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 (http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2014/01/08/pope-francis-without-poli...). 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.