U.S. right accuses Pope of spreading anti-capitalist thoughts: Don Pittis

Pro-green, anti-capitalist, the Pope's North American visit has made him a lightning rod for the political right. If the Pope really is using his trip to foment an attack on the free market, says Don Pittis, his timing was impeccable.

Maybe Francis has picked the perfect moment for his anti-capitalism message

If Pope Francis is trying to lead Americans away from capitalism, it seems that he couldn't have come to the United States at a better time, Don Pittis writes. (Associated Press)

"My fear is that he's just nudging the public to be more hostile toward the idea of free markets," said Stephanie Slade in a CBC Radio interview.

Slade, a self-professed libertarian and a practicing Catholic, comes off as a relatively moderate opponent of Pope Francis's statements about unfettered capitalism. In the set-up to a debate on the subject, CBC's The Current captured some truly vitriolic comments from people who don't like the Pope's message. 

The Pope, who will deliver an address to the United Nations in New York today, has been labelled a "luddite leftist." The chief economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation accuses him of having "Marxist leanings." 

Inspired timing

In fact, if Pope Francis is trying to lead Americans away from capitalism, it seems that he couldn't have come to the United States at a better time. Perhaps it was an invisible hand. And, no, I don't mean the capitalist version.

This week, during the Pope's U.S. visit, Volkswagen, an automaker that is the epitome of international capitalism, has been dragged through the mud. Their intentional flouting of U.S. environmental laws appears to have increased sales and added to profits.

This week, capitalist Martin Shkreli, who boosted the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim by 5,000 per cent, has been called 'the most hated man in America.' Maybe Pope Francis picked a good time to draw Amercians away from the unfettered free market. (Twitter)

Meanwhile, another capitalist, Martin Shkreli, made headlines for hiking the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim by 5,000 percent, gaining him the title of "the most hated man in America."

It's something that Michael Swan from the Catholic Register couldn't help remarking as he listened to the news on his way to the studio to participate in The Current's debate. 

"Outside of North America, the Pope's comments on capitalism are well within the mainstream," Swan told host Anna Maria Tremonti. "Everybody can see that capitalism is not an unalloyed good."

Horse and sparrow

One of the Pope's comments to spark outrage was his condemnation of trickle-down theory. That's the idea that if you make the rich very, very rich, inevitably some of that wealth will cascade down the social pyramid and the poor will also become rich.

"He's not an economist." said Slade.

Yesterday, as Pope Francis became the first pontiff ever to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in Washington, he called on legislators to make the U.S. great again by looking after the poor and preserving the environment. (Associated Press)

But the vast majority of economists don't think that trickle-down theory works. And that view long pre-dates the current Pope.

In the 1930s, the term was used as satire. The late Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith said it was tried without success in the depression of the 1890s under the name "horse and sparrow" theory.

"If you feed the horse enough oats," wrote Galbraith in 1982, "some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."

Free market capitalism is undeniably a wonderful tool, but it may need tuning up. We all know the world economy has not been working well lately. The rich get ever richer. Inequality within nations continues to grow. 

World leaders are not required to be economists to talk about economics. Economics grew out of the study called "moral philosophy." It is part of the fabric of our daily lives. It is part of religion and morality. In a democracy, we are all allowed to discuss it. 

Pope unfettered

The Pope has been condemned for objecting to "unfettered" capitalism. But what reasonable person would not object?

Without fetters, pure free markets are like the law of the jungle, where the strong steal from the weak. Without the fetters of our legal system, the families of people who need Daraprim would club "the most hated man in the world" out of the way and take the pills.

Without the fetters of environmental rules, we would still be living in clouds of 1960s smog multiplied by millions more cars.

Students watch as Pope Francis elevates an 18th-century missionary to sainthood, in the first canonization on U.S. soil. Don Pittis says the pope may have picked a perfect moment. (Associated Press)

As Swan said in The Current's debate, Pope Francis has no power to change economic policy, but he does have the power to make us reflect on our values at time when those values may need reconsideration.

"By challenging society, by challenging entrenched interests and ideologies, he can at least make people rethink what they are doing." 

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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