On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis sent a letter to leaders of social movements promoting “structural changes” to the “economy of exclusion and inequality.” Among other things, he encouraged these activists to use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to spur radical change and launch a “humanistic and ecological conversion.” He also endorsed the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Pope Francis addressed his letter to the World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM), an alliance of Roman Catholic Church leadership and “grassroots organizations working to address the ‘economy of exclusion and inequality’ by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice.”
In the letter, the pope argues that these activists are “invisible to the system. Market solutions do not reach the peripheries, and State protection is hardly visible there.” Rather than encouraging philanthropy to reach these peripheries, Francis writes to encourage “you who are looked upon with suspicion when through community organization you try to move beyond philanthropy or when, instead of resigning and hoping to catch some crumbs that fall from the table of economic power, you claim your rights.”
In this context, Francis endorses a UBI. “I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce,” he argues. “Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.”
This tepid support for UBI grabbed headlines — and it got Yang’s attention.
“Wow. Pope Francis today: ‘This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage.’ Game-changing,” Yang tweeted with a “praying hands” emoji.
— Andrew Yang🧢🇺🇸 (@AndrewYang) April 12, 2020
Yet Pope Francis does not stop with the support for a UBI. He suggested the coronavirus crisis should be an opportunity for broader structural change.
“I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre,” the pope’s letter continues. “Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.”
Pope Francis is partially right: the coronavirus crisis should encourage introspection and it should spur Christians on to further acts of charity. It should encourage leaders to think of new ways to help people.
However, the coronavirus is not a reason to reject the free market. While capitalism does run on the desire to make money, it channels selfish desires to productive ends. Over the last two hundred years, the free market system has unleashed monumental progress in living standards. The global network of trade allows Americans to buy products from around the world, as new technologies — developed in pursuit of the filthy lucre Pope Francis rightly condemns — enable them to heat and cool their homes, preserve and heat food, enjoy running water, access reams and reams of information and entertainment, and more.
Pope Francis condemns these true tangible benefits as “superficial pleasures,” and compared to the promise of eternal life with God, they are. But the material progress is not to be dismissed. The true grinding poverty of the sort our ancestors knew two hundred years ago has been relegated to the fringes — and it is disappearing even there. Even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the internet has enabled churches to hold virtual services — something unimaginable one hundred years ago.
This system of wealth creation faces many threats, but few are as dire as the climate alarmist movement. Legislation like the Green New Deal, pushed in the name of saving the climate from a disaster that persistently fails to occur, would seriously undermine the market system and create an overbearing government apparatus to pick winners and losers. In a free market, consumers tend to buy the cheapest option, but they also shift their purchases in pursuit of other goals like sustainability. Many businesses are already pursuing practices that leave a smaller carbon footprint and both clean technologies like nuclear energy and cleaner greenhouse gases are already shrinking emissions.
Yet Pope Francis has reportedly tried to blame carbon emissions for the coronavirus crisis, suggesting the virus is nature’s response to bad environmental stewardship.
The pontiff’s fears about capitalism are correct in one respect. Christians should not be at home in this world, and we need to work to help others in as many ways as we can. The free market harnesses greed to productive ends, encouraging people to add value to society in exchange for money. Yet workers and entrepreneurs are not just driven by greed — and the wealthy in a capitalist system often reinvest their wealth, either in their businesses or in a burgeoning philanthropic sector that is constantly finding new ways to help the poor.
The free market allows them to do that in ways that a government-run economy would not. When the government tries to meet philanthropic needs, it often creates more problems than it solves. Philanthropy is not immune from criticism, either, but philanthropy is not taken for granted as a “right.”
Pope Francis seems to have good intentions, but his push for “structural” reforms, coupled with his attacks on capitalism and his endorsement of climate alarmism is arguably dangerous to the market system that has brought so much prosperity and opportunity to the world. Furthermore, his suggestion that activists use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity for structural change echoes the Democrats’ shameful attempts to capitalize on the suffering of millions.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.