Pope Francis and the problem of selfishness

The pope is a very good man, and what very good men have in common with very bad men is that they tend to assume that the world is full of men who are similar to themselves. Thus, his rhetorical reliance upon “states, charged with vigilance for the common good,” an aspirational sentiment rather than a factual statement. States should act in the public good, but there is that problem of selfishness, which everybody sees in the market but overlooks in politics.

Political self-interest is no less selfish than is economic self-interest, and states have something more dangerous than even the most ruthless operator in a free market: coercion. Pope Francis might consider the case of President Obama, whose vision of the public good includes millions of federally subsidized abortions, and ask himself whether “vigilance for the common good” explains what politics is or what he wishes it were. The longstanding Catholic skepticism of economic liberalism is one of the last remnants of the Church’s skepticism of liberalism in toto, Rome having given up explicit denunciations of things such as the freedom of conscience (cf. Ubi Primum) some time ago.

It is natural that a man who sees the world the way Barack Obama sees it would view all power relationships as zero-sum: If somebody else gets a little more power, he has a little less. But there is no reason for Pope Francis to take that view. If ever the Church’s economic thinkers get over their 19th-century model of the relationship between state and market, they might appreciate that spontaneous orders and distributed economic forces could produce some truly radical outcomes in a world in which a billion or more people shared a vision of justice and mercy. The pope’s job in part is to supply that vision; unhappily, the default Catholic position seems to be delegating economic justice to the state, under the mistaken theory that its ministers are somehow less selfish than are the men who build and create and trade for a living rather than expropriate. Strange that a man who labored under the shadow of Perón has not come to that conclusion on his own.