Pope Francis Denounces “Liberal-Individualist Vision”

Pope Francis recently condemned the “liberal-individualist vision” of economic liberty, saying it is “urgent to act . . . especially in the financial field” to limit “market activity and the manipulation of nature.”

It will surprise no news-aware person that the Pope continues to condemn free-market capitalism. In his frequent expressions of disdain for it he sounds like a cross between a typical American college humanities professor and a street-corner doomsayer. Yet his recent remarks (an April 24 message to the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences) are worth reviewing to get a better sense of his views—and what’s wrong with them.

First a positive note: as a proponent of reclaiming the term liberalism to refer to free markets, constitutional government, and individual rights, I’m pleased to see Francis use the term appropriately. That’s helpful for framing the debate.

Beyond that, most of Francis’s remarks about politics and economics are hopelessly confused (although some of what he says about the nature of work is helpful).

For Francis, a fundamental evil in the world is inequality—and never mind the context or cause of it:

What is most disturbing today is the exclusion and marginalization of the majority from equitable participation in nationwide and planetary distribution of both market and non-market assets such as dignity, freedom, knowledge, belonging, integration, and peace. In that respect, what makes people suffer the most and leads to the rebellion of citizens is the contrast between the theoretical attribution of equal rights for all and the unequal distribution of goods for most people. Although we live in a world where wealth abounds, many people are still victims of poverty and social exclusion. Inequalities—along with wars for dominance, and climate change—are the causes of the greatest forced migration in history, affecting over 65 million human beings.

Here Francis senselessly packages political equality under rights-respecting governments—a liberal aim—with equality of wealth. He sees political inequality as of a piece with economic inequality. But the two things cannot properly be compared or equated.

Political inequality means that some people do not have their “liberal-individualist” rights protected. The solution is not to put everyone’s rights equally at risk but to consistently protect everyone’s rights.

Economic inequality, by contrast, can arise from opposite causes: plunder or liberty. The “economic inequality” caused by the destructive brutality of the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad is hardly of a piece with the “economic inequality” caused by the productive genius of Bill Gates, and yet Frances pretends they’re fundamentally related.

The 65 million refugees in question came from war-ravaged regions such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia—not from regions in which people generally are free to start businesses and to grow wealthy if they are able by building factories, starting tech companies, and the like.

Meanwhile, regions that embrace liberal policies generally prosper. It’s as though Francis cannot see past his self-blinding dogmas to observe what’s going on throughout the broader world—such as the fact that global poverty has fallen dramatically over the past couple of centuries thanks to “liberal-individualist” economics.

Francis’s preoccupation with contextless inequality pairs with his Christian antipathy to self-interest to generate his loathing of liberalism. Consider his fuller statement on the matter:

A society in which the true fraternity dissolves is not capable of having a future; a society in which only “giving in order to have” or the “giving out of duty” exist, is not capable of progressing. That is why neither the liberal-individualist vision of the world, in which everything (or almost) is an exchange, nor the state-centric vision of society, in which everything (or almost) is a duty, are safe guides for overcoming inequality, inequity and exclusion that now overwhelm our societies. It is a search for a way out of the suffocating alternative between the neoliberal thesis and that neo-state-centric thesis. Indeed, precisely because market activity and the manipulation of nature—both driven by egoism, greed, materialism and unfair competition—at times know no limits, it is urgent to act on the causes of such malfunctions, especially in the financial field, rather than just correcting the effects.

Francis’s remarks here are a jumble of confusions. The main characteristic of liberalism, socially, is not that it turns every transaction into an economic exchange; it is that it turns every adult association into a voluntary one. Families, fraternal societies, ideological groups, charity groups, and so on are as much a part of the liberal order as are businesses and banks. Yes, market activity is driven largely by self-interest—which Francis condemns without cause—but that activity is certainly not without limits. It is limited, legally, by the principle of individual rights, and practically by market demand.

I suppose that in today’s world we should be pleased that Francis explicitly rejects totalitarianism; what he wants instead is a bureaucratic state that controls people’s lives and wealth partially rather than wholly. But such a system already exists throughout the developed world, and the problems it causes are to a large degree what Francis blames on the element of liberalism.

Francis is particularly worried about the “libertarian” variant of liberalism:

. . . I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism. A common feature of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is, “living well,” a “good life” in the community framework, and exalts the selfish ideal that deceptively proposes a “beautiful life.” [I]ndividualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and . . . only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad. . . . [L]ibertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of “common” implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of “good” deprives freedom of its essence.

The radicalization of individualism in libertarian and therefore anti-social terms leads to the conclusion that everyone has the “right” to expand as far as his power allows, even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority. Bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom. By mistakenly matching the concept of “bond” to that of “constraint,” one ends up confusing what may condition freedom—the constraints—with the essence of created freedom, that is, bonds or relations, family and interpersonal, with the excluded and marginalized, with the common good, and finally with God.

Here at least some of Francis’s criticisms strike true: Quite a few libertarians are in fact moral subjectivists. Such libertarians do tend to equate whatever an individual wants to do with that individuals’ “good,” at least within the bounds of property rights and non-aggression. So if someone wants to smoke dope, drink soda, and watch porn day after day without pause, what’s wrong with that? But beyond that Francis’s remarks are (again) confused.

I regard libertarianism as liberalism stunted by moral agnosticism (in effect, “all moral roads lead to liberty”) and an antigovernment stance.

But the liberal view that the so-called “common good” cannot morally trump individual rights is valid. What Francis is arguing here is that individuals and their values may be sacrificed to the “common good”—as defined presumably by government agents under the influence of “social justice warriors.”

If we look at what is actually good in common, as opposed to what fanatics imagine to be the “common good,” we find that individual rights is the most important good in common, without which the “common good” becomes a pretext to benefit some at the expense of others by use of force.

As for Francis’s strange contrast of a “good life” of community versus an isolated “beautiful life,” that’s just a hastily built straw man. No actual liberal, and not even any libertarian (a few kooks aside), thinks it’s a good idea to live free from social bonds. The difference is that liberals think social bonds among adults should be a matter of consent; Francis thinks they should be a matter at least partly of force.

Usually the practical import of Francis’s line of thinking is that some people are “bonded” to others by a government threatening to lock them in cages if they do not hand over a portion of their wealth to those others. Those sorts of “bonds” really are constraints, ultimately of the literal kind, as in handcuffs and jail cells. I will cling to “suffocating” liberty, thank you.

Let us return to Francis’s claim that individualism implies that only the individual “gives value to things and interpersonal relationships,” and that this implies moral subjectivism. It is true that only individuals—not, say, rocks or stars or mythical creatures—value things and relationships. Society is a collection of individuals, not a metaphysical entity unto itself with its own consciousness or values, so only as shorthand or metaphor can we sensibly say that “society” values something.

But the fact that only individuals value things, and that many values are particular to given individuals, doesn’t imply moral subjectivism. Rather, individuals can value things according to objective moral principles, such as the principle of individual rights.

Francis is the one toying with moral subjectivism with his undefined “public good.” In practice, the “public good” as Francis treats it is nothing other than the subjective preference of some individuals to force other individuals to do certain things, such as hand over their money or go to jail.

In sum, the “liberal-individualist vision” sees a world in which individual adults interact by consent, not by force; in which each individual respects the rights of every other individual; in which individuals are free to pursue values according to objective moral principles, or not (so long as they don’t violate others’ rights), and enjoy or suffer the consequences; in which governments consistently act to protect rights rather than violate them.

How does Francis equate liberal freedom with suffocation? We already know he is prone to magical thinking. Liberalism is suffocating in the same realm that bread is human flesh, that children come from virgins, that burning bushes talk—the realm of fantasy. Those who live in the real world should take his political pronouncements with the appropriate solemnity.

Image: Benhur Arcayan, Malacanang Photo Bureau