A Doctor Looks at the Papal Prescription, Finds it Lacking

I’ll admit it, I’d been waiting for this.

Over at the Liberty Law blog, Theodore Dalrymple has now taken a look at what the pope had to say:

I was …not completely out of sympathy with some of the premises of the Pope’s latest apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium…but it seems to me that he has yielded in it to the temptation to mistake an initial apprehension of what is wrong as an understanding of economics….We – by ‘we’ I mean all who are likely to read this – are aware that a life of consumption of ever more material goods is profoundly unsatisfying and in the end self-defeating. We all know that an egotistical individualism is deeply unattractive and not even satisfying to the many millions of whom it is the leading characteristic. Even the improved means of communication that the Pope extols in his exhortation may not only conduce to self-preoccupation but serve to isolate people further. A million monologues is not a conversation.

So far, so good – that is to say so far, so banal.


And very typical, I’d add, of the way that the arguments used by this pope sometimes seem to amount to little more than a sequence of punches thrown at a series of straw men.

A good demagogic trick, I suppose,

But back to Dalrymple:

[T]he Pope, alas, then indulges in a little Peronist economics. I hesitate to call his theorizing mediaeval because scholars will inform me that, in fact, some of the scholastics were far more sophisticated in their economic understanding than we usually credit them with, getting well beyond denunciations of usury. I am not sure the Pope has got much further. He writes, inter alia, that ‘Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed on the powerless.’ This is demagoguery of the purest kind, the kind that ruined the Pope’s native Argentina seventy years ago and from whose effects it still has not fully recovered.

 And from which, intellectually, nor has the pope.

 ‘As a consequence,’ continues the pope, ‘masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.’

 If we put the two sentences together, a certain conclusion is inescapable: if only the powerful stopped cannibalizing the powerless, the latter would have work, possibility and the means of escape. To change slightly the framework of reference, four legs good, two legs bad.

 The Pope is loose and inaccurate in his thinking. The trickle-down theory of wealth may or may not be correct, but those who hold it do not express, and never have expressed, ‘a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…’ On the contrary, according to the theory it is not the rich whose goodness benefits the poor, but the system that allowed them to become rich, even if the rich should turn out to be hard-hearted skinflints. A system of redistribution, by contrast, really does require the goodness of at least the superior echelons of the system, faith in which is genuinely rather crude and naïve.

Most egregiously, the Pope quotes from St John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods that we hold,but theirs.”

 This could only be true if an economy were a zero-sum game, if my wealth were your poverty and vice versa. But if the world has learnt anything since the death of St John Chrysostom one thousand six hundred years ago, it is that an economy such as ours is and ought to be dynamic rather than static. I am not poor because Bill Gates is rich; as it happens in enriching himself he enriched me, though the ratio of his wealth to mine is probably greater than the ratio of my wealth to the poorest person in my society. I do not care; it does no harm to me unless I let it do me harm by dwelling upon it. In the meantime, I have enough to eat and much else besides.

 This is not to say that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, far from it. The world is full of dishonesty, corruption, cruelty, indifference and injustice. But Peronist demagoguery dressed up as apostolic exhortation will not improve matters, quite the reverse.