Evangelii Gaudium and Acton

by modestinus

Evangelii Gaudium (EG) has struck a nerve among those sectors of the Catholic world which adhere to some form of free market/neoliberal ideology. For purposes of simplification, I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty of terminological distinctions, nor map out the differences which exist among those who take their economic bearings from neoclassical camps like the Chicago School or heterodox camps like the Austrian School. There is a time and a place for such burying oneself in such minutiae; this is not one of them. Instead I want to focus on some remarks made by Acton Institute President and co-founder Fr. Robert Sirico. You can find a video of Sirico’s remarks here (h/t WDTPRS). In the interest of full disclosure, I know Fr. Robert as a priest and I have nothing but the upmost respect for his role as pastor of my home parish. I do not, however, agree with many (if not most) of his economic and political views.

In the 10-minute video posted by Acton, Sirico asks a number of open questions concerning various economic-related statements made by Pope Francis in EG. That is a perfectly fair road for any committed Catholic to take, particularly when confronted by words or teachings which may not be entirely clear or complete. (Some may object here and say that Sirico is being disingenuous with respect to EG’s clarity, but charity dictates we should take his questions on good faith). That doesn’t mean you’ll receive an answer, however. When Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X submitted its dubia concerning Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they received a blow-off response. (The Society’s submission has since been put into book form in Religious Liberty Questioned (Angelus Press 2001).) There’s always hope, of course, that some later papal document might answer the questions being asked, or clarify existing teachings to the point where the queries are no longer relevant. EG, which is concerned primarily with preaching the Gospel to the contemporary world, is neither an economic treatise nor a pure social encyclical in the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quas Primas, and Caritas et Veritate. It does, arguably, restate extant teachings of the Church’s social magisterium, thus quelling questions concerning its doctrinal heft. Where Fr. Robert appears to struggle with EG is with respect to Francis’ reference to “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the market.” Sirico doesn’t believe there are those who defend the purely autonomous market and, moreover, that there are no unhampered markets in existence. Sirico claims, quite rightly, that regulation of trade is ubiquitous and that no market (or economic system) exists without the rule of law. As such he struggles to understand what the Pope is talking about in EG on this point and therefore wants more clarification from Francis on the relationship of markets to the rule of law. That’s a fair request to make, but it may not be a necessary one since Fr. Robert’s first contention concerning the alleged nonexistence of pure free-marketeers is incorrect and his second point on the nonexistence of an unhampered market is beside the point. Let me take them in that order.

The libertarian universe may appear at first blush to be ideologically static, but there is considerable diversity in the details. In fact, there is considerable diversity at the galactic level when you consider that this camp has room for consequentialist/neoclassical types such as Richard Epstein and anarcho-capitalists like Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Walter Block. (An acrimonious, but amusing, exchange between Epstein and Block, “Debate on Eminent Domain,” 1 NYU Journal of Law & Liberty 1144 (2005), provides a good illustration of libertarian internecine strife.) Certainly the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian camp, along with several borderland sympathizers, advocate an unhampered market with the barest features of what we commonly refer to as the rule of law. But even if you pull back a few steps, you will find plenty more libertarians who argue for an effectively autonomous market where the rule of law is limited to private law remedies for the purposes of enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, and redressing harms. (Epstein, in fact, argues for a simplified system along these lines in Simple Rules for a Complex World (Harvard Univ. Press 1997)). The market, however, is left free of now-commonplace public regulations covering areas such as antitrust, health and safety, and labor. I see no reason to believe that when Pope Francis is referring to those who defend “the absolute autonomy of the market” he intended to exclude those who defend an unhampered market packaged with a limited set of private-law remedies. Moreover, regardless of the rule of law, Francis’ remarks can be read coherently as covering not only the extreme anarcho-capitalists and the comparatively moderate libertarians who don’t wish to jettison private-law remedies, but also any group which desires to leave matters such as wages, labor standards, and wealth distribution to the market, regardless of whatever other regulatory artifices might exist in and around it. The United States, for instance, could maintain a thick system of airline safety regulatory oversight through the Federal Aviation Administration and yet leave pilots out in the cold by abolishing the Railway Labor Act (the statute which covers most airline organized labor matters). The “autonomy of the market” would certainly be operating then with respect to labor standards and wages even while the rule of law continues to tower over aviation safety. It’s not an all or nothing matter, and I suspect the Pope is intelligent enough to know that.

To offer another example—one suggested by Sirico’s remarks—the global trading system is certainly not “autonomous” in the sense that is detached from the rule of law, but it’s utterly implausible to claim that large swathes of it isn’t predicated on liberal economic principles. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is very much a regulatory artifice, but its rules are designed to remove or restrict so-called barriers to free trade such as quotas, tax and regulatory favoritism, and subsidies (roughly in that order) while incentivizing its members to lower (or eliminate) tariffs. Though the WTO system does not target labor, safety, and environmental protections directly, the stiff design of its rules governing the internal regulatory freedom of its membership has often served to directly or indirectly deteriorate those types of protections. Regional trade pacts, such as NAFTA, are even worse in this respect insofar as they provide even more detailed restrictions on what types of regulations are acceptable while also giving commercial actors a private right of standing to haul national governments before “independent” international arbitrators to resolve disputes. The rule of law is quite alive, but it is animated to serve the purposes of de-regulating national markets at the expenses of workers (if not the entire citizenry).

Now, as for Fr. Robert’s contention that there is no such thing as an unhampered market, he is correct—but it’s beside the point. As I have already noted, Pope Francis’ words can be read coherently without having to posit that they could only possibly apply to a situation where a market functions absent all regulation or a surrounding rule of law (e.g., private-law remedies). It appears, based on other remarks Sirico makes in the video, that he wants to limit Francis’ statements to either a nonexistent market or to a system of so-called crony capitalism which, apparently, libertarians don’t support. The problem here, however, is that libertarians, such as those found at the Acton Institute, can only posit a truly free market as a theoretical (or ideological) construct; by their own admission there isn’t one that exists in fact to analyze and critique. Their argument is that this “free market” of theirs will come packaged with none of the problems Francis condemns while delivering all of the material benefits the Pope hopes for on behalf of those who are least well-off around the world. That’s utopian thinking, and the utopia posited may not actually work (we don’t, as an empirical matter, know). Even if the U.S. tomorrow magically turned itself into a free market along the lines espoused by the Acton Institute, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. And, to be realistic for a moment, political reality dictates that the path to utopia will never be successfully traversed; however, a lot of bodies will fall in the gutters along the way as a first-best hope clashes with second-best reality. Politically weak or ideologically unsavory actors will be the first to lose rights and privileges under the current system while more organized and savvy interests ensure that the system of regulatory protections and taxation benefits continue to accrue to them. It’s simply not true that deregulation of the market—or even part of the market—isn’t carried out in the service of “crony capitalism.” One of the main reasons large-scale air carriers eventually came around to favor the sunetting of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the 1970s/80s is because they already controlled the country’s main airports (“fortress hubs”); removal of the CAB’s market-entry regulations ostensibly meant more new carriers could begin competing on national routes, but without access to these major hubs, few could meaningfully compete with the incumbents. Moreover, the theoretical promise of a full aviation marketplace occupied with dozens of competitors has collapsed into a reality where several of the oldest airlines in the country have consolidated into a triumvirate (Delta, United/Continental, American/US Airways). Even the deregulatory game can, and will often be, rigged.

With that stated, I do hope that Fr. Robert’s questions will be answered by the Pope, if not directly then certainly indirectly in a possible future social encyclical. I also hope that other libertarian-leaning Catholics will follow Sirico’s example and posit their objections in the form of questions which can be meaningfully examined, scrutinized, and answered. There is also room for clarification in the realm of Catholic Social Teaching, and if libertarian questioning compels Pope Francis to further sharpen his critique of global capitalism and the problematic promotion of pro-market ideologies, then they will have done a great service to the Catholic Church and to the world at large.

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