Economics Will Not Be Mocked

Mario Rizzo*

A few years ago I read and studied in great detail Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on globalization “Caritas in Veritate” or “Charity in Truth.”  I posted a three-part analysis on the doubtful economics contained therein at ThinkMarkets. The first part is about the destructive influence of the encyclical. The second part is about globalization. The third part is about the attack on classical liberalism.

Shortly thereafter, I went to a conference that included discussion by economists of the encyclical. There were almost no defenders of the pope’s economics. In fact, I was told by one participant not to waste my time in a detailed examination of papal ideas relating to economics. No one in places of intellectual or policy influence much cares what the pope says. I was told that I care only because of my sixteen years of Catholic education. Perhaps this is all true; I do not know.  Nevertheless, the pope is worth listening to and reacting to because, in the modern world, there are few attempts by prominent public figures to address moral issues honestly.

The current statement of the “social gospel” by Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel” is less authoritative than the previous encyclical by Benedict insofar as it is considered simply an “apostolic exhortation” or pastoral letter. However, the ideas expressed are in keeping with the recent Church teaching. (Nevertheless, one cannot help thinking that Pope John-Paul II’s economics in the encyclical “Centesimus Annus was much better than that expressed by the two most recent popes.)

I will not go into the details of the current letter because I think my previous comments on Pope Benedict at ThinkMarkets effectively cover most of these. I want now simply to make a “meta-critique” of Pope Francis’s letter only insofar as it deals with issues that have an economic content.

The crucial issue regarding the Church’s social doctrine is that in order for such a doctrine to have substance it must be based on science, and the Church’s record on scientific matters is not encouraging. 

Let me, perhaps uncharitably, resurrect a 1616 statement made with the full approval of Pope Paul V regarding Galileo:

Special Injunction (26 February 1616)

At the palace of the usual residence of the said Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine and in the chambers of His Most Illustrious Lordship, and fully in the presence of the Reverend Father Michelangelo Segizzi of Lodi, O. P. and Commissary General of the Holy Office, having summoned the above-mentioned Galileo before himself, the same Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal warned Galileo that the above-mentioned opinion was erroneous and that he should abandon it; and thereafter, indeed immediately, before me and witnesses, the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal himself being also present still, the aforesaid Father Commissary, in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole Congregation of the Holy Office, ordered and enjoined the said Galileo, who was himself still present, to abandon completely the above-mentioned opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would start proceedings against him.  The same Galileo acquiesed in this injunction and promised to obey (emphasis added).

Oops. Nearly 400 years later Pope John Paul II, to his credit, apologized for the mistake and mistreatment of Galileo.

Of course, some will say that this was a purely scientific matter, but today the Church is speaking about ethical or social justice issues which clearly fall into its domain of “faith and morals.” Not so fast, I say. The Galileo issue was considered a matter of faith. The Bible has passages that are incompatible with the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo.  In course of time, however, the Church learned as a response to a new experimental and falsifiable science to avoid the conflict between science and faith. In the future, it must have thought, it might be best to avoid embarrassing oneself by expressing opinions about certain matters of fact. But still the Church finds itself making statements about a virgin birth, resurrections, assumptions of bodies into heaven and so forth. But these are clearly marked out as exceptions (“miracles”) to the scientifically-established rules.

Let us move on to ethics and the social gospel. I agree with Frank H. Knight and with Ludwig von Mises that the social gospel (in the sense of teachings about the social welfare policies of the state) is an expedient invention to keep the Church “relevant”. It has nothing to do with the gospels, the teaching of Christ or the ideas of the early Christians. Note that Jesus himself kept the question of the role or domain of the state open: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

If we move beyond Jesus’ exhortations to individuals about their moral behavior to papal exhortations about government policies to achieve the goal of eliminating or reducing avoidable human suffering, a scientific dimension is added. Policies have consequences, often unintended. The social interaction of people is more than the acts of people taken individually.  There are complexities in these cases subject to scientific analysis.

The ultimate normative goals of action can be based on a religious insight or commitment. (I prefer to say on ethics.) But the means chosen to attain those goals are in large part a scientific question. Thus the proximate goals of action are largely in the domain of science.  (An exception is where the means are considered intrinsically evil.)

The point is that policies are means to ends. They are not decrees about how the world should be. They can succeed or fail to achieve the desired moral ends. They can have consequences more undesirable than the problems they purport to solve. It is hard to see what the Church can authoritatively add to these discussions.  Issues like income redistribution, globalization and financial speculation, however, are either above or below the papal pay grade. As Jeremy Bentham said about the state, the job is basically to “be quiet.”

Obviously, for a Church wanting to be relevant in its growth areas in poor, less developed countries, this might not be enough. And yet there is more it can say about the state’s use of coercion, of its violation of the basic principles of just conduct in the creation of crony “capitalist” economies, of its secrecy and lack of accountability, of the use of torture, of trafficking in slaves, and war. The Church has to its credit tackled many of these. It will be seen, I suggest, that in most of these areas governments or others are violating the fundamental principles of individual just conduct: lying, cheating, stealing, physically harming innocent individuals, failing to aid others in distress (as opposed to failing to coerce people to aid others in distress), and even the use of force where turning the other cheek would be appropriate.

But where social policy is concerned, fundamentally scientific issues are crucially involved and the Church has no greater teaching authority than the rest of us. To confuse matters by combining superficial scientific analysis with strictly moral teaching does neither the Church nor the world much good. 


*Dr. Mario J. Rizzo is associate professor of economics and co-director of the Austrian Economics Program at New York University.  He received his BA from Fordham University, and his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago.  He was also a fellow in law and economics at the University of Chicago and at Yale University.  He currently lectures for the Institute for Humane Studies and is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. Professor Rizzo is also a member of the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty's Board of Advisors.