Timothy Dolan: The Pope's Case for Virtuous Capitalism

Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the Catholic Archbishop of New York, and was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2010–2013. So Timothy’s interpretation in his May 22, 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed, The Pope’s Case for Virtuous Capitalism of what Pope Francis has said about capitalism is of some interest.

Defending Capitalism. In his op-ed, Timothy make this strong statement in capitalism’s defense:

… the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control. The church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property. When properly regulated, a free market can certainly foster greater productivity and prosperity.

And he writes that “The spread of the free market has undoubtedly led to a tremendous increase in overall wealth and well-being around the world.” Further, “One does not have to subscribe uncritically to the notion that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ to acknowledge that all people, including the poor, benefit from a general increase in the overall wealth of society.”

Why then does capitalism often have a bad name, and why does Pope Francis sometimes sound as if he is speaking against Capitalism? Timothy writes:

… what many people around the world experience as “capitalism” isn’t recognizable to Americans. For many in developing or newly industrialized countries, what passes as capitalism is an exploitative racket for the benefit of the few powerful and wealthy. Americans must remember that the holy father is speaking to this world-wide audience.

In other words, it isn’t American capitalism that is the problem, it is what passes for “capitalism” in countries that have not yet fully passed the acid test of true capitalism: making the people of a country rich, at least on average.

In this passage, Timothy even sounds like an economic libertarian:

The church believes that prosperity and earthly blessings can be a good thing, gifts from God for our well-being and the common good. It is part of human nature to work and produce, and everyone has the natural right to economic initiative and to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

But this should not be overinterpreted, since he also writes “abundance is for the benefit of all people” and

Fortunately, few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism, and even fewer consider the “Wolf of Wall Street” to be a good role model.

The Duty to Take Care of the Poor. Timothy condemns fraud, which I hope even the most ardent apologist for unfettered capitalism would not try to justify. Beyond that, to the extent capitalism needs to be tempered, it is in order to take care of the poor and downtrodden, something that is also a central Supply-Side Liberal imperative, as I recently wrote in my second anniversary post “Three Revolutions." Timothy states the imperative of taking care of the poor and downtrodden in these three passages:

1. … Pope Francis is certainly correct that "an important part of humanity does not share in the benefits of progress.” Far too many people live in poverty and have few opportunities to achieve prosperity. And so the pope, and many others, are deeply concerned about the development of a “throwaway culture,” an “economy of exclusion” and a “culture of death” that corrode human dignity and marginalize the poor.

It is in this context that the holy father’s earlier criticism of “trickle-down economics” can be properly understood.

2. But the church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces, where they have no choice but to sink, swim or be left with the scraps that fall from the table. That kind of environment produces the evils of greed, envy, fraud, misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor and the laborer.

3. The great Renaissance humanist Erasmus once said, “He does not sail badly who steers a middle course.” This advice would be well worth keeping in mind. By maintaining a sound middle course on economic issues, Pope Francis is able to remind us that free economic activity should indeed be pursued, but the human dignity of our needy brothers and sisters must always be at the center of our attention.

Minimizing the Need for Government Control by Realizing that Most People Do Care, and Can Be Encouraged to Care More. If government control is not the answer, then how will the poor be taken care of? Timothy emphasizes the kind of altruism that motivates voluntary efforts to help the poor. He is not clear about when a failure of individual altruism to take care of the poor would justify government intervention. My answer is a public contribution system that insists that those who are well off do in fact contribute to public goods, including especially taking care of the poor, but allows individuals to choose within broad parameters exactly how they will contribute to public goods. (Ordinarily, those contributions would be made through the nonprofit sector. A few might choose to give to particular arms of the government. This is not a libertarian solution, since if someone in the relevant income range refused to make contributions–which few would–they would be taxed the equivalent amount.) I believe such a system would be much less distortionary than the equivalent in taxes because most people really do care about others. In addition to creating less distortion, and allowing for creativity (and therefore technological progress) in providing public goods, one of the great advantages of a public contribution system is that, over time, it will encourage people to strengthen their altruism and public-spiritedness. They may grumble at the requirement to contribute, but then their minds will soon turn to the choice of exactly which cause to contribute to, and many will come to love the causes they have chosen and the people they are able to help with their contributions.

Although I am much too small a fish for Timothy to be likely to take any notice of my proposal without support from heavier hitters, I hope that if he did become aware of it, that he would favor the kind of public contribution system I am advocating. Although direct contributions to churches would not be part of this system, associated humanitarian organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services, would be included (with the usual fights about whether church-associated humanitarian organizations are pushing religion too much in the course of their humanitarian activities). I believe that a public contribution system would do a lot to foster exactly the kind of virtues that Timothy calls for. I want you to consider that as you read these passages:

1. From media reports, one might think that the only thing on the pope’s mind was government redistribution of property, as if he were denouncing capitalism and endorsing some form of socialism. This is unfortunate, because it overlooks the principal focus of Pope Francis’ economic teaching—that economic and social activity must be based on the virtues of compassion and generosity.

2. … as the pope continually emphasizes, the essential element is genuine human virtue.

3. The church has long taught that the value of any economic system rests on the personal virtue of the individuals who take part in it, and on the morality of their day-to-day decisions. Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.

4. … Pope Francis recalled the story of Zacchaeus, in which Jesus inspires the repentant tax collector to make a radical decision to put his economic wealth at the service of others. This reminds us that a spirit of sharing and solidarity with others, in the words of Francis, “should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity."

In his final paragraph, which I will not quote here, Timothy loses focus. To summarize the message I want to get across, I instead like Timothy’s third-to-last paragraph:

In other words, virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.