Bernardo M. Villegas
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How and Why Economies Kill

          Two veteran Vatican reporters, Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, have written a book on the social teachings of Pope Francis with a very provocative title, “This Economy Kills.”  The economy to which the Pope refers is the one that prevailed in most countries that adopted the free market approach to economic growth and development.  Without denying that the freedom of economic enterprise has resulted in the liberation of hundreds of millions of poor people, especially in China, over the last forty or fifty years, Pope Francis condemns the worship of the absolute autonomy of markets that is not tempered with the necessary role of the State in addressing the needs of the poorest of the poor who are unable to participate in the market because they are too undernourished, too unhealthy, too unskilled or unschooled to be able to offer anything to the market.   A belief in the absolute autonomy of the market also completely disregards the absolute necessity in a society for individuals to always contribute to the common good as they go about pursuing their respective personal interests.  This obligation and willingness of every human being to seek the good of others without expecting anything in return is what has been completely ignored in the free market ideology.

         The authors quote liberally from the Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  Economies can kill when structural causes of poverty are not addressed.  In paragraphs nos.  202-4 of the Exhortation, Pope Francis writes:  “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.  Welfare programs, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses.  As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.  Inequality is the root of social ills.”

         The Pope is convinced that the structural causes of poverty are rooted in the belief in the absolute autonomy of the market and financial speculation.  All the participants in the economy, i.e. private business, the State and civil society, must be convinced that the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.  The Pope laments that at times these primordial concerns seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral human development.  Unfortunately, there are still a good number of those who believe that allowing market forces to operate as freely as possible will lead to sustainable and inclusive development.  They are the ones to whom the Pope refers when he remarked: “How many words prove irksome to this system!  It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference is made to protecting labor and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice.  At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them.”

         Indeed, as the authors point out, just a few days after  the publication of the exhortation, the Pope received adequate proof of the level of irritation  caused whenever someone decides to talk about global solidarity, distribution of wealth, and controversial financial-economic systems (such as those that concocted the lethal financial derivatives that caused the Great Recession recently).  His critics were quick to call Pope Francis a Marxist with little understanding of economics—and only because he does not worship the absolute autonomy of markets.  The free market worshipers could not stomach the following words in the Exhortation: “We can no longer trust in unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.  Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth:  it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”  As an economics professor over the last fifty years, I am witness to the worship of the market that was contained in so many textbooks written about the economy and development programs crafted by followers of the high priest of free markets, i.e. Milton Friedman, like the “so-called Chicago boys” that advised the authoritarian leader Pinochet in Chile.

         One does not have to be a Christian to be convinced about the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and common good that Pope Francis has taken from more than one hundred years of social teachings of his predecessors in the papacy.  As a predominantly Christian nation, though,  we Filipinos should never hesitate to embrace the fundamentals of the Christian faith when facing the problems of the world, such as poverty and inequality.  As the Italian authors commented in “This Economy Kills,” the gospel message is in fact characterized by a clear social content that is indisputable because at  the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others, in contrast with the assumption of the free market ideology of a single-minded pursuit of profit by the businessman and an obsession with the maximization of pleasure on the part of the consumer.  For Christianity, the infinite dignity of each human person is completely essential; a dignity conferred by God with the creation of man “in His image and likeness.”  What is more, the redemption of Jesus Christ of mankind has a social dimension because “God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men.” 

         These considerations are especially timely as we prepare for the 400th anniversary of the Christianization of our nation in 2021.  Pope Francis writes: “From the heart of the Gospel we see the profound connection between evangelization and human advancement, which must necessarily find expression and develop in every work of evangelization.  To evangelize means to take care of the needs of others, to be close to others, and to share the sufferings of others; it is commitment to respect the dignity of each human person.  Related to this view is the Pope’s insistence that the “protocol” by which Christians will be judged—as Jesus Himself said—is to be found in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel.  Therefore, everything we do for others has a transcendental dimension: “By her very nature the Church is missionary,” Pope Francis writes, “she abounds in effective charity and a compassion which understands, assists and promotes.”   We can conclude, therefore, that economic systems kill when the individual participants that make up the economy—whether they be entrepreneurs, business executives, stockholders, workers, consumers and ordinary citizens—forget that they have to consider the common good in every decision they make with respect to the economy.  This is the principle of solidarity and it requires, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), the practice of the virtue of gratuitousness which is the habit of seeking the good others without waiting for anything in return. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.