Friday, November 29, 2013

Papal Fallibility

As believing Catholic I accept my Church’s teaching as regards Papal infallibly.  Specifically, the Church hold that papal pronouncements are inerrant on matters of faith and doctrine if and only when he speaks ex cathedra – and this has happened only twice.  Since infallibility is limited to Church doctrine, the Pope is neither infallible nor or even within his competency when commenting on other topics.  To be sure Catholics do look to Rome for expertise on medical treatment, automotive maintenance, information architecture or much outside of the moral or spiritual realm.   

The Pontiff may be our spiritual leader par excellence but he is literally no rocket scientist, nor should we expect him to be.  After all, our first Pope, St. Peter, has humble fisherman from a backwater town.  Although Peter was tutored at Christ’s feet on matters of divine import, it is safe say that he knew little to nothing about the Egyptian mathematics, Greek astronomy or Roman engineering of his day.

All of this is preface my alarm and frustration when churchmen, and the Holy Father in particular, conflate moral teaching with wishful economic thinking.  Just the other day, Pope Francis decried “trickle-down” economics .  Sadly, the Pontiff adopted the rhetoric of Marxism of class warfare saying, “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”  He ignored the facts of material progress asserting that “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.”  Like many on the Left, he confuses income inequality with poverty by assuming the upper crust is taking a larger slice of a static sized pie.  And, one would expect, he roots his critique in Scripture.

While it is a morally compelling argument is factually and conceptually off base.  Thus the prescriptions that might flow from such ill-founded rage could be harmful and destructive rather than curative and productive.
The Biblical perspective is based should be understood in the context of the ancient world.  In that day the “rich” were primarily of aristocratic or warrior class.  These powerful elite employed the violence or the threat of violence to extract material comfort from the peasantry and the artisans, leaving little behind for those who produced the economic staples of life.  In his 1974 book, The Socialist Phenomenon, Soviet dissident, Igor Shafarevich, traces the evolution of a novel form of social structure in the ancient Near East, the state.   This new institution united “human masses on an unprecedented scale and the subjugation of these masses to the will of a central power. The "technology of power" and not the "technology of production" was the foundation upon which the new type of society was based. “

As we can see, the technologies of mass wealth creation had yet to be created.  However those select few who had mastered the techniques weapons production and deployment subjugated the defenseless many.  Thus we can see how in ancient times the “rich” truly were a class that unjustly extracted their riches from the subjugated masses.  Thus it is understandable how Jesus and biblical prophets inveighed against “the rich”, and their oppression of the “poor” of their day.

However an economic, scientific and social revolution began in the 17th century that would ignite wealth creation and forever alter the concepts of rich and poor.   This century witnessed the advent of three earthshaking intellectual innovations in England.  These are classical liberalism, free market economics and Newtonian mechanics.

The liberalism of John Locke would follow the Christian notion of human equality before God and the law to its logical conclusion. According to Locke’s logic King and commoner, price and pauper stood as equals before the Lord and no man could rightly claim to be born with a right to power over others.  This philosophy would take root in American and come to full fruition in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents of the American experiment.

The economic insights of Adam Smith expose the mercantile economic fallacies of the day.  Mercantilism was the crony capitalism of its time whereby, governments intervened in commercial activity to outcomes to the benefit of a well connected few.    Smith demonstrated how free and unfettered markets deliver superior outcomes for all strata of society, enriching all, impoverishing none.

Finally the scientific insights of Sir Isaac Newton provided a technical foundation for Industrial Revolution.
The combination of new found personal liberty, free markets and fueled an unprecedented economic production. Nearly 90% all wealth creation that has occurred over the past two millennia has occurred over the past two hundred years as a result of capitalist revolution that was launched by the aforementioned English gentlemen.  The following illustrates the progression:

In the natural state, wealth, that collection of material goods that sustains life and makes it livable, does not exist.  In the natural state, human beings eke out a tenuous hunter-gatherer existence that is completely vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.  The natural state is a state of poverty.  To overcome poverty, wealth must be created, and more of it is being created and at a faster rate than ever.

The question that the Vicar of Rome might pose is whether this new found wealth is finding its way to the masses or is simply accumulating in the hands of select few? 

Certainly corporate titans, Wall Street tycoons, tech innovators, show biz magnates, and top tier entertainers and athletes are racking up outlandish fortunes.  That cannot be denied.  However it is also true that world poverty is falling at unprecedented rates.

According to a 2010 World Bank report, the number of people living in “extreme poverty” which is defined a $1.25 or less per day has fallen to 22% of the developing world’s population – or 1.29 billion people from 43% in 1990 and 52% in 1981. That’s decline of nearly 58% in less than 30 years.

Granted, $1.25 is not much but other indicators of life quality have improved,  According the organization, HumanProgress many major indicators of material improvement speak to improved living conditions throughout the world including increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality and increases in things like paved roads and access to healthcare and communications technology.

This progress is attributable to the global spread of economic and political freedoms.  Even Bono has come to realize that only free enterprise capitalism will lift Africa out its economic woes.  And Sting is correct when he sings that “there is no political solution to our troubled evolution”.    That is because the political solution is the way of the state, the way of coercion and violence.

Murray Rothbard succinctly defines the State as “that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion."

As such, the State or State sponsored measure will never lift the human race out of misery because to alleviate poverty wealth must be created.  However, the State produces nothing.  It only steals and redistributes the hard earned fruits of others’ risk, investment and labor.

The German sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer, clearly enunciates how the working world earns its keep versus how the State supports itself.  In his book, The State” Oppenheimer observes:

“There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. . . . I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of need while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means“. . . . The State is an organization of the political means. No State, therefore, can come into being until the economic means has created a definite number of objects for the satisfaction of needs, which objects may be taken away or appropriated by warlike robbery.”

So when clerics such as the Pope decry capitalism and call for State intervention, they are calling for theft, for robbery, no matter how well intentioned they may be.   .   No society that is rooted in theft can prosper.

When they employ the language of class struggle, they are falling prey to utopian illusion of state socialism.  The world’s greatest socialist endeavors Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and Cuba have killed, tortured and imprisoned millions while failing to improve the lot of the masses as capitalism clearly has done.

When the Pope speaks of a misplaced “trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power” he misses the mark entirely.  Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith taught us that it is not good intentions that advance civilization's  prosperity.  Prosperity, the wealth of nations, and of the world, advances because of the aggregate transactions of individuals, each acting in his or her enlightened self interest.

“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  “by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”  The unforeseen consequence of free and voluntary production and trade is the material advancement of the nation and the human community.

Yes, my Pope is infallible in the realm of spiritual doctrine.  The Church is dead on correct its defense of life and religious liberty.  The Pope is also correct in calling out us on rampant consumerism and reminding us of our obligation to ease the lot of the poor and suffering.  He is on solid ground when he calls on us to withhold judgment upon those whose lifestyles depart from Christian norms.  After all, judgment is the Lord’s alone.

However, Popes can err in the area of providential judgment.  St. Paul, himself, confronted the first Pope, Peter in Antioch.  Paul wrote in Galatians that “I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong” about his treatment of the Gentiles.  So too is our Pontiff dangerously mistaken when he adorns himself in the mantle Marxism in his quest to help the poor. 

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