What did Pope Francis say about wealth redistribution? Do we need to tax the rich ?

So, I am sure many of read the Pope’s recent comments about the need to redistribute wealth. My what a socialist Pope we have! We should all become good Catholic political liberals now correct?
Well maybe not. There are two important points to be made about this event.
1) The Pope is always deliberately selectively quoted in manner that misconstrues what his primary point is. The media is both lazy and corrupt/biased. It is anyone’s guess as to what factor is dominant at a given time, but I would not take anything it reports about the Pope on face value.
2) The Vatican needs new speech writers. Perhaps someone with an economics background should be added to the team.
To begin in might be helpful to actually read what the Pope said. It was a very brief address to a group of UN executives including the Secretary General. The entire address can be found on the Vatican’s web site here . I note in passing that it is almost bizarre how much faith Rome keeps putting in the UN. Have they not realized the UN is no longer a credible organization? Memo to the Pope, the UN at the moment considers the Vatican a human rights violator ( related to the child abuse scandal) and in fact has the following human rights stalwarts as members of its Human Rights Council: Cuba ( a communist police state), Saudi Arabia ( A Islamic monarchy which whips and beheads its criminals, and where it is a crime to openly practice Christianity), Venezuela ( another socialist one party state, ) Pakistan where oppressed women have a literacy rate of about 40%, ) and so forth. How does the Vatican manage to take the UN seriously?
In any case the address was very short and has been very selectively reported. It was quite general, and restates many concerns of the Church, including  (although you would never know it) mentioning the sanctity of human life twice. You did not hear this statement reported for example:
“Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones, and to give back generously and lavishly whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.”
He also said :
Future Sustainable Development Goals must therefore be formulated and carried out with generosity and courage, so that they can have a real impact on the structural causes of poverty and hunger, attain more substantial results in protecting the environment, ensure dignified and productive labor for all, and provide appropriate protection for the family, which is an essential element in sustainable human and social development. Specifically, this involves challenging all forms of injustice and resisting the “economy of exclusion”, the “throwaway culture” and the “culture of death” which nowadays sadly risk becoming passively accepted.
So in general terms the Pope is stating that countries should address all kinds of problems, I am not sure that I heard much in the media about the call to protect the family and resist the culture of death. But what about the purely economic message? Well its well known that this Pope, and in fact previous Pope’s , that is to say Catholicism itself,  is opposed to completely unregulated, Ayn Rand style capitalism. ( Is this form of Capitalism in existence anywhere on the planet by the way? ) More relevant perhaps, is that in many places like the Pope’s home of Latin American, Capitalism is not really a market economy, it is more like a kind of crony capitalism with heavy government intervention lending itself to graft and corruption, and very unequal distribution of economic benefits allowing some in power to get returns above what the market would allow, at the expense of those with no power. It ‘s one reason poor people in Latin America live in tin roof shacks without running water. Our poor in contrast, often have cell phones and cable TV. A full discussion of crony capitalism can be found by Stephen Haber at the Hoover Institute, here . The Pope clearly has  concerns about such systems, that of their very nature essentially exploit the poor.  It is also true the Church is opposed to an unrestrained consumerism in which we seek things at the expense of people. None of this is new. This pope calls such a society ” the throwaway culture” and he links it to our disdain for the elderly and the unborn. Pope St John Paul II made similar points.

 

The fact that none of this is new is indicated by the Pope’s reference to the previous encyclicals by his predecessors:
“Consequently, I do not hesitate to state, as did my predecessors (cf. JOHN PAUL II,Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42-43; Centesimus Annus, 43; BENEDICT XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 6; 24-40), that equitable economic and social progress can only be attained by joining scientific and technical abilities with an unfailing commitment to solidarity accompanied by a generous and disinterested spirit of gratuitousness at every level.”
I note that the Pope cites Centesimus Annus, written by Pope St John Paul II. Recall  that this particular encyclical stated that a market economy was clearly the best from an economic development point of view and also warned against an overly intrusive state. That portion of Centesimus Annus is not the Pope’s focus of course. Centisimus Annus in keeping with Pope St John Paul II’s concerns with culture also sought to emphasize that an economic system is not measured purely in terms of GDP but by its overall effect on the well being of its people, including their spiritual well being. None of this should be controversial for a Catholic, It is more or less Catholicism 101. Read in this context the following statement in the Pope’s short address has a slightly different meaning:
“A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.”
Note the call to redistribute not wealth, but economic benefits. We all should indeed want the same, as a Catholic its hard to imagine favoring a system that concentrates wealth among the rich. In fact those of us who favor the free market argue that the free market is the system that distributes wealth the most widely. As many political conservatives have pointed out, there are things the state could do which would further help to distribute economic benefits widely and more specifically improve the lot of families ( such as a larger tax deduction for dependents/children), and these could be offset by elimination of crony capitalism tax breaks for things like “green energy projects” or subsidies for ethanol.
Of course  we have no idea if that is the sort of thing the Pope specifically had in mind . I would note again that “redistribution of economic benefits” is not necessarily a call to redistribute wealth per se. Redistribution of “wealth” usually means the government confiscating someone else’s property by force. At the very least this means heavy taxation backed by the legal threat of prison if one does not comply, or in cases of Socialist states, it might mean overt nationalization of property and industries, sometimes backed up by the rounding up and arresting of the original owners of the property as they are “enemies of the people. “ Neither scenario does much to help the poor, as both stifle economic growth which is the primary engine of liberating the poor from poverty. We have discussed this at length in our post on redistribution here .

 

Which brings me to my second point, the Vatican still needs speech writers with some economic knowledge. In fact someone needs to discuss this with the Pope. Wealth is not distributed! This is was the setting in Biblical times dominated by an agrarian society and much wealth was based on the food stuffs one could produce with land. (Recall the wealthy stored their wealth in grain bins and that sort of thing) In that setting there was only so much property so.. one might think wealth could be distributed. Now wealth is created. In Biblical times all that oil underground was worthless sludge, modern chemical engineering techniques created wealth by making it possible to refine the crude into gasoline. Modern computer programming technology allows you to get rich producing things like Google. A focus on redistributing wealth will do very little to help the poor because the act of confiscating and redistributing the wealth will not meaningfully improve the lot of the poor but will stifle economic growth enough such that they get trapped in their condition permanently. The United States has poor people with microwave ovens, cell phones, and similar things unknown to the richest king living in the middle ages. By that standard our poorest are immeasurably more wealthy than anyone who was “rich” at the time of Christ. In contrast the poor in other countries that are busily “redistributing wealth” often lack clean water. Beyond this, I would ask what current government should have the power to redistribute wealth? I would ask Pope Francis how he feels about the UN redistributing wealth given that they would likely start by confiscating the “wealth” of the Catholic Church which they regard as a human rights violator, as they simultaneously regard Cuba as having some right to sit on the human rights council while it tortures political prisoners, as reported here .
Still the Vatican did not call for wealth distribution per se. Maybe then what they need are advisers and speech writers who speak clearly, understand modern economics better, and do not inadvertently give aid and comfort to groups ( like the UN) who basically hate the Church and persecute her as reported here . Anyway don’t believe the press when it reports on Pope Francis and please if you a Vatican Insider, ( I know not very likely but who knows who stumbles on us out in Cyber space) please send a copy of this to the Pope..
Until later continue to say the Rosary for the conversion of sinners.

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2 comments for “What did Pope Francis say about wealth redistribution? Do we need to tax the rich ?

  1. Mary
    May 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    hi Michael ..just saw this excellent blog – thank you so very much!

    • Michael DePietro
      May 27, 2014 at 6:13 pm

      thanks!

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