Pope Francis, not Adam Smith, is right: A belated apology to my Econ 101 students
At a Christmas Eve Mass last year, Pope Francis explained “the problem of our humanity—the indifference produced by the greedy rush to possess and consume.” He spoke of how “a world ravenous for money, power and pleasure does not make room for the little ones, for the so many unborn, poor, and forgotten children.”
This is a common theme for Pope Francis. At a Mass in 2015, he characterized greed as a kind of gateway vice, saying that it “opens the door, then in comes vanity—to think you’re important, to believe you’re powerful—and, in the end, pride, and from there all the vices, all of them.” His solution? “A continual stripping down of one’s own interests and not thinking that these riches will offer us salvation.”
Francis is well-meaning, no doubt about that, but he is not an economist. I, on the other hand, have a doctorate in economics and decades of experience both as a college professor and as a business consultant. I taught the principles of the free-market system, a.k.a. Economics 101, to hundreds of college students. In doing so, I introduced them to a worldview completely at odds with the one expressed by Pope Francis.
The staggering hubris of claiming to know more than the pope, much less God, about how to promote our common welfare comes easily in teaching an economics class.
Over 200 years ago, economic godfather Adam Smith penned the sound bites that underlie capitalist thinking. In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” A corollary of that rule is that we should be skeptical of actions taken out of concern for the common good. As Smith wrote, the individual concerned only with his or her well-being “frequently promotes that of society more than when he really intends to promote it.”
The staggering hubris of claiming to know more than the pope, much less God, about how to promote our common welfare comes easily in teaching an economics class. For example, if a student wondered about starvation running rampant in a world ruled by capitalism’s invisible hand, all I had to do was refer them to our textbook (Microeconomics, by Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus): “A rich man’s cat may drink the milk that a poor boy needs to remain healthy. Does this happen because the market is failing? Not at all, for the market mechanism is doing its job—putting goods in the hands of those who have the dollar votes.”
Little wonder that studies show the more someone studies economics, the more likely he or she is to become more selfish and less concerned with the well-being of others.
The underlying goal of an ECON 101 class is often expressed as helping students learn how to “think like an economist.” Such thinking can lead to the belief that both greed and self-interest are good; they power an economic engine that propels us toward efficiency. Little wonder that studies show the more someone studies economics, the more likely he or she is to become more selfish and less concerned with the well-being of others.
I left academia years ago to start a life in consulting, public speaking and publishing, and my misgivings from teaching ECON 101 only grew. Then came Pope Francis. As I read his writings on the moral failures of capitalism, I came to see how the debate among his most vocal critics completely missed the point. The pope is not a socialist. The pope is not a communist. The pope is a Catholic. And far more than any economist I have studied, his writings give meaning to the phrase “In God We Trust.”
Pope Francis asks us to turn away from rationalizing greed and casting doubt on moral behavior. Rather, we must look to what our faith has taught us: Love your neighbor. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Each of these directives, like so many other teachings of Catholicism, might set a budding economist on a fresh and wonderful intellectual journey.
To my former students, I am sorry that I did not send you down those paths. Please don’t forget that you, like me, still have time to explore them.
[Related: “Is Pope Francis a Socialist?” on the Inside the Vatican podcast.]