hazlitt to Thomas Sowell—have shown how and why free markets enable mass production of goods and services, vast creation of wealth, and prosperity for everyone who is able and willing to think, work, and trade.

The profound practicality of capitalism can be seen further in the Index of Economic Freedom, which has been compiled annually since 1995 by The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. The Index records various ways in which countries with more freedom (i.e., closer proximity to pure capitalism) enjoy greater wealth and prosperity than do those with less freedom (further proximity). Unsurprisingly, the Index shows that people in countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States live markedly better lives than do people in countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

Given the myriad easily accessible facts and logical explanations showing over and over again that capitalism is the social system of human flourishing, there simply is no way today for a professional intellectual concerned with economics not to understand this truth at least to a substantial extent.

Why then does Pope Francis insist that capitalism is “the dung of the devil” and that we must eliminate or at least sharply curtail this wretched thing?

The Pope sees fit to make such claims because religion—whether Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, or Islam—is, in principle, opposed to the very things that capitalism legalizes and venerates—most notably, in this context, the selfish pursuit of profit and the right to keep and use the product of one’s effort.

The Bible is chock full of passages that oppose these pillars of capitalism. In the Old Testament, for instance, God says, “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). In the New Testament, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you . . . do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30). “The love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10). “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). And so on.

A particularly illuminating instance of biblical opposition to property rights is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the central theme of which is that we have a divinely ordained duty to distribute all property in service of the “common good.” In the story, the unacceptably selfish couple attempts to keep a portion of their own earnings rather than share the entirety of it with the community. The result? God strikes the couple dead. His divine will for the people was that “they had all things common . . . and distribution was made unto each, according as anyone had need” (Acts 4:32–35). (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Karl Marx later said essentially the same thing: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”) Ananias and Sapphira violated God’s will by attempting to keep some of their property, and God killed them.

Religious leaders over the ages have acknowledged the plain meaning of such passages: God forbids people to selfishly keep and use the product of their effort; He requires that everyone serve the common good; He, in effect, demands socialism. As theologian Nels Ferre explains, according to the Bible, “All property is God’s for the common good. It belongs, therefore, first of all to God and then equally to society and the individual. When the individual has what the society needs and can profitably use, it is not his, but belongs to society, by divine right.”1 Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, “men should not treat things as exclusively theirs but use them for the good of all, ready to share them with those in need.”2 And theologian Charles Lincoln Taylor Jr. explains, “the [biblical] codes of law forbid selfishness”; they issue “unremitting condemnation of the use of property for self advantage”; and they demand “service and sacrifice” to the community. “No man is to arrogate to himself that which should contribute to the honor and welfare of his neighbor.”3

What does all of this say about capitalism—the social system that recognizes, upholds, and protects property rights? What is the relationship between capitalism and religion? Theologian Emil Brunner sums it up neatly:

Capitalism is such a perversion of the divine order of creation, that we would feel obliged to assert its economically ruinous character even if . . . all the experts were to say the opposite. An economic system which contradicts the divine order to such an extent must prove the ruin of the people; this is a fact which none can gainsay. Here we are dealing not with technical questions but with the fundamental ethical question: can we . . . affirm a system which, as such, in its very foundations, is opposed to morality? Or to express it otherwise: have we any right to allow the experts to convince us that only this system—whose anti-moral character we know—is in a position to provide humanity with the satisfaction of its daily needs?4

Whatever else religious scripture says, and whatever contrary assertions may be found therein, it is clear on this point: The selfish pursuing, keeping, and using of wealth is contrary to God’s will and is thus immoral. Consequently, any social system that legalizes and promotes such “immoral” behavior (as capitalism clearly does) is viewed by serious religionists not only as immoral but also as impractical—regardless of all historic evidence and expert analysis to the contrary. Capitalism can’t provide people with their daily needs, the religious “logic” goes, because the system contradicts the divine order of creation. Empirical facts and the writings of von Mises can’t override biblical scripture and the words of God.

Of course, not everyone takes religion as seriously as do popes and professional religionists. Most religious people try to find a middle ground between the scriptural demands for selfless behavior and the factual requirements of human life. And most religionists who try to defend capitalism do so either by acknowledging the selfish nature of the system and accepting the need to compromise their morals—or by obfuscating the selfish nature of the system and seeking to make it look unselfish.

The former tack, which can be seen in the arguments of many conservatives, is succinctly summed up by Michael Novak:

While recognizing that no system of political economy can escape the ravages of human sinfulness, [capitalism] has attempted to set in place a system which renders sinful tendencies as productive of good as possible. While basing itself on something less than perfect virtue, reasoned self-interest, it has attempted to draw from self-interest its most creative potential. It is a system designed for sinners, in the hope of achieving as much moral good as individuals and communities can generate under conditions of ample liberty.5

As I point out in “Capitalism and the Moral High Ground,” this tack amounts to the claim that “by freeing sinners to pursue their reasoned self-interest, capitalism taps into the creative potential of these depraved souls and thereby achieves moral good.” I further note there: “To concede the immorality of a social system is to concede the argument for it.”

The other tack—the effort to obfuscate the selfishness of capitalism and to make it look unselfish—can be seen in the arguments of many conservatives and some libertarians as well. Walter Williams, for instance, in a recent video titled “Is Capitalism Moral?”, goes through all manner of linguistic acrobatics to claim that capitalism is not really about “selfishness” or “hunger for money,” but rather is about incentivizing people to “serve their fellow man.” (There is much good in Williams’s video, as there is in his work generally. My objection here is to his denial of the plain fact that capitalism is a system of and for self-interested action.)

A particularly direct instance of the effort to shroud the selfish nature of capitalism can be seen in a famous passage from Ralph Barton Perry, which Rush Limbaugh quotes approvingly on his radio program:

The fundamental idea of modern capitalism is not the right of the individual to possess and enjoy what he has earned, but the thesis that the exercise of this right redounds to the general good. This justification is necessary if the institution of private property is to be defended against the charge of selfishness.6

This approach—denying that capitalism is about selfishness and insisting that it is really about the “general good” or the “common good” or the like—is worse than hopeless because it makes those who employ the approach appear to be pretending that facts are other than they are (which is in fact what they are doing).

As Ayn Rand demonstrated at great length in various books, essays, and letters, “the idea that capitalism can be morally justified on a collectivist premise and defended on the grounds of the ‘common good’” is “futile and ludicrous.” The effort, writes Rand, amounts to this:

“Dear pinks [i.e., socialists], our objective, like yours, is the welfare of the poor, more general wealth, and a higher standard of living for everybody—so please let us capitalists function, because the capitalist system will achieve all these objectives for you. It is in fact the only system that can achieve them.”

This last statement is true and has been proved and demonstrated in history, and yet it has not and will not win converts to the capitalist system. Because the above argument is self-contradictory. It is not the purpose of the capitalist system to cater to the welfare of the poor; it is not the purpose of a capitalist enterpriser to spread social benefits; an industrialist does not operate a factory for the purpose of providing jobs for his workers. A capitalist system could not function on such a premise.

The economic benefits which the whole society, including the poor, does receive from capitalism come about strictly as secondary consequences, (which is the only way any social result can come about), not as primary goals. The primary goal which makes the system work is the personal, private, individual profit motive. When that motive is declared to be immoral, the whole system becomes immoral, and the motor of the system stops dead.

It’s useless to lie about the capitalist’s real and proper motive. The awful smell of hypocrisy that accompanies such a [lie] is so obvious and so strong that it has done more to destroy capitalism than any Marxist theory ever could. It has killed all respect for capitalism. It has, without any further analysis, simply at first glance and first whiff, made capitalism appear thoroughly and totally phony. . . .

Do not underestimate the common sense of the “common man” and do not blame him for ignorance. . . . He cannot untangle the philosophical contradiction of defending capitalism through the “common good”—but he knows it’s a phony.7

Capitalism is the social system of self-interest, and the only way to defend this system on moral grounds is to embrace and defend the morality on which it logically depends: the morality of self-interest.

To defend capitalism on these grounds, however, we must repudiate all philosophies that undermine these grounds, which means: We must repudiate religion.

Pope Francis is right about one thing: religion and capitalism are utterly at odds. It’s either-or: faith, altruism, and statism—or reason, egoism, and capitalism. ◊◊

Endnotes

1. Nels Ferre, Christianity and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 226.
2. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, a concise translation, edited by Timothy McDermott (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1989), p. 391.
3. Charles Lincoln Taylor Jr., “Old Testament Foundations,” in Christianity and Property, edited by Joseph F. Fletcher (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947), pp. 22–23, 30.
4. Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative: A Study In Christian Ethics, translated by Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1947), p. 426.
5. Michael Novak, “From the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” in Essential Neoconservative Reader, edited by Mark Gerson (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996), p. 127.
6. Ralph Barton Perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1944), pp 310–311.
7. Ayn Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 259–60.

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