Bernie Visits the Vatican, and Misrepresents Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II praised the free economy and critiqued socialism. You might never guess that from listening to Sanders' take on Centesimus Annus.

By Samuel Gregg Published on April 17, 2016

Economic inequality, it seems, is one of those topics people can’t stop talking about these days. It was no surprise that Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted the issue in his recent speech at a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome.

No one had any expectations that Senator Sanders would say anything of great substance at this event. I suspect most of the distinguished scholars gathered at the conference were wondering why Sanders was even there in the first place. The presence at the conference of not one but two leftist-populist Latin American heads of state, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales (who have done what all populists do everywhere — i.e., wreck their nation’s economies) should, however, have been a hint of what was to come.

Centesimus Annus contains some of the papacy’s strongest endorsements of the market economy and some of Catholicism’s most powerful critiques of not just socialism but also welfare states. None of these commendations or criticisms were referenced in Sanders’ address.

Much of Sanders’ address reflected what one expects of most people seeking public office: i.e., a stump speech with the same talking-points made over and over again, with a few adjustments to cater for the specifics of the audience.

That said, some of Sanders’ remarks reflected a certain inattention to important details associated with the nature of the event he was attending. I suspect some of the genuinely bright minds at this conference weren’t slow to point this out afterwards, assuming, of course, that the Senator stayed long enough to listen.

In the first place, Sanders didn’t acknowledge just how much the encyclical being discussed by the conference, Saint John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus, underscored the positive role of free markets as well as limits on what the government can and should do in the economy. To be sure, Centesimus Annus is not a Catholic version of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. But as I observed prior to the speech, Centesimus Annus contains some of the papacy’s strongest endorsements of the market economy and some of Catholicism’s most powerful critiques of not just socialism but also welfare states. None of these commendations or criticisms were referenced in Sanders’ address.

More generally, some of the claims made by Sanders about inequality are very contestable. His address referred, for instance, to “the widening gaps between the rich and poor.” This, however, doesn’t reflect the evidence of what’s happening to global economic inequality. In terms of global income, for instance, the most widely utilized assessment of income distribution, the Gini coefficient, went from 0.69 in 1988 to 0.63 in 2011. That matters, because a lower Gini coefficient indicates falling inequality.

Nor does Sanders seem aware of the sheer numbers of people who have escaped absolute poverty in Asia, especially India and China, over the past forty years. In 2010, for example, the Asian Development Bank stated that per capita GDP increased 6 percent each year in developing Asian nations between 1990 and 2009. According to the same report, about 850 million people escaped absolute poverty between 1990 and 2005.

Then as now, these nations didn’t seek to build European social democracies. Rather, they have been slowly and imperfectly moving towards freer economic arrangements, domestically and internationally. In short, the economic globalization of which Sanders (and, for that matter, Donald Trump) is so skeptical has something to do with millions in East Asia living longer and healthier lives than at any previous time in their nations’ histories.

Now, it is true that in many developed nations, such as America, we have seen some increases in wealth and income inequality. But here we — and Sanders — should note three things.

First, the fact that some people become wealthier doesn’t automatically mean that others are becoming poorer. That’s the zero-sum fallacy that Adam Smith’s magisterial Wealth of Nations exploded over 240 years ago.

Second, not all forms of economic inequality are unjust. Many are in fact positively just. We rightly pay some people, for instance, more than others because they assume more responsibility. Likewise, those willing to take more risk are generally entitled to more of any realized profit than those who prefer to play it safe. Though it has been less evident of late, the Catholic Church has a long history of thinking, rather than emoting, through questions of justice and has reached conclusions unlikely to enthrall modern-day disciples of John Rawls and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Third, to the extent that injustices characterize wealth and income gaps, we should consider how much these owe to what some people call “crony capitalism” or, more simply, “cronyism” — a subject which, it must be said, Catholic social teaching has yet to address in any great depth. In very basic terms, cronyism involves people becoming wealthy because of their closeness to politicians and government officials (something that, to be fair, Sanders has criticized) rather than through meeting consumer demand via open and free competition in the marketplace.

Those who play the crony game don’t like free markets because economic liberalization means that politicians lose some of their carrots and sticks for putting businesses at their beck and call — e.g., subsidies, tariffs, punitive regulations, sweetheart exemptions from punitive regulations. Some of the “billionaires and banks” excoriated in Sanders’ speech would find themselves in significant trouble if they no longer could rely on friends in places like Brussels and Washington DC to protect them from the insights and competition offered, for instance, by entrepreneurs and businesses who prefer to create new products and refine existing ones rather than engaging in rent-seeking from their national governments.

In the long-term, I suspect, Sanders’ appearance at the Rome conference will be seen for what it is: grandstanding by a left-wing populist candidate for the American presidency, a maneuver enabled by a questionable invitation from a particular Vatican official. That raises questions about who’s minding the store at the Holy See these days. The end result, however, was not only to cheapen the proceedings of an event that should be beyond such tawdriness. It’s also likely to have deepened already widespread confusion among many Christians and others about the nature of justice, the facts of economic inequality, and some of its causes.

On this occasion, it seems, the common good extolled by Catholic social teaching has been ill-served by those who should know better.


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and author of For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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