December 1, 2013

Charles Lawton: Praising pope but still defending trickle-down theories

True freedom depends on finding and using one’s own power.

Like many people across the world, I have been drawn by the powerful example of the new pope. Living simply – in home, in cars, in clothes – washing and kissing the feet of women, addicts, the infirm, reaching out to those of other faiths and confronting head on the failures of those professing his own, this man has given hope to many who had come to believe that the Catholic Church as an institution had sunk beneath salvation. Such courage and example also give hope here in the U.S. where faith in our own institutions of government has fallen similarly.

As an economist, public policy pundit and one regularly accused of being a heartless running dog of capitalism, I was eager, therefore, to read the pope’s “letter of joy ... on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.” Setting aside the strictly Catholic concern for “missionary renewal in the church,” I was particularly struck by his assertion that “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

More than a few people I know would say that Francis was speaking directly to me. I better give a listen.

He went on to say that this trickle-down theory “has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Wow, that’s a heavy gavel. Gonna take more than three Hail Marys to get me out of that one.

The “sacralized” economic system consists of the “idolatry of money” by which “man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption,” and the “new tyranny” of an amoral and invisible financial system where “debt and the accumulation of interest ... make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.”

Now here is a man apparently steeped in liberation theology who would be right at home in Zuccotti Park (or Congress Square) with the Occupy protesters.

And here is where I must, for the moment, part company with His Holiness and ask him to look more deeply at the foundations of a truly “free enterprise” economic system and a truly democratic political system. He says that God – in contrast to the “sacralized” economic system he condemns, “calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.” Sounds a lot like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to me.

As he reflects further on the difficulties countries face in realizing “the potential of their own economies,” I ask Pope Francis to consider again the men and women to whom he has reached so inspiringly, the men and women who build (often by squatting) the modest apartments he favors, who repair the motor scooters and public buses he favors, and who work for the soccer teams he enjoys watching. Anyone who has ever walked the markets in a developing country, who has ever ridden in a bus with goats and chickens loaded on the roof, who has watched cocoa beans drying in the sun under the watchful eyes of small farmers, has seen markets and enterprise that are neither tyrannical nor God-rejecting. They are simply free, often joyful and as full of entrepreneurial human energy and imagination as is in our species to express.

Francis, I stand and applaud your warning to beware a “crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” That is precisely why dispersing that power as widely as possible is the only real solution. I agree that when it is aggregated too heavily in banks that are “too big to fail,” our economic policy has failed. But so too has it failed when it is aggregated in government agencies in which we have no choice but the same “crude and naive trust.” In the end, I think it is not economic systems that are our “invisible” rulers, but human power.

Those who believe in calling human beings “to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement” must come to understand that such a goal – like personal salvation – will never be realized by “crude and naive trust” in someone else’s power. It depends on finding and exercising one’s own power.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at:

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