The pope rails against “an economy of exclusion” (and I tentatively like it)

Many free market economists have taken umbrage at the pope’s seeming attack on free market economics. My perspective is quite different. Perhaps I have an advantage here, being both a free-market economist (at least, so I’d describe myself) and an Orthodox Christian, which is kind of close to being a Catholic. (Belief-wise, I’m probably a lot closer to being an orthodox Catholic than the typical nominal Catholic is.) Scott Sumner says that “it’s actually difficult to make sense of the Pope’s statement.” I’d put it differently: it’s difficult to map the Pope’s statement into concrete policy positions, since it is in a language of theology and moral exhortation and appropriately avoids being mappable into partisan politics. I’ll focus on the section entitled “No to an economy of exclusion,” page 45.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

We should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of… inequality?” That’s crazy! Inequality arises inevitably from people’s free use of their persons and property rights, as well as the accidents of nature, and could only be eliminated with some kind of Bolshevik leveling, inevitably bloody, and destructive of incentives to be productive.

Ah, but the pope didn’t say that. He said we should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Logically, an economy of inequality but not exclusion might be acceptable. So maybe that’s all right then… but what exactly is an “economy of exclusion?”

One answer suggests itself: closed borders!

Did the pope really mean by “saying ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion,” that we must open the world’s borders?

A little background here. I agree with Rodney Stark that the influence of the Catholic Church was basically the only reason that slavery disappeared in medieval Europe. But it took them centuries to do it, even after Christianity had become the dominant religion. When slavery emerged again in modern times, the popes fiercely denounced it at first. Alas, their power had been greatly diminished by the modern absolutist monarchies of France and Spain, and they were essentially powerless to prevent the emergence of modern chattel slavery. Instead, the Catholic Church limited itself to amelioriating the condition of slaves, which tended to have it better under Catholic jurisdictions than, for example, under English rule in the Caribbean. Yet the Catholic countries were laggards in actually abolishing slavery. On slavery, the Catholic Church has always been sort of on the right side, often when no one else was, and ultimately rather effectually, yet they also accommodated the powers that be for centuries, in a fashion that seems downright cowardly. But I think cowardice is the wrong diagnosis. The Catholic Church believes it has care of immortal souls, so to provoke schism over mere temporal political and economic issues would be a tactical error of inestimable consequences. Better to move very slowly, but change society to its foundations and ultimately with general consent, than to compromise and form coalitions of convenience to win transient political victories.

So while Pope Francis isn’t demanding open borders tomorrow, I think there’s reason to hope it’s not accidental that he’s sowing a catchphrase so splendidly suited to serve as a platform for attacks on the migration-restrictionist state.

By the way, a word on “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?” The “clean your plate” fallacy is one of economists’ pet peeves. Suppose you were cooking dinner and you made a little too much salad. You can stick in the fridge, but you’ve got plans for the next few nights, you won’t use it, and there’s no space. You’re about to throw it away, when your conscience jabs you about people starving in Ethiopia. What should you do? Throw it away. Ethiopia is neither here nor there. If you could teleport the leftovers to starving people in Ethiopia, that would be great, but you can’t. Should you have cooked less? Not necessarily: it’s hard to predict your appetite. In general, it’s hard to plan food use so precisely that you never waste anything, and most of us have better things to do with scarce brain power. If you live in the US, there’s probably no one nearby you can give your excess food to.

When I lived in Malawi, though, it was different. In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, hunger was never very far away, and it was easy to give away extra food. Now, under open borders, a lot of hungry people would be happy to come to the US even to live as outright beggars. There would be people to give away your extra food to, who would be happy to get it. To the extent that it seems wrong for food to be thrown away while people are starving, open borders is by far the most plausible way to address that problem.

When the pope says that “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape,” I cannot but think of the millions of refugees, and the billions of destitute people around the world, who are prevented from bettering their lives by immigration restrictions. Of course, the pope doesn’t say it’s a consequence of migration restrictions; he says it’s a consequence of “everything com[ing] under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” If that’s a reference to the pure operation of free markets, it’s wildly unfair; in a free market, by definition, the powerful can’t “feed upon” the powerless without their consent, i.e., without mutual benefit. But competition is not limited to markets; it also takes place in politics; and as a description of the political-economic constitution of contemporary global capitalism, the pope’s statement is more astute. Rich countries shut poor people out by force, often imprisoning them in dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, then [via their corporations] hire them at extremely low wages in sweatshops. Meanwhile, political competition in democracies often leads to violence and exclusion against undocumented immigrants, as politicians pander for nativist votes.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

That’s good description of populations marginalized by closed borders, isn’t it?

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Now this is a bit of a straw-man attack, but it doesn’t annoy me nearly as much from the pope as when Obama talks similarly, since when Obama talks this way, he’s being unfair to his Republican opponents, but the pope has no Republican opponents to be unfair to. If no one holds the views the pope attacks, so much the better; but some people, and some lines of thought, probably do tend that way, hence the warning. As Ryan Avent has noted, the “inevitably” makes the statement true. It is possible for strong economic growth to co-exist with exclusion and poverty, as in the days of Jim Crow laws… or, to cite a much larger and more example, today’s global apartheid regime of closed borders. Economic growth certainly can trickle down to the broad masses; it even tends to; but politics can prevent it from doing so; and that is very much the case today. That is why the pope is right to say that the opinion “that economic growth, encouraged by the free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world… has never been confirmed by the facts.” As far as I can recall, every period of dramatic economic growth in history has been marred by forcible exclusion of some people from the fruits of prosperity, not merely in the sense that the property rights of the prosperous are protected (which is fine), but in the sense that violence is used to bar people from avenues of advancement through deploying their labor where it is most productive, and enjoying its fruits. Thus, the great age of Victorian progress unfolded alongside first slavery, then continuing racism, and the oppressive policies of some (not all) imperialists. Thus, the 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in living standards in the prosperous West, even as migration restrictions trapped the majority of mankind in Third World poverty.

Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

This is a very good description of the moral numbness, the complacency and cowardice, of rich-world citizens who support immigration restrictions, even as they vaguely understand (as I think many do) that this exacerbates (and may even be the main cause of) world poverty. The pope continues:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Scott Sumner remarks here that “the first sentence seems a bit odd, given that global inequality has been declining in recent years.  So let’s assume that the Pope is thinking about the fact that inequality within countries has been rising (and put aside the question of why the Pope would take a nationalist perspective and not a global perspective.)” But it does not seem unduly charitable to suppose that the pope is taking a longer view, and while there has been a bit of welcome convergence in the past decade or so, the past couple of centuries have seen “divergence, big-time” between rich and poor countries. To call this “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” misses the mark a bit, from my perspective. It is, rather, the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the nation-state, especially its power to exclude. But that’s related, since capitalist nations today usually define “the market,” or “the economy,” in national terms. The “new tyranny” of border restrictions is indeed “invisible and often virtual… unilaterally impos[ing] its own laws and rules.” Now and then it becomes hideously visible, in the form of ICE agents separating families; but mostly it operates by vague threats and paperwork requirements. So maybe I want to redirect the pope’s ire a bit, but its spirit, its vehemence, and much of its substance, are entirely appropriate.

The claim that “they [who? the happy few? a minority?] reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control” will stick in libertarians’ craw. Libertarians do not like linking “the state” to “the common good.” Yet except a few anarcho-capitalists, no one really denies that there should be a state serving the common good. Indeed, the phrase “vigilance for the common good” is, to my mind, decidedly wholesome. The pope stands in an instructive contrast to Paul Krugman, who, in his advocacy of statism, doesn’t really pretend that he wants the state to serve the common good. He is very eager for the state to hurt people he hates, such as Republicans and the rich, in order to seize resources with which to help other people, such as Democratic constituencies, whom he doesn’t particularly seem to like but from whom he gets a self-righteous pleasure from condescendingly bestowing benefits on them. To call, as the pope does, for the state to be “vigilant for the common good,” taken at face value, seems to preclude redistribution, which serves only the private good of select classes of people, and redirect the state’s actions towards the maintenance of law and order and the provision of public goods, which benefit everyone. That is very wholesome and proper.

But– here is the crucial question– what is the common good? The common good of a nation? Or the common good of the human race? Coming from the pope, doesn’t it have to mean the latter? And this brings us back to the condemnation of an economy of exclusion. For when a state excludes poor immigrants, it may benefit its own citizens (or some of them), but it almost certainly doesn’t benefit mankind. Granted, the pope seems to be defending the right of states to “exercise [some] form of control,” but that’s aimed at the financial sector. What I find welcome is that his reasons for endorsing state control would seem to greatly disfavor control of migration.

The pope’s call for a renewed emphasis on ethics is also very appropriate:

Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

It’s true, I think, that the discipline of economics, and the practice of finance, tend to keep ethics at arm’s length. In different ways, Marxists, Rawlsians, and neoclassical economists tend to replace fundamental notions of right and wrong with a mere calculus of interests. One of the things I like about Bryan Caplan is the way he forces ethical issues to the fore. We need more of that. A greater stress on ethics can’t fail to be favorable to the cause of open borders, since being able to win the moral high ground in any debate is one of open borders advocates’ greatest assets. The Chrysostom quote will not please those who (like Bryan) regard giving to the poor as “supererogatory;” clearly the Catholic view here is ultimately a bit different from the way free-market economists habitually regard property rights. But, let’s suppose that we do have an obligation to help the poor. Whose poor? Those of rich countries? Or the global poor? Surely the latter, since they are much poorer. How should we help them, then? Many ways, but surely the first and foremost is to stop excluding them by force from our homelands, which does them more harm than any aid we could give would do them good.

The pope predicts, a little vaguely yet at the same time vividly, that global inequality will lead to violence. At times he almost seems to endorse it, but no, he actually doesn’t: “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.” It is an interesting question whether global inequality will lead to violence. I must say that if some international movement based in the developing world eventually waged war against the rich countries to force them to open their borders to migration, it would be one of the more respectable casus belli in history. There’s little to no evidence of such developments now, but 19th-century economic inequality in Europe looked pretty stable at one point, but led in bloody revolution.

I have to think more about the pope’s remarks, but in general they seem a wisely aimed and much-needed provocation. Global capitalism today is indeed very unjust, mainly because borders are closed to migration, but there are other problems, too. It’s great to see the pope hurling down the gauntlet against the “economy of exclusion.” I don’t fully understand where he’s coming from, but much of his language is very promising. The world certainly needs “freedom from all forms of enslavement” and “a more humane social order.”

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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