A Libertarian View of Francis' Laudato Si

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (“Be Praised”) has been acclaimed by the international media as a call to action on global warming, to combat its threat to world survival. It has been praised in New York Times editorials and by Progressive Catholic intellectuals like E.J. Dionne on the Left while garnering scathing or dismissive responses from libertarian, free-market types on the Right.

The papal document, however, is not fundamentally about climate change (who questions that weather changes?) or even global warming. (The Pope merely follows the scientific “consensus” and even qualifies it as a trend that “would appear” to “indicate” that “the greater part” of greenhouse gases’ warming is “due to human activity.”)

The encyclical is actually about our “fragile world” and how modern technology linked to “limitless” freedom, “business interests,” and consumerism will destroy it, especially its effects on the poor since consumerism’s “worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.” He is less worried about heat than trash:

We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.

To confront the danger to our fragile planet, fundamental changes are necessary in the world’s production, consumption, and lifestyles. Francis is extremely critical of what has been done so far, finding it “remarkable how weak international political responses have been.”

A fragile planet with limited resources means a zero-sum situation in which the richer deprive the poor majority of necessities. Even where serious commitments have been made by the West to reduce carbon emissions, the richer nations are unwilling to confront the underlying problem of consumerism among their populations.

Western leaders’ “ecological sensitivity” has “not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption.” Even if there were the will to extend Western prosperity to the world, there would be insufficient resources to produce the goods necessary. The Western “minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.” The increasing use of air conditioning is singled out as an example of the “harmful habits of consumption” that are expanding ever more to exhaust world resources. Stimulating demand for such appliances is “self-destructive.”

The Pope is kind of a modern version of the English priest and academic Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that natural population growth would always in the long run outpace material production in a static world, finally leading to world poverty—although a “great law of necessity” would decrease population naturally to provide for some prosperity for the rest. Malthus’ modern proponents, such as Margaret Sanger, thought nature needed the assistance of abortion and birth control. Since the Pope condemns these as immoral, the only other logical and moral solution for him is to welcome lower average world wealth but to minimize the effects on the poor by redistributing wealth to them from the richer nations. The funds used on such luxuries as air conditioning should be reallocated to feed and house the poorest.

This encyclical, therefore, is much more radical than the statements of even the most extreme of the green movements worldwide. The Pope is more honest. There is no free lunch. Western “opinion makers, communications media, and centers of power are far removed from the poor” and live “isolated lives” unwilling to take the necessary action. If the Greens are right in their analysis of the climate crisis and infanticide is not an option, the richer in the West—those who can afford air conditioning—will have to sacrifice their modern standard of living and “leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.”

Who Are the Poor?

Francis does not mention it, but 80 percent of the official poor in the United States tell the government that they have air conditioning. Sorry E.J., even the U.S. poor are too rich; their and your air conditioning simply must go.

Even those, like your writer, who are without home air conditioning (to the utter incomprehension of neighbors during the steaming Washington, D.C. summer) cannot take much comfort. The Pope also criticizes “privatization of certain spaces that restrict peoples’ access to places of particular beauty.” (I live on the Chesapeake Bay and my property blocks access to it.)

Frustrated by present efforts, the Pope quotes Pope Benedict XVI on the need for “a true world political authority” that would go well beyond his predecessor’s limited conception to “manage the global economy; revive economies hit by the crisis, prevent deterioration of the present and subsequent imbalances; to achieve integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to ensure environmental protection and pursuant to the regulations for migratory flows.”

In short, what is envisioned here is “one world with a common plan.”

How to implement it? “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention,” writes Francis. Even if there is “sustainable development,” it must be offset by “containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.”

But he qualifies this by allowing that “there are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations. It is also true that political realism may call for transitional measures and technologies, so long as these are accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments.”

As for international relations en route to “one world with a common plan,” states “must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone.” Decisions must be made “based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives.” Moreover, there must be “greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems,” to encourage “a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people.”

The poorer countries do not escape “the plan.” They should continue to put a priority on “development and poverty eradication,” but at the same time, “they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.” He even warns poor countries that “want their chance to grow along the same path of industrialization” as the West did to “rethink that path” toward achieving ever greater riches. These countries “also need less-polluting forms of energy production, but for this they need to count on the help of wealthy countries” For even if the libertarian optimists are correct that technology can adapt to the changing environment, the poorer countries that have historically emitted the least carbon dioxide lack the means to adapt.

The Moral Ecosystem

The problem is finally a moral one. “Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”

How do we combat the lie? “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.”

Simple welfare payments to the poor are not enough. Employment is a “necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.” But the need for work leads Francis to make a rare concession to business that “it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity.” Yet, “to ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.”

For underlying it all is respect for the human person as such, “endowed with basic and inalienable rights.” The whole welfare of society is based on those inalienable individual rights and “builds on them” through a “variety of intermediate groups, applying the principle of subsidiarity,” through the family, locality, region and up to the state and beyond.

It starts with individual morality. “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment. . . . There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle.” What is needed is a literal “conversion” that “calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness.” Primarily “it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate His generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.”

As a Pope, Francis must insist on the world population’s meeting high moral standards, to be “selfless”—even to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He is realistic enough to say his encyclical is moral teaching, that “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion” on specific solutions and respects those with “divergent views,” although all must be guided by the “facts.”

Markets and Myths

Views of the facts range between the libertarian “myth of progress that ecological problems will solve themselves” with technology and the “other extreme” on the Left that the “presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced.”  “Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes” in a “synthesis between faith and reason.” Although he calls for a compromise between the two, presumably the solution will not be the mathematical one of moving from the Left to reduce the population only by half of what the Left may desire.

Francis understands the libertarian ideal as a market manipulated by business interests, with seemingly no conception that businessmen are actually controlled by popular market demand and constantly manipulate government to assist them in subverting market control. He quotes Pope St. John Paul II that the earth is given to the whole human race without excluding or favoring any. He notes John Paul’s concession to private property but finds a “social mortgage” on it that “serves God’s purposes which are not to favor the few.”

Of course, this theme goes back as far as St. Thomas and completely ignores that both saints justified property because it could benefit all if properly regulated under law. Markets are not “limitless” freedom. As even the libertarian icon and Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek specifically argued in his The Constitution of Liberty (1960), there is no such thing as pure laissez faire; the market rests on traditional law, custom, and proper governmental administration of justice.

Markets are not indifferent to the environment, either. A report on climate change by the International Energy Agency issued at the same time as the encyclical noted that without a mandatory regime, the world economy grew by 3 percent last year without increasing manmade carbon dioxide emissions. Market-consistent actions such as shifting from coal to natural gas and increasing carbon efficiencies are working. The reduction of subsidies for fossil fuels could save a half trillion dollars more. The moral justification of the Christian libertarian for the market is that it helps most people in the most moral and productive manner. The reason not to overregulate is so that growth and technology can force wealth down the economic scale.

So-called trickle down is often derided, but in fact it is the only way wealth has gotten to the poor. As Robert Sirico notes, the International Labor Office estimates the number of people on earth earning only $1.25 a day or less fell by more than half from 811 million in 1991 to 375 million in 2013. It was not the redistribution of wealth that did this, it was the market.

Environmental control by government is subject to abuse, too—what John Paul II criticized as “bureaucratic ways of thinking” rather than “concern for serving their clients.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was recently criticized by its inspector general for a “culture of complacency” that led the agency to delay taking action against serious employee misconduct that might have affected the management of chemical risks. Eight employees charged with misconduct were even paid for 21,000 hours of leave, totaling $1 million. A senior National Weather Service official created his own post-retirement job and came back to the NWS to perform the same work as before, at an increased salary.

Anyone who understands the enormous benefits of markets and the extreme limits on regulators’ knowledge in trying to guide them would commit a terrible sin by denying markets to the poorer nations of the world. Indeed, more free trade is essential. No one opposes “regulating occasionally,” as Francis puts it. Imagine, however, if the world had listened to Malthus and rather than limit population had merely restrained economic growth. Almost everyone would be poor today, with those at the bottom earning less than half of today’s average of $2,000 per person, much less than those in the poorest countries earning less than half of todays $300 per year. Nor is it a coincidence that the richer nations are better environmental stewards with much less raw discharge of pollution.

Man’s Dominion

Francis properly looks to Genesis 1:28 for the basic Judeo-Christian moral guidance on this matter, which he summarizes as: God gave man the mandate “to have dominion” over the earth but limited it through Biblical obligations to care for the earth. He doesn’t offer the Bible in support of the planet’s extreme fragility, of course—that point isn’t in there. He naturally quotes liberally from Francis of Assisi but, again, nothing very conclusive about how fragile or resilient the planet actually is.

In the section on Jesus’ ideas about nature, he says that “Jesus lived in full harmony” with the environment but the evidence is the observation of witnesses, who ask: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27). This seems to demonstrate His dramatically controlling the environment, not living in harmony with it.

In trying to resolve the “dominion” question, the Pope concedes: “We Christians have at times wrongfully interpreted the Scriptures” but “nowadays” we must “forcefully” reject “absolute dominion.” He urges reading the words about dominion in context with other Biblical passages but does not even quote the previous sentence. It is: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” For the actual word dominion, many substitute the phrase “be masters of,” others use “rule over.” Yes, Christians have interpreted “subdue,” “masters” and “rule over” in their normal understanding as being required in a hostile and resilient world to fulfill their Creator’s charge, while also finding there is an obligation to “till and keep it” as good stewards.

As the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI put it years ago in his In the Beginning (link no longer available) lectures:

What we had previously celebrated — namely, that through faith in creation the world has been demythologized and made reasonable; that sun, moon, and stars are no longer strange and powerful divinities but merely lights; that animals and plants have lost their mystic qualities: all this has become an accusation against Christianity. Christianity is said to have transformed all the powers of the universe, which were once our brothers and sisters, into utilitarian objects for human beings, and in so doing it has led them to misuse plants and animals and in fact all the world’s powers for the sake of an ideology of progress that thinks only of itself and cares only for itself. What can be said in reply to this? The Creator’s directive to humankind means that it is supposed to look after the world as God’s creation, and to do so in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation. The sense of the directive is described in the next chapter of Genesis with the words “to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15).

Of course, Pope Francis is not a scientist and simply relies on the consensus. What he is concerned about is morality. However correct libertarians are in appreciating capitalism for its role in lifting the poor, there is no doubt that we can and do become complacent, comfortable, and even a bit ideological in ignoring the downsides. Our best theorists, like Joseph Schumpeter,  recognize the market’s success is based upon its “creative destruction” that discards the old to unleash a higher prosperity. But that means that some are hurt in the process of free creation. Hayek spoke to this in finding tradition and custom to be essential to capitalist development, and these set a value on neighborliness, what Hayek called “conventional morals.”

Here the Pope can help us:

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light hearted superficiality has done us no good.

Schumpeter especially makes it clear that a particular moral order was responsible for capitalism’s creation and is necessary to preserve it. Indeed, he offers the intriguing idea that capitalism is not in Marx’s sense a separate stage of history but is merely the final stage of feudalism. Without its “protecting” values, the whole order of freedom cannot be sustained and the walls of civilization will crumble, in Schumpeter’s view.

Certainly Francis’ understanding of capitalist “freedom to consume” has little to do with what Schumpeter or Hayek understood about liberty. To the extent Francis’ definition of capitalism is accurate, is it not the very type of capitalism that Schumpeter warned against? Indeed, is not capitalism as Francis describes it—“saving the banks at any cost, making the public pay the price”—not precisely what real free market advocates criticize as crony capitalism?

To the extent that today’s capitalism is cronyism, Francis’ comments have some validity.

Outside of the empirical speculations that he offers, speculations that take him beyond his expertise, he is right to say that the problems of global hunger will be not be “resolved simply by market growth.” In fact, the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith emphasized the necessity of charity and local welfare.

The fact that data show that market conservatives in the United States follow his injunction by contributing more to charity than those on the Left of the political spectrum presents one reply. Or take the fact that libertarians rely upon technology to solve whatever ill effects may arise from climate change. Francis is correct that poor nations will have less access to that technology.

Might there be some obligation to share technology with those who cannot afford to pay the costs? There must be some non-state, non-coercive means to meet this challenge.

Francis’ perception of all earthly problems through the “fragile world” lens shows that his assumptions fall under the great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky’s left/egalitarian cultural presuppositions about human existence. We would be wrong to call this Marxism, strictly speaking. The left/egalitarian instinct says that if the world is fragile, it needs some strong external force like the state to protect it. That instinct leads to accepting the consensus “facts” on global warming, and the expert administrative state that is supposedly going to stave off the disaster.

Yet this assumption of fragility, and of the state’s ability to guard it, are based on faith—not the religious kind but the cultural and scientific kind. Malthus, after all, predicted limits that have been greatly exceeded. The scientific “facts” of the environment are in dispute, as the encyclical’s numerous qualifications in that regard testify. And Francis concedes that the Church cannot provide specific solutions. These all depend on science, not morality.

In 1616, Pope Paul V forced the scientist Galileo to recant his heliocentric view of the universe based upon the consensus of astronomical science of the day. Ptolemaic science had led to the discovery of whole new worlds; its accuracy was not supposed to be questioned, for it had provided reliable navigation (and did so right up until the invention of the Global Positioning System). Galileo’s works were not removed from Paul’s prohibited list until 1741, by Pope Benedict XIV. By 1939, Pope Pius XII was praising Galileo for being among the “most audacious heroes of research . . . not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.”

I published a book in 1978 entitled Does Freedom Work?, arguing that the market was the best friend of the impoverished and was distressed to end it with a necessary critique of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progresso. That encyclical, much like Laudato Si, criticized the market and urged instead a more powerfully controlling, central welfare state. I argued that, while Paul VI’s morality in defense of the poor and the infirm was impeccable, he was misguided about the empirical facts of markets and politics. A decade later, Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus accurately detailed the benefits and limits of the market and freedom, critiquing the welfare state’s regulatory excesses while, of course, reaffirming the need for compassion for the poor.

In his magnum opus Truth and Tolerance, the later Pope Benedict XVI put freedom at the same moral heights as truth, although as in Hayek, it was ordered liberty. Francis’ experience was of Argentine crony capitalism. His predecessors’ more searing experience was of the fundamental evils of communism and Nazism, and they grasped the benefits of freedom and markets as alternatives (although always under law and beneficence, to use Smith’s term). In his In the Beginning comments, Benedict as Joseph Ratzinger specifically criticized intellectual sources of the environmental movement such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Levi-Strauss, and B.F. Skinner for their hostility to human nature and its freedom:

Reaction and resentment against technology, which is already noticeable in Rousseau, has long since become a resentment against humans, who are seen as the disease of nature. This being that emerges out of nature’s exact objectivity and straightforwardness is responsible for disturbing the beautiful balance of nature. Humans are diseased by their mind and its consequence, freedom. Mind and freedom are the sickness of nature. Human beings, the world, should be delivered from them if there is to be redemption. To restore the balance, humans must be healed of being human. In ethnology, this is the thrust of Levi-Strauss’s thinking; in psychology, of Skinner’s.

Christianity teaches the reverse: that human mind and freedom are the epitome of nature, although always tempted to exploit it. Only human beings can have even partial dominion over nature, for good or evil, in the freedom their Creator granted them. Obviously, Popes, by their own Church doctrine, are not infallible on empirical or scientific matters. The pronouncements of Paul V and Paul VI were superseded by new insights. Both, in fact, were corrected by the minds of different Benedicts, and libertarians can expect that Francis’ “facts” will in time meet the same fate.

The libertarian prayer should be for a Benedict XVII to complete the understanding. Concretely, moral libertarians should set their contrasting goal as unleashing a freer international market under rational limits to produce such an increased wealth of nations that it would bring air conditioning to the world’s poor by the end of the 21st century.


Jose H. Gomez, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez

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