Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of Pope Francis’ top advisors, said that today’s free market is “a new idol.” The cardinal brings up a valid observation because the free market has become a modern-day idol for many people. In fact, I had to ask myself whether I idolized the free market to an unhealthy extent after reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium. It is an undeniable truth that all the good that has been accomplished through the free market is by the grace of God. Man should never place his or her hopes in the free market alone.
That being said, the market is not a system. It is the natural order of things when left to voluntary exchanges between individuals. Therefore, I do not really understand how someone can be against the natural order of things, especially if he or she believes in God. What better system can we possibly come up with ourselves? This is an argument Frederic Bastiat, a French political economist from the 19th Century, elaborated on in his magnum opus entitled Economic Harmonies.
I am not trying to claim that the cardinal is saying he knows of a better system. My point is to make it clear that the free market is not a system put together by any individual or group of individuals. It is just freedom for all individuals to interact. The free market is not to blame for the poor being poor. Is anyone to blame? Some people are rich and some are poor. Some individuals are charitable and others are not. So how does the cardinal propose we reconcile this? Force cannot be the solution for not even God forces us to do His will.
I do agree with the cardinal regarding his point that something needs to be done right now to help the poor. Jesus teaches us that we must love one another as He loves us. Would Jesus let us starve? No. Should we let others starve? No. But it happens, so who is to blame? Does this mean that we are not going to heaven? I do not feel that it works that way. Jesus makes it clear in various parables that we are given different talents. It is our job to do everything we can with those gifts God bestowed. Guess what? The free market allows people to focus on what they are good at to maximize their contribution to society.
I am no good at manual labor. This is quite clear to me. Thank God, I was accepted into grad school because now I can dedicate myself to what God wants me to dedicate myself to––learning and teaching. Imagine if I had to make my own clothes, shoes, grow my own plants, and raise my own animals to eat so that I can survive on a daily basis? Not only would I suffer (and offer it up to God), but doing what I feel God is calling me to do would be literally impossible. Although all things are possible through God, I feel that He purposefully placed me in the United States for a reason. People seem to take for granted the many benefits of the free market. Like the fact that we can survive without exerting as much effort as people before us. Free trade is pretty cool, guys.
Since I live in the U.S., I can sit here and write my blog instead. Later, I can go visit Jesus at the Blessed Sacrament and pray for my faith and for the conversion of souls. Then after that I can go visit my 2 year old niece and play with her. But I would have less time, if any, to do all these things if it weren’t for the fact that I live in a country that embraced the free market over 100 years ago. Should I feel guilty that I am so happy and others are so unhappy ? No, because God placed me here and by the grace of God, I have an idea on how He wants me to turn my blessings into something good for the world.
The real question is, though, how can the poorest of the poor get to this level of joy and freedom?
Libertarianism or classical liberalism, as I have come to understand it, promotes autonomy and freedom for the individual as granted by our Creator. How can a “philosophy” that promotes this truth be at odds with the Catholic Church? Not only does promoting human freedom make peoples lives better, it acknowledges human dignity. We possess the ability to do good for ourselves and others if only we choose to turn to God. But who are we to take away what God granted to all his children, even if some choose not to turn to God?
It is interesting that a person can lack trust in individuals because he or she is imperfect, yet that same person can place relatively more trust in the government, which is simply a collection of individuals. Concentrated power absent of God––government–– is extremely dangerous for many reasons. The most obvious reason, pointed out by Catholic historian, Lord Acton, is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is also observed by Frederic Bastiat in Economic Harmonies:
“For if you entrust men with arbitrary power, you must first prove that these men are molded of a different clay from the rest of us; that they, unlike us, will never be moved by the inevitable principle of self-interest; and that when they are placed in a situation where there can be no possible restraint upon them or any resistance to them, their minds will be exempt from error, their hands from greed, and their hearts from covetousness.”
Libertarians, whether they believe in God or not, acknowledge the danger of concentrated power. The free market is the antithesis of concentrated power! Individuals have the power to make their own choices. These choices will lead to failure or success but the damage will be minimal because the market corrects “failures” on its own. If a person is selling a product that is of no good, no one will purchase it. So then that person will fail and move on the the next invention. Is this bad? Of course not. This helps eliminate irrelevant junk and allows entrepreneurs to focus on what society needs. Say what you want about Apple, but it is a company that knows how to make my life easier. Sure some people let technology consume their lives and hinder their human interaction, but not all do. My iPhone has helped me enhance my spiritual growth. I have all these cool, neat apps on my phone that grant me instant access to the daily scriptures, devotions, and other things I greatly value.
I truly believe that Pope Francis and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga are referring to cronyism when they refer to the free market. What is cronyism? It is when businessmen and politicians work together. Businessmen can bribe politicians to get special privileges, or politicians can blackmail businessmen to pay them money so that they won’t vote for legislation that will hurt their business. It goes both ways. Here is a great video that goes into depth. Why do I think they believe free markets are interchangeable with cronyism? Because the Pope is from Argentina, a country that has very little economic freedom, therefore, a lot of cronyism.
So what is the free market? To me, the free market means that there is a lot of economic freedom. The Freedom of the World 2013 Annual Report, states that economic freedom exists where individuals have the autonomy to make personal choices, voluntary exchanges, enter and compete in markets, as well as a rule of law that protects life and property from “aggression” by others. Sounds pretty reasonable. I think the problem is that people do not think of these things when they think of free markets.
The EFW index collected data from 152 countries and examined the size of government, security of property rights, sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation. The study found that “nations that are economically free out-perform non-free nations in indicators of well-being,” specifically having higher GDP, higher life expectancy, greater political and civil liberties, and the poor are much better off. So if the poor are better off in areas where there is more economic freedom, shouldn’t we be promoting free markets? I think so, which is one of the many reason I do so.
The truth of the matter is that poverty has been reduced drastically since the implementation of free markets, which involves free trade. An article by The Economist puts it concisely, free markets have been a major reason for extreme poverty declining by 1 billion in a span of 20 years alone (1990-2010). That is more than has ever been accomplished in such a time span, by far! So if the point is to eliminate poverty––which some argue can be done in the foreseeable future––why such hostility towards the free market, which has proven most successful towards achieving this end?
One must also understand that we cannot wipe away poverty by the click of a button. Those who are hostile or even skeptical towards free markets seem to be calling for such a magical button indirectly. Free markets have helped bring people out of extreme poverty, yet critics still disapprove because some people are still in extreme poverty; or they disapprove the working conditions that people had to endure to make a better life for themselves. To demand a flawless “method” for reducing poverty is unrealistic. Of course we should care for those in extreme poverty, but what better way to do it than by using giving people freedom and opportunity to rise out of poverty? In China alone, 300 million people––the entire population of the U.S.––have risen out of extreme poverty through free trade/free market.
Also, what about voluntary charity? I humbly and innocently ask, shouldn’t the Catholic Church see this as an opportunity to call the world to help those in most need? If parts of the world are getting wealthier, then doesn’t that free up their time and disposable income for charity? Not everyone will help but there will be more people given that more people are able to. The Pope has already been speaking to this, but I think this is essential: spiritual growth and communion with God. For if we know our purpose and carry it out, by the grace of God, we will bring good to the world.
God wants all his children to be happy, so if we do our part, shouldn’t that lead to God’s divine plan for humanity? I may sound naive to many Catholics, but I guess that’s just faith.
Also, prayer. I never understood the power of prayer until I got in the habit of daily prayer and conversation with God. Prayer is our greatest human weapon against evil.