last week’s statement to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Francis has renewed the attack, but in the process has exhibited a number of political biases and demonstrably false assumptions. 

he denounced “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…”

spend approximately one-fifth of total GDP on government welfare programs alone. Indeed, when it comes to government spending on health care — not private spending, mind you — the United States — that supposed bastion of “free-market” thinking — is the fourth highest in the world. 

He claims, for example, that the world’s poor are getting poorer, when all the available data points in exactly the opposite direction. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates among the world’s poorest regions are falling, literacy rates are increasing, and access to clean water is increasing

Any good Christian cleric, of course, will exhort the faithful to pay attention to the poor, and to act with radical amounts of charity. In his attempts to cater to certain political ideologies, however, the Pope merely betrays a deep ignorance of the basic facts surrounding economic trends in the world.  

his latest attack on the “liberal-individualist” view, the Pope also appears to not understand the very ideology he attacks, and resorts to setting up straw men about what is most easily described as laissez-faire liberalism — or simply “liberalism.” 

then trots out all the usual accusations: 

Finally, I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism. A common feature of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is, “living well,” a “good life” in the community framework, and exalts the selfish ideal that deceptively proposes a “beautiful life.” If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of “self-causation.” Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of “common” implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of “good” deprives freedom of its essence.

In all of this, Pope Francis repeatedly misses the mark. 

Monbiot writes: 

Our dominant ideology [liberalism] is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested — that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others. Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being — Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal.

 understood exactly this, writing in Human Action:

It was a fundamental mistake … to interpret economics as the characterization of the behavior of an ideal type, the homo oeconomicus. According to this doctrine traditional or orthodox economics does not deal with the behavior of man as he really is and acts, but with a fictitious or hypothetical image. It pictures a being driven exclusively by “economic” motives, i.e., solely by the intention of making the greatest possible material or monetary profit. Such a being does not have and never did a counterpart in reality; it is a phantom of a spurious armchair philosophy. No man is exclusively motivated by the desire to become as rich as possible; many are not at all influenced by this mean craving. It is vain to refer to such an illusory homunculus in dealing with life and history.

Every insightful liberal theorist — Mises included — has fully accepted that human beings have motivations and values outside the marketplace, and no one is — nor should they be — motivated strictly by profit maximization.

In reality, human society is extremely varied and complex. Culture, religion, ethnic identity, language, and a host of other variables exist outside of markets, and no respectable liberal claims that markets or the pursuit of monetary profit should eclipse all these other factors that influence human values. 

Liberalism has never been in conflict with these facts about human nature and human society. But, for the anti-market ideologue, such as Monbiot and Francis, liberalism somehow dictates how everyone should live their daily lives, and thus makes us lonely and despairing in the process. 

Monbiot continues: 

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this [loneliness], but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

The very idea stems from a (possibly willful) misunderstanding of the difference between methodological individualism and individualism in practice

Many strains of liberalism — which draw heavily on Christian ideas of individualism and morality — employ a similar sort of methodological individualism in that only individuals make choices. Moreover, human beings derive their rights from their status as individual human beings and not as members of a group, whether an ethnic group or a state.

None of this, however, suggests that people must be individualistic in lifestyle or that human beings must reject the idea of living in community with others. 

After all, it is entirely consistent with the ideas of liberalism to live in a large extended family, to join a commune, or live in a densely-populated urban setting with others. All that liberals ask is that the decision to live a certain way is made voluntarily and without being coerced. A person commits no illiberal act when he gives away all his possessions to live in a monastery shared with others. There is nothing contrary to liberalism in offering free room and board to strangers or family members. There is no group or individual activity that is verboten by liberalism so long as the participants are cooperating freely. 

Moreover, according to Mises, 

The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation … are universal. They immediately benefit every generation … [f]or what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages.


This Mises Institute article was republished with permission. 


[Image Credit: The White House]