TAMPA, December 18, 2013 – There has already been a lot said about Pope Francis’ EVANGELII GAUDIUM, in which he is critical of free markets. Reactions by Christian proponents of capitalism have ranged from respectful disagreement to full-on denial that he was critical of the market at all.
The latter group is not facing reality. While having since clarified that he is not Marxist, the pope clearly rejected the laissez faire approach to the market in favor of the highly regulated, redistributionist model promoted by the left. His offering is chock full of the usual sophisms leftists use to justify overriding freedom of choice in exchanges of property.
There is no need to address each of the pope’s arguments against free markets from a purely economic perspective. Tom Woods has already done this thoroughly during his December 6 episode of the Tom Woods Show, “Pope Francis on Capitalism.”
What is more surprising than the pope’s leftist economic ideas is his ability to ignore the overtly pro-capitalist themes in the gospels themselves. Jesus’ teaching consistently holds capitalists up as heroes. He never once even hints that the government should direct economic affairs.
The misconception that Jesus’ message is anti-capitalist probably stems from the same confusion that pervades all leftist thinking: the inability to distinguish voluntary from coerced human action. Jesus often exhorts his followers to voluntarily give to the poor. Nowhere in the gospels does he suggest that the Romans or the vassal Jewish government should be empowered to tax the wealthy to provide for the poor.
Tax collectors are de facto sinners, remember?
Jesus also warns against the temptations that great wealth may expose one to. Being consumed with accumulating wealth to the exclusion of all other concerns leaves no room for devotion to God or charity to one’s fellow man. This is summed up in Luke 16:13 when Jesus says,
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Again, Jesus charges his followers to manage their own passion for wealth. There is no suggestion that the government should be involved.
Jesus doesn’t expound on political economy because, as he told Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). However, his parables have consistently pro-capitalist themes.
In the parable of the bags of gold (Matthew 25: 14-30), the servants who choose to be capitalists with the master’s money are richly rewarded upon the master’s return. The servant who chose not to be a capitalist is not only not rewarded, he is “cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
Certainly, the story is symbolic. The money in the story represents the abilities given to each individual by God. But even on that level the story does not support the anti-capitalists. First, the master, the ultimate capitalist in the parable, actually represents God. Certainly, Jesus would have found another way to make his point if capitalists were de facto sinners (like tax collectors).
Notice also that the servant who chooses not to invest the master’s money is the one given the least. Symbolically, he represents the person who has the least natural gifts or who is born to disadvantage. Does Jesus suggest that the other two servants should be taxed to help him? No. The most disadvantaged servant is expected to do the best with what he has. He isn’t punished because he achieves less. He is punished because he fails to try.
In two other parables, Jesus represents God as the owner of a vineyard. In Matthew 20: 1-16, he makes the point that it is never too late for salvation and that a repentant man can claim the same salvation as one who has been devout all of his life. He represents salvation as wages paid to laborers. When a laborer who worked longer complains that he is paid no more than one who only worked an hour, the master replies,
“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.”
Again, the message is spiritual, but Jesus uses the very libertarian, capitalist idea that no one is entitled to any more wages than both parties voluntarily agree to.
God is again depicted as the owner of a vineyard in Matthew 21: 33-41. In this parable, the vineyard owner is even more overtly capitalist. Verse 33 in particular highlights that it is the previous work of the owner in planting the vineyard, hedging around it, and building a tower that makes the land productive before it is ever rented out to the husbandmen.
In other words, the capitalist has sacrificed his own consumption in the present to invest in land and capital goods to improve the productivity of the land. This has created an opportunity for the husbandmen to be more productive by working on the owner’s land than they would be on their own, without the land or the capital goods the owner has provided.
The owner then enters a voluntary agreement with the husbandmen whereby each party keeps part of what is produced. Both owner and husbandmen benefit from the agreement. The owner is entitled to the profits because he is the one who created the opportunity by sacrificing his own consumption in the past.
The husbandmen are evil specifically because they act like Marxists and renege on the agreement. They kill the owner’s agents and even his son, hoping to seize all of the wealth for themselves.
In verse 41, Jesus teaches that the owner will destroy the Marxists and rent the land to other husbandmen who will make him profits. The right of the owner to profits is affirmed, the idea that the workers are being exploited or should be able to take more than the owner has agreed to pay them is completely absent.
Nowhere in any of these parables are socialist ideas advanced. On the contrary, God is consistently represented as a capitalist and his children judged by how profitable they are to Him.
While the purpose of the parables is to teach a spiritual lesson, these are not the literary tools that an anti-capitalist author would employ. Jesus’ pro-capitalist bias couldn’t hit one over the head any harder, prompting the question:
What Bible is Pope Francis reading?
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.