Pope Francis and the Tyranny of Money

“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal” – Pope Francis

Those remarks were made by the Pope in a recent speech in which he decried what he called the “tyranny of money” and the oppression of the global financial system. (I can’t find a text of the speech just now, so I’ll have to assume that the reporting by the Guardian and the BBC get it pretty close to right.)

The remarks, if I’m understanding them correctly, appear to hit out at some of the problems in the oppressive financial system, and moreso some of the symptoms of those problems (oppression of the poor for the sake of the rich), but leaves one with the impression that a solution can be found through a “socially-just” implementation of economy. I think this misses some important points, though I do like that the Pope is willing to hit out at very serious moral issues like this.

The Rule of Money …

In a clinical sense, “money” is no more than a medium of exchange and a store of value. If we forget for a moment (and just a moment) about the hold it has on men’s hearts, money is simply a tool we use to exchange goods and services – the product of our lives – with each other. It is a tool, and should be just a tool and no more. Francis sort of hits on this when he notes that money should “serve” people rather than “rule” them.

But since money should be simply a means of exchange and a store of value, to say that it can rule in the heart of man is to say nothing more than the desire for consumption rules the heart of man. The desire to have nice clothes, nice food, nice cars and houses, a boat, a yacht, an apartment in NYC … you name it – the desire for these things flourishes in the heart of a man. His desire for money is simply a reflection of his desires for stuff. (Phil 3:19 – “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”)

Consumption and Social Justice …

The total, aggregate output of humanity is finite. We have a tremendous creative impulse (we are made in His image, after all) but our bodies are frail and limited and we can only make so much stuff in the course of a day. One could argue we can only consume so much stuff in the course of a day too – but the desires of man are much closer to infinity than his ability to produce. This means that we either all consume less than we want, or some of us consume like mad while others are restrained even further (or some combination thereof).

Now we get to the point about social justice. Is it good, right, or proper for one man to have all the world while others go hungry? The radical social-Darwinists might say “yes” – that it was somehow simply part of “evolution” toward a greater future. The Bible would clearly stand in opposition to such a notion. (The list of appropriate scriptures is very long, but James 1:27 surely is one: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”)

So how do we get there? Or can we get there? Can we get to “social justice” – presumably where the poor are not strangled and starved while the rich consume everything? And if we can get there, how?

Human Nature …

The socialist utopians, and perhaps even the communists, look at the pursuit of social justice as a matter of enforcement. The amount each man is allowed to consume is legislated (so that everyone has enough). This approach misses badly on a simple point – consumption must equal production. We cannot, on the whole, consume more than we produce (or less, as long as we allow the appropriate “time constant” for consumption). But production stems from the spark of creativity in the human spirit, often coupled with the very real (and very fallen) self-centeredness of man. When my desire for consumption is decoupled from my ability for production, the drive, the impetus, the spark fades quickly – and aggregate production plummets. And  thus, so does aggregate consumption, leaving all of us worse off.

The socialists miss this because they believe there is a human cure for the fallen nature of man (i.e., legislation). But Francis surely knows better. Francis of all people surely understands that the fallen condition of man is beyond man’s ability to cure, much less legislate. (“For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” – Gal 3:21)

It’s not clear from the snippets of the speech that I’ve seen, and the reporting, if Francis is actually promoting a solution to the injustices he sees, or merely casting a light on them. Yes, he calls for nations to do “something” – and I think they should do something (more in a moment) – but it’s not obvious exactly what. One can easily jump to the conclusion that he promotes some brand of socialism in pursuit of helping the poor. But this would just be spitting in the wind – socialism has never markedly improved the situation of the poor. (And if it is the poor we care about, then results should matter.)

Unjust Money and Governance …

While Francis and I may disagree on the proper solution (and I stress may, we don’t really know exactly what he promotes here, but I suspect his positions are available somewhere) we certainly agree on the symptoms of the problem and that something could and should be done.

My solution is much simpler, though it only speaks to part of the problem. The fallen man cannot be legislated to righteousness. Further, it has been shown time and again that production drops of rapidly when decoupled from consumption (or at least freedom to consume). Whatever pains and sorrows we carry around in these jars of clay, it is respectful to allow a man to own  his own life, to “spend” it as he sees fit, whether consuming it away on his own desires or sharing it with others. For these reasons I promote freedom in economy. But I note that freedom in economy is not what we have today.

Francis is certainly on-point when he decries a financial system that shackles the poor to the advantage of the elite. But to think (and I’m not saying he does) that we can, by rule of law, implement truly gracious sharing of consumption is to believe that we can by law eliminate human nature. No, more power in the hands of “the state” will simply lead to a slightly different set of people who use the system for their benefit to the detriment of others.

I promote a different, though partial solution. Let us first remove the elements of the global financial system that are set up for the oppression of the poor, set up for the transfer of wealth (production/consumption) from the poor to the rich. Let us make money again a tool for human interaction, human exchange of goods – rather than the master.

Of course I’m talking about ending the financial oppression of fiat currencies in the global money monopoly. Let’s take down fractional reserve lending while we’re at it. (Isn’t it “fraud” for the bank to lend money they don’t have – money that is not theirs under any legally defensible right?)

After removing the system that transfers money from poor to rich, let’s also remove the ability for a man to vote himself a share of his neighbor’s paycheck. If we believe in the fallen nature of man (and as Christians we do) why would we allow people to use the power of the ballot-box to take some of their neighbor’s production for their own consumption? Why would we even think that is a system that will lead to fairness rather than oppression?

Yet here we are – a nation of 80% self-identifying Christians – and a democracy to boot – and we allow these systems to persist.

Of course these would only be partial measures in helping the poor. None of this eliminates the human tendency (outright preference?) for self-indulgence. None of this eliminates our ability to turn a callous eye toward the plight of the poor. But that is the church’s job, not the government’s.

While the Pope and I likely disagree on some issues of the best way to address financial oppression, I do like the tone he has set in his short time in office and his willingness to point out problems in the world and the plight of the poor.

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