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Pope Francis "without the Politics"?

I just finished another Sirico essay, "Pope Francis without the Politics," printed first in the Detroit News, and now reprinted over at the Acton blog ( I understand the imperative behind pieces like this, but one grows tired of the constant, clearly procrustean attempt to fit Pope Francis’ critical vision into the libertarian/free-market box. Why? Here are some proximate causes:

1. There’s no economics without politics. Any turn in the direction of economics (free-market/neoliberal or otherwise) is fundamentally a continuation of political discussion. Attempting to “depoliticize” any discussion can itself be a political move of the highest order.

2. Sirico’s first question “What excludes the poor from the process of prosperity?” misses the point entirely. As Benedict was fond of saying, it’s quite possible and perhaps even common to be materially prosperous but spiritually empty and unhappy. Indeed, critics on the right and left both have diagnosed this as part of the modern condition. What is more, the “process of prosperity” that Sirico lauds is part of this condition. For everyone, a certain amount of material abundance is necessary; what matters for the poor especially is dignity. Is Sirico suggesting that market value (and not religion) confers dignity?

3. Sirico’s second question refers to the poor as “potential shapers of their own destiny.” This is fine. The problem is that market processes are profoundly indifferent to this question of self-determination; for rich and poor alike, the market strips individuals and communities of autonomy just as often as it grants it. And besides, to return to my point above, the issue of self-determination is fundamentally political rather than economic. The truly and fully self-sufficient individual is nothing more than a Randian fiction, which means that issues of “destiny” in secular space, here and now, are collective. They can only be addressed as a question of community. The fullest and fairest expression of community is in democracy, which means one simple thing: letting the poor think and speak and act for themselves.

Sirico’s so-called solution to the poor – for individuals and nations alike – is the fantasy of making them more like the rich. I think it’s safe to say that this has nothing to do with Pope Francis’ message.


Commenting Guidelines

Joseph J Dunn - thanks for that info re: a Cash On Hand tax.  I'd think a corporation would have three basic options:

  • Pay out richer dividends, which investors presumably would use to invest elsewhere
  • Invest it directly in capital projects (I'd include acquiring other firms as a subcategory of this), which would create additional jobs
  • Sit on their pile of cash and pay more taxes into the federal treasury

The second bullet is what I'm really after as a policy tool.  The first bullet, from the point of view of generating economic growth and jobs, strikes me as somewhat-neutral-to-good. The third bullet wouldn't really align with my policy goal but would somewhat reduce the amount the federal government has to borrow, which doesn't seem like a bad thing.  

(Sorry, I was going to add to this comment, but was interrupted by the Tea Party - they called, demanding their membership card back.)

Ann - even today, we also put the incarcerated to work at practically-nonexistent wages.  I'd categorize this as a form of slave labor.  I don't know how productive that work is, but if they're picking up trash and cutting down weeds along roadsides, that seems like work that the county or the state would otherwise have to pay some real money for.

Until the 1970s, we drafted men into the military and made them work for the country for months or years.  They were paid, but were not free agents in the labor market - that seems to be sort of a quasi-slavery arrangement.  I understand that the military does not want to go back to the draft, even during war-time, because men and women who are compelled to serve against their will are not nearly as productive as those who volunteer.  That's an economic argument.


Ann, I at least can vouch that we've exchanged e-mails in the past and that your replies always seemed "human" to me :-)

Please feel free to use me as a reference.


Joe J.

Jim Pauwels,  might it be the state could argue it is providing "room and board" in exchange for the very low wages paid to inmates?  See

Joseph J - yep.  And a slaveowner in the antebellum days could say the same of his slaves, and in fact I believe that was part of the whole "they're so docile and happy here because we treat them so well" fiction used to justify slaveholding.  The room-and-board-having-economic-value part is true, so far as it goes - which isn't far enough to touch on the monstrous moral dimension.  Economics is a tool that can used for good or exploited for bad.


About the relationship between economics and morality:  Do read the great article in today's NYT about industry's belated recognition that climate change is affecting business adversely, that it's not just injuring the  rest of us.  The market is no more free of the consequences of its actions than the rest of us are.   Thick heads do finally learn when the consequences of their own foolish actions catch up with them!

Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change

Jim P. =

ISTM that people in jail are getting food, clothing and shelter (of a sort) free, and they are somehow in dept to the community for their crimes.  So I don't think there is any injustice there.  Except, of course, for those wrongly incarcerated.  

As to yound people drafted into the service, that does present problems in case of an unjust war, but I don't think that it is unreasonable or unfair for a community to require its members to defend itsefl.  Being drafted is sort of like paying taxes -- we owe the community for all it does for us.  Ideally, that is.