Robert Whaples joins us for a conversation on the Pope’s earnest call to build a truly compassionate society. Pope Francis’s fervent support for uplifting the poor and protecting the environment has inspired far-reaching discussions worldwide. But what is the most effective way to fight poverty? And what value does a religious perspective offer in addressing moral, political, and economic problems?
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robert M. Whaples, a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Co-Editor and Managing Editor for the Independent Review, and Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. He is the editor of Pope Francis and the Caring Society from the Independent Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Robert.
Robert Whaples: Thanks for having me on.
Trevor Burrus: In 2015, Pope Francis issued his [00:00:30] second Encyclical, which I’m probably going to butcher this, Laudato Si.
Robert Whaple: Laudato Si.
Trevor Burrus: Laudato Si. What did he say in that Encyclical?
Robert WhaplesSo the Encyclical is widely known as the Pope’s environmental Encyclical. But if you dig into it, it’s at least as much about the poor, and the rich, and economics, as it is about the environment. But if there’s a big picture, it’s that we’re [00:01:00] abusing the environment, and it has to do with the fact that we’re also abusing each other. The rich are abusing the poor, and the rich are missing out on their true calling, and in the process the environment is being, turning into a giant pile of filth, so that’s kind of the brass knuckles picture.
Aaron Powell: Before we dig in to your critique of the Pope’s views on these matters, I want to ask a [00:01:30] dumb non-Catholic [crosstalk 00:01:33] What is an Encyclical?
Robert Whaples: Yeah, so an Encyclical is this document that is meant to be read especially by other people in the church, but also by the laity and people outside the church. It’s a position paper, if you will. This is what follows in a long train of ones on social teaching. They date back to the late [00:02:00] 1800’s, Rerum Novarum. 1890’s is considered the first one of those and this follows in that tradition where we’re trying to explain to society what problems are, and think about how we can turn our lives around, and help solve them.
Trevor Burrus: I know that in Catholicism there’s a lot of distinction between official church doctrine and these … Are these official church doctrines? Is that the Pope speaking as the conduit of God or is that [00:02:30] the right term?
Robert Whaples: Yeah, he’s definitely speaking from his position of authority as the Pope. You have probably heard of this Catholic teaching of papal infallibility that is a doctrine that says the Pope can speak with infallibility on matters of faith and morals. That’s actually only been officially said once by a pope since that doctrine came around that this is an infallible teaching.
So this Encyclical is not meant to be an infallible teaching. [00:03:00] In fact, it’s much more meant to be a dialogue. He uses the term dialogue in there something like 20 times and his, basically he wants the dialogue with everyone in the world, all the faithful on these issues.
Aaron Powell: Does that mean that it’s, I guess as a Catholic is he trying to open up a dialogue with other Catholics who might disagree with him? Is it an invitation to say, “Here’s what I think?” But within the broader Catholic community there might be disagreement.
Robert Whaples: [00:03:30] Actually I think what he’s trying to do is not so much about disagreements but actually finding common ground among Catholics, but also people of all faiths, and non-faith.
Trevor Burrus: There’s a train of these as you mention going back to 1891 and is this one unique in its positions on markets and environmentalism? What for example, John Paul II or Benedict does it diverge from those?
Robert Whaples: And so it’s unique I [00:04:00] think in that it’s focusing to such a degree on environmental questions, but it is in a very long and broad tradition of a Catholic social teaching on issues like this, and a set of teachings that goes back through the Middle Ages, and all the way back to Christ, a couple thousand years ago.
And so if you look at that long tradition of social teachings, it’s I guess the best word is its broad, [00:04:30] right? And it isn’t a set of strictures that the economy must be set up exactly this way. No, its an overriding set of principles about how human action should be and then we can try to … Well, we are gifted with the ability and the duty of trying to live out those teachings in setting up our lives and setting up our own societies. And so that tradition [00:05:00] has, is broad enough so that at one point it was okay with monarchies, and it’s also okay with democracy. In recent years this Cardinal said democracy is the way you should go. It’s also historically been moving over towards the direction of close to socialism but not socialism, and other times closer to freer market capitalism.
And you mentioned Pope John Paul II, and I think if you read his Encyclicals [00:05:30] you’ll get over toward the side of the river that’s toward free market capitalism being something that really, really works well. But now I think Francis is moving us a little bit over on the other side, not towards socialism per se, but much more toward government having a role in regulating that capitalism, and structuring that capitalism, and questioning and critiquing, and not just government, but everyone.
Aaron Powell: Over the longer stretch of history, how has the church [00:06:00] generally viewed issues of free markets and private property? I mean as it was a player in Europe as capitalism and merchants spread out throughout the continent.
Robert Whaples: I’m not a scholar of that, but my reading of it is that the church has been always very adamant about the importance of private property. After all, it’s in the Bible as being important as far back as ” [00:06:30] Thou shalt not steal.”
Thomas Aquinas if you read him writing in the 1300’s, he’s talking about, its something like an economist could really dig into to. Why private property works better in talking about incentives, in talking about if everybody owns it in common, nobody’s really going to take care of it very well. If you own it yourself, you do.
In that Encyclical I mentioned, Rerum Novarum, from 1890 the Pope goes as far as to say that private property is inviable. [00:07:00] He doesn’t mean no strings attached, that private property doesn’t have to answer to anybody. But he’s basically saying that you just can’t steal people’s property from them, and he was pretty strong in denouncing socialism.
Trevor Burrus: And part of like I say the dialogue nature of Pope Francis’s Encyclical, then you put together this edited volume of people entering into that dialogue on different issues. But some of it [00:07:30] is, most of it is highly critical of … One of the contributors Andrew M [Ungert 00:07:35] I think is probably how you say it. I thought the line he had differentiated it from other Encyclicals in this way, he wrote, “I know of no other social Encyclical going back to Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII in 1891 in which, the truthfulness and motives of any party in question as relentlessly as the honesty of businesses and market advocates is impugned here.”
[00:08:00] Does it have that? I haven’t read the Encyclical, but does it have that sort of, not just saying markets are bad but it going after the people who advocate, and work in markets, and build them?
Robert Whaples: I think that’s a pretty fair summary that it shows a hostility that hasn’t been shown in earlier ones, but it’s not overboard. So for example, here is a line from Laudato Si from paragraph 128, it says, “Business [00:08:30] is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for areas in which it operates especially if it sees the creation of jobs as in a central part of its service to the common good. The broader objective of helping the poor should always be to allow them a dignified life of true work.”
Aaron Powell: How much does Pope Francis’s background, his upbringing in Argentina play [00:09:00] into his views on markets?
Robert Whaples: Yeah, I think that they’re really crucial in understanding. Just as John Paul’s background was crucial in understanding where he was coming from. John Paul of course, raised behind the iron curtain saw communism and how it suppressed human dignity and how it just didn’t work in satisfying people’s material needs, and said about some of the strongest things that have been said about the importance of business, and freer economies, and [00:09:30] entrepreneurs, and that kind of stuff.
But of course Francis was raised in Argentina and if you want to look at the 20th century’s most dismal economic performance. Argentina began the 20th century as one of the most prosperous economies in the world. In terms of it’s GDP per person, it would have been up there in the top handful. And then it’s relative ranking fell, and fell, and fell. Of course absolute standards of living rose because [00:10:00] there was worldwide economic growth during this period. But Argentina’s relative status just kind of slipped further, and further, and further down.
And most economists who study Argentina, I’m not an expert on it, say they made a series of policy choices that lead them into that path, and it was the moving away from markets, the moving towards the parentis corporatist model where the government takes more and more control in the market. And the markets become more and more crony capitalism instead [00:10:30] of what you and I would consider to be actual capitalism.
And so Francis was raised in that environment seeing that the market to him, a free market to him means I think what he saw in Argentina, which is not a very useful kind of market economy in the minds of most economists. He also of course is from a Jesuit tradition, and I think that [00:11:00] probably colors a lot of his views on these things. And there’s a quote that I give in my introduction that he says something to the effect that he developed an allergy for all things economic that he got from his father who was an overworked accountant. So a lot in his upbringing in his Argentina experience I think can explain some of his hostility and also some of his, I’ll say misunderstandings of how a market economy can work effectively.
Trevor Burrus: Before he was Pope, which [00:11:30] this I didn’t, I found this to be very interesting that he wrote a book or that was called Diálogos Entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro. Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. When John Paul II went to Cuba and in that he wrote, “No one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian,” which is in a pretty [00:12:00] big strong condemnation of-
Robert Whaples: That is …. I think that when somebody, when he says that, or when somebody on the left says that, they just have a different picture of what neoliberalism means then somebody who’s more a fan of free markets. They consider it to be just this soulless thing where the businesses run amuck and corrupt everything.
Trevor Burrus: So in that sense then how [00:12:30] should Catholics, not being Catholic myself nor Aaron, how should Catholics view markets or I mean it seems that it’s important if they pull you away from God, or if they direct you toward human suffering than Catholics should not be for markets it would seem.
Robert Whaples: And so my answer to that would be that Catholics should view markets the same way they view everything else on earth, and [00:13:00] that is something temporary that is going to be there to either help or hinder us in the longer term goal of course, which is eternal, which is getting to know and love God, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. So what’s the best way to do that? Does Catholicism have a good track record in getting us to know and love God better? And getting us to love our neighbor better?
[00:13:30] So the first one is hard to answer, but I’m going to return to that, but the second one I think most people who are fans of free markets would say in fact, “Well, look at the track record of capitalism. It’s pretty good at people trading with each other, giving mutual gains to those trades and so as I’m pursuing my quote unquote self-interest in the same time, I’m actually helping my neighbor. And so we can grow prosperous together unlike happened before [00:14:00] societies adopted the kind of capitalism that we have today.”
Trevor Burrus: Does it matter that we-
Robert Whaples: Make sense?
Trevor Burrus: Yes, but the motivations does that matter? I mean that’s a big part of looking at actions and deciding whether or not they’re good. I think in the Catholic tradition, so if someone is pursuing profits-
Aaron Powell: It’s not from the benevolence of the-
Trevor Burrus: Yes, and then Adam Smith, “It’s not from the benevolence of the butcher or the baker,” [00:14:30] is that problematic?
Robert Whaples: Yeah-
Trevor Burrus: If it directs you towards bad things.
Robert Whaple: They see it as problematic, but again there’s a very broad Catholic tradition that doesn’t see it as problematic at all. And so I had not read the Dialogues between John Paul and Fidel Castro and seen what was said in that. But if you look at broader Catholic teachings throughout the years, you’ll have people like the Michael Novaks of the world and he wrote the forward to the book [00:15:00] that talk about, “To have a flourishing society, you need to have a flourishing culture. You need to have a democratic political system, and you need to have a market economy to allow people to actually do those kinds of things that are going to help one another.”
There’s a chapter in the book that talks about charity and points out that people have more and more resources to give to their needy brethren here in a market economy, because a market economy just generates so much more wealth that then you can share. And [00:15:30] many, many people have shared that wealth, including people who were considered malefactors during their life. The John Rockefellers of the world, and he ended up giving away most of his wealth for incredibly worthy causes of eradicating diseases and all these kinds of things. He wouldn’t have been able to do that without a flourishing market economy.
Aaron Powell: I’m curious about the role of, I guess non-Catholics in this. Because it’s one thing to issue statements about [00:16:00] how Catholics ought to live their lives if their goal is to tee up eternity and get closer to God and so on.
But when you’re talking about something like whether we should have markets or not, whether capitalism is good or not, you’re talking about, I mean that stuff has an impact on an extraordinary number of people and the quality of their lives. And most of those people, given that the world is not [00:16:30] mostly Catholic are not going to share the goal. So they’re not going to say, “Well yeah, markets might lead me away from God but that’s not,” They’re going to say, “That’s not a problem for me because that’s not my goal in the first place.”
And so should that factor into how someone like Pope Francis approaches these questions that most of the world does not share his goals in the purpose and direction of life?
Robert Whaples: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so in writing an Encyclical like Ladotis si, [00:17:00] I think he does consciously try to speak to both audiences. Also, tries to convert those who aren’t Catholic and those who are non-believers to the position of pulling them in. And I think there was a lot of that consciously going on here especially in what he was saying about the environment. Because now there’s these environmentalists who probably aren’t Catholic, and maybe not even Christians who are going to be reading this, seeing that the Pope has the same, that the church has many of the same goals as them, and [00:17:30] maybe kind of pull them in under the tent as they become more and more interested in it.
But going back to your question, one of the things that you said about you might not share the same goals, and I think that almost everyone around the world whatever faith they are shares a goal of eradicating absolute poverty, right?
Aaron Powell: Sure.
Robert Whaples: Or a goal of allowing people to be prosperous enough to lead flourishing lives and so he definitely shares that goal. I think any reader [00:18:00] of that will share that goal. And so then the debate becomes what’s the best way to eradicate poverty? I think the economists that we had in our symposium mentioned that the Pope has a number of blind spots in this area and continues to at least rhetorically say that absolute poverty is on the rise, when in fact the numbers strongly suggest that it’s on the decline. And that we as economists have had lots and lots of [00:18:30] research papers and books written that show that there’s a link between freer market economies and that elimination of poverty, that a free market is one of the things that is going to be most strongly correlated with generating all that kind of wealth.
But actually let me go back to the other part of your question, which was what if you don’t share the Pope’s view at all about that first goal, which is to [00:19:00] know and love God. I guess the key point there is that the Pope is arguing and so let’s see how you respond to this argument.
The Pope is arguing that in many ways, capitalism for the rich has been a victim of its own success. In that its generated so much prosperity that the rich, and that would include most people in this country by world standards has been so successful that the rich [00:19:30] just kind of get fucked up into what he calls this whirlwind of consumption. And all they’re doing is leading these lives of frantic consumption. Gotta buy this and get it, and get rid of it and buy the latest newest thing, and that is distracting. Those lesser lights are distracting people from the true light, the light of the Trinity.
Aaron Powell: If I was personally responding to that I guess I would take two approaches. [00:20:00] The first would be to say, “Well, if they don’t share his view that the true light is the Trinity then that objection is not going to carry much weight.”
But the second one on the former point of its, they’re bound up in consumerism and that is somehow a less fulfilling, less virtuous life. I mean a general skeptical of those kinds of arguments. We like to say consumerism, [00:20:30] but I think a lot of people are critical of consumerism don’t really have a clear handle on what they mean. They generally, I think what people tend to mean, critics of consumerism tend to mean is that there are people out there buying things that I personally am not interested in.
So it’s when, with the person who buys hundreds and hundreds of records-
Trevor Burrus: You’re looking at me here.
Aaron Powell: I’m looking at Trevor, or we’ll keep looking at Trevor who buys lots of guitars and guitar peddles, they find that fulfilling [00:21:00] in the same way as the person who buys lots of books. But to some, but to the outsider that looks, that could be, that’s just consumerism. You can’t stop buying the records. It’s consumed his life and it’s all-
Trevor Burrus: Oh that’s interesting because consumerism consumes people, right?
Aaron Powell: Yes.
Robert Whaples: The pope talks about this almost as an addiction that we have that we just can’t turn away from it.
Trevor Burrus: And the interesting thing is that there’s an overlap here between Pope Francis and say that guy [00:21:30] we knew, everyone knew in high school who was the kind of socialist who said, “Man you know, it’s just like the corporations want you to buy all these things and they’re really just running you down. Don’t listen to the corporations and be a consumerist sheep,” and then go get ad buster magazine and subscribe and protest the WTO or things like that. It’s odd that there’s that parallel, which is and that parallel is sort of undergirded by both for the socialist and the Catholics [00:22:00] to some degree is that an idea that the world is run by false values. And that things that are moving toward false values are not actually enriching.
Robert Whaples: And so one point the Pope makes is that every purchasing decision is moral, it’s a moral decision, not simply an economic one. And I think that’s actually useful for us all to think about whether or not you are religious or not. So one of the goals of the Pope writing [00:22:30] this is to prick people’s conscious and get them to think more deeply about every action they take in their lives.
Trevor Burrus: In one of the contributions by Gabriel X Martinez he … It’s in the volume that’s the most, the least critical in its own way because he says that …The way I read it, because he says that, the actual quote is, “The Pope does not mean to criticize rising prosperity and [00:23:00] economic liberty in general, but what Francis criticizes and said the use of the theory to justify indifference. The view that eventually the poor will be all right if we just leave them alone, the market will take care of them.”
And then he quotes a Bill Clinton quote, which just sort of struck me as anidine about how markets help poor people kind of thing. And do you that’s … Do you agree with that characterization? You don’t have to agree with everything in a book that you edited but … Having edited a few books myself.
Robert Whaples: It was actually [00:23:30] interesting about that particular chapter is that Gabriel himself is from South America, like the pope he’s Ecuadorian originally.
The quote you got is one from Bill Clinton. Yeah, “We have to reaffirm unambiguously that open markets are the best engine we know of how to lift living standards and build shared prosperity,” Bill Clinton’s saying that.
Trevor Burrus: I mean and that’s totally true and for it to be this … That’s an example of the [00:24:00] kind of attitude, the politics of indifference in justice he writes is that the Pope is criticizing, not necessary prosperity. I mean but-
Aaron Powell: Something to wonder, if Pope Francis ought to try reading some Deirdre McCloskey.
Trevor Burrus: Yes I agree. But it strikes me, I think he’s criticizing more than that as you point out. Pope Francis having read the book, but not the Encyclical in the sense that we were discussing [00:24:30] its deeper. It’s about, it’s almost an alienation from our true selves arguments and that includes the environmentalist aspect of it.
Robert Whaples: And so going onto that, back to that point about the indifference that can sometimes creep in. The Pope goes back to one of the parables in the Bible. The one about Lazarus who’s this poor man and sits outside the door of this rich man, and the rich man [00:25:00] never gives him a scrap of bread or anything and poor Lazarus is like lame and can’t fend for himself.
And then Lazarus goes to Heaven and he sees this poor man in hell and he’s like, “Is there …”
The poor man in hell sees Lazarus and he goes, “Can’t he come and help me now?”
And the parable’s like, “No, you had your chance, you know?”
But what Pope Francis says [00:25:30] is that we’re like that nowadays. Many, many people are, they drive around in their cars with their tinted glass. They don’t even notice the people outside who are poor. They live inside gated communities. They do that kind of stuff. He’s warning us that we’re turning into those “Lazaruses,” and that we can’t be indifferent to the poor because like the poor, we’re all children of the same God.
Aaron Powell: It strikes me then that I … I am more sympathic to that argument than [00:26:00] I think a lot of people might be, and I do think that there can be a tendency to think that the proper way to live within a free market is the, we’ll call it the caricature of rugged individualism, which is the “What’s mine is mine, and the best thing for me to do is just do whatever is immediately in my interest and to not feel a connection to other people, or a responsibility [00:26:30] to them, or the burden of helping them.”
And I tend to reject that. But it’s interesting because that’s not to me, that’s not like the response to that is not to attack capitalism and markets because it’s capitalism and markets that will provide us with the resources should we choose to live a different way and should we choose to try to help the poor directly. It provides us with the resources [00:27:00] to do that in a meaningful and effective way, that it’s … So it’s almost like there’s a deep confusion of the economic system for the cultural system setting aside the issue of how widespread that, call it sick cultural system might actually be. I think we tend to imagine it’s much more widespread than it really is.
Robert Whaple: And so many of the authors in the book as you know rightly make a point very similar to that and say that, “Hey Pope Francis, you’re missing the fact [00:27:30] that this economic system we’ve set up has benefited the poor immensely. It’s allowed us not only to benefit them through just their economic interchanges with everyone else in earning higher wages, but also it’s really there for the needy. And this person who just could not fend for themselves, we’re wealthy enough now to take care of people like that and we have an immense amount of charity that we do, our successful people in the economy.”
But the Pope though would go then one step further and he would say, “That’s not enough. Money [00:28:00] isn’t the only part of the issue.” He uses this word frequently of encounter, that we need to encounter each other. We need to encounter people who are on the margins of society and just be physically close to them, talk to them, live with them. Let them know we care about them. Let them get to know us. Let us get to know them so that we have this kind of sympathy for one another. And so much in our modern society and our capitalist system [00:28:30] kind of breaks down that.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it interesting because there’s a parallel there between, to Herbert Spencer, which I imagine that Pope Francis would not think himself of Herbert Spencer.
But in that goes the question of when Herbert Spencer is criticizing forced charity that the biggest thing you’re missing in forced charity is the actual care and interaction with … There’s a part [00:29:00] I think in social statics where he talks about how much forced charity will sap the soul and someone like an Ebeneezer Scrooge walking past will say, “I gave at the office. Are there no work houses,” kind of thing, instead of actually looking people in the eye and giving charity. So how should in that light, Catholic’s view redistribution, forced redistribution as a method of quote unquote charity.
Robert Whaples: Yeah, and that’s a really good question and again I think there’s a [00:29:30] wide range of opinions. There are people who lean towards the more libertarian end of Catholicism and they go that, “If the government’s pointing the gun at my head and saying fork this money over or else, in the welfare state, that’s not real charity. The only real charity is if I’m doing it myself.”
But then of course, there’s many over on the other side that go, “No, that is a legitimate form of charity.” So I think a lot of debate about that and of course, the Pope would be over on that [00:30:00] other side where he seems to be quite a proponent of the welfare state and I think an expanded welfare state, and even maybe in globalization of such things.
Trevor Burrus: In terms of the environment there’s a chapter in the book about why Pope Francis mischaracterize the effects of markets on the environment. Where does he go wrong with that?
Robert Whaples: [00:30:30] Yeah, and I think our main point of not just that chapter but other authors in the book is that again a blind spot of the Pope is that he just doesn’t understand how property rights can be so crucial in solving economic problems. In fact there’s many economists I know who say that any environmental problem you have is due to a failure of property rights, right?
So he just, he seems to have a view of property as [00:31:00] when somebody gets property they say, “It’s mine. I’m not going to share it with anybody else.”
But instead most economists have a view of, “It’s my property. I’m going to try to put it to its highest value of use and therefore it’s going to benefit much of the rest of society.”
One of the authors gives kind of the classic case of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which you can see from the sky as you’re flying in that on one side of the border things are pretty brown looking, and the other [00:31:30] side they’re much greener looking. And it’s over in Haiti where there’s been lots of corrupt governments for many generations and very, very, insecure property rights that people knew that if I’ve got something valuable in my land, some trees, it might be that some friend of the government comes and just cuts them down. And so I’m going to cut them down before they get a chance to.
On the other side, where we got secure property rights. I know that nobody can get away with that. So I’m going to [00:32:00] husband my resources. I’m going to nurture them. And the value will continue to be there rather than turn it into one of these tragedies of the commons.
And a really important message about what property rights mean and how they get people to look toward the future and the conservation of their resources just seems to be missing in so much of the insights of someone like Elinor Ostrom. Just seem to be missing in Ladotis si and the Pope’s vision of these [00:32:30] things.
Aaron Powell: You mentioned earlier that he, there’s the argument that every purchase is to some extent a moral choice and that morality plays a large role in the decisions in how we should approach things, and how we should think about things, and what we should [EMAT 00:32:44].
And so given the, not just the errors in the reasoning here, or the lack of knowledge about … [00:33:00] There’s actual evidence in studies and lots of scholarship on these questions and that should have informed what he wrote. But also that the very people, the very areas of the world that are most Catholic that have, where the people are going to be most inclined to listen to what he has to say about markets and capitalism and the environment and so on, are those areas that are most desperate for and in most need of free markets [00:33:30] and capitalism to. They’re the areas that have been most damaged by the lack of it so throughout South America for example. And so what obligation is there for, moral obligation to get this stuff right on his part?
Robert Whaples: Well, very well put, you know? Just as you said, every consumption decision is a moral decision, but also our decisions about what to learn, what to pay attention to are moral decisions. And I think [00:34:00] it’s, you’re entirely right he could have listened to some other voices when he was putting together this Encyclical. And as you look at some of the … Popes have all these advisory boards on science, on all this, that kinds of … And they have the economists on their advisory boards. And so they’re historically people like Gary Becker have been on these advisory boards, but I think that this particular Pope just … [00:34:30] I don’t exactly whose on his board at this point and so whoever he’s listening to just isn’t getting the message that most economists understand so well across …
Trevor Burrus: In your introduction you sketch out how Pope Francis due to his views about the harms of consumption has to be kind of pushing back or warring against some fundamental assumptions [00:35:00] of economics especially the one that consumption … When consumption is undertaken freely the bulk of people are better off and that even occurs up the curve. More good is always better in the non-satiation. But you seem non-committal on whether or not that might be true is the way I read it. You don’t actually come out, I mean you said this, you describe Pope Francis’s views, [00:35:30] but could it be possible that our views of non-satiation are incorrect in some way?
Robert Whaples: Yeah, and so I will put my opinion on the line here and that is that I do agree with the Pope on this, that the well being, can and often does go down when consumption gets too high. And so [00:36:00] I think if you look at lots of different data like on happiness, there’s debates about these things but it definitely slows down its increase and maybe plateaus once you get to a certain point. But a deeper one than that just on the mere material level is that as a devout Catholic, I see a lot of evidence that as we get richer and richer, we care less and less about these eternal things. And society has gotten [00:36:30] richer and richer, and the role of religion, the importance of religion in people’s lives seems to wane as societies get richer.
And so I think maybe we pass the bend on that curve. We’ve gotten too rich for our own good. And producing more is a wonderful thing, but then we consume more and it seems to be like that consumption pulls us in the wrong direction. And so my little graph was kind of … We could be better off individually if we [00:37:00] gave away more of our wealth. Not an argument towards us not being, producing as much, but it’s an argument towards us using our wealth wisely. We could eat too much, yes. We could fill in almost any blank type of consumption too much. We could just consume in general too much. And I think there’s many time where many of us do that and so we could be better off if we divested ourselves in some of these things.
Aaron Powell: That makes me wonder than how we deal with [00:37:30] particular sorts of trade offs in this area. So how should from within a Catholic perspective, should think about a situation say where we generally agree that it’s better for a society to be wealthier than poorer. That we have, you have access to more options, and your life is longer and healthier, and less violent, and so on and so forth, and that all of those things can enable those people who want to pursue the [00:38:00] eternal say, want to live the prescribed lifestyle of Catholic or of any other religious faith, to do that in an easier more meaningful more successful way. But at the cost of some people maybe it’s these, as you’ve described the wealthy people who over consumer or whoever else, or the people it’s going to slightly turn more people away from this path that there’s [00:38:30] that’s going to happen and that there is no way to create that degree of wealth without instituting the mechanisms that will also cause those results-
Trevor Burrus: To turn away from God.
Aaron Powell: … to turn away should I guess so does one trump the other? Like how do we think about-
Robert Whaple: It’s kind of this, right? Having a budget constraint that’s further out is awesome. It allows you to get more of everything and to pick [00:39:00] the things that you think are really important. But having that budget constraint that’s further out when everybody does it, and everybody consumes more maybe warps our preferences in some way and so that we end up making consumption decisions that aren’t in our own best interests. And so if that’s true in other words, if people can be fallible, and maybe are sinful by nature because [00:39:30] of the fall. If those things are true than we do have a lot of really hard decisions to make about the best way to order our lives and to order our societies.
I’m over in the direction of having somebody forcibly tell me what I should be doing in a situation like that is not a good idea because they’re sinful and fallen just like I am. I’m gonna have to make those hard choices by myself. Does that make sense?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but this [00:40:00] might have been related to Aaron’s question too, but if from the church’s standpoint it would seem to me at least some Catholics would think that moving towards God is more important than alleviating poverty, if that’s an actual trade off. Because if people turn away from God because of institutions that are alleviating poverty let’s just say that, that’s Norway-
Aaron Powell: Stipulate that one-
Trevor Burrus: Stipulate that relationship there where [00:40:30] they’re satiated, they have false idols, every sort of thing and so the religious levels of a place like Norway, which is just shockingly low, and in the Catholic tradition those people can’t be saved.
So is it a trade off that a Catholic would say, “Okay well if this alleviates poverty but turns people away from God and therefore puts them in the bad place then we shouldn’t, we should choose God over poverty [00:41:00] alleviation.”
Robert Whaple: And so I think I guess there’s two levels of the answer to that. One is, on an individual basis, and then the other is on the societal basis. And so I think just about any Catholic would say, “Yeah, if getting rich is pulling us away from God, just stop worrying about alleviating poverty, if it’s actually so much given our current levels of wealth because it [00:41:30] is leading people away from God.”
But then what do you do at the societal level? Are you going to impose those things on other people? So the first one seems pretty clear the answer, the other one then there’s a huge amount of debate.
Trevor Burrus: So what do you hope people will take away from the book or especially if they’re Catholics?
Robert Whaples: The book is a reply to the Pope’s call for dialogue and the very act of us writing it is part of that dialogue. The very act of people then reading it, they [00:42:00] have this other part of this dialogue. You have an internal dialogue in your head as it goes on. We have had a dialogue with each other now. And so what we’re really hoping to get out of it is people to think about the importance of these issues but also to maybe have somebody in positions within the church to listen to this, to understand [00:42:30] that economists have learned a lot of things about how to arrange incentives so that we actually solve many of the problems that the Pope has pointed out here to maybe take some of these things out of the Pope’s blind spots or the church’s more broadly blind spot. So that they can move away from maybe some traditional misconceptions about the market toward a better understanding of how the [00:43:00] market can help solve so many of these problems.
Aaron Powell: Free thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show please rate and review us on iTunes. And if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.