What Bernie might learn at the Vatican
As many now know, a major presidential contender is speaking at the Vatican this week. To be more precise, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is addressing a conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Saint John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus.
In Sanders’ case, the invitation is somewhat ironic, given that the text being commemorated by the conference is one of the papacy’s most explicit affirmations of the market economy’s moral legitimacy and economic effectiveness.
Put simply, the pope wrote, “on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” That cannot be easy for a self-described democratic socialist to hear.
Nor will Sanders be pleased to discover just how critical Centesimus Annus was of socialism and planned economies. These failed, the saint wrote, not only because of their economic inefficiency but also because they denied human liberty. Socialism, the pope specified, is built on a “violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector.”
But the Polish pope’s critique of excessive economic planning didn’t stop there. In one paragraph, he highlighted how the welfare state that Sanders has spent his life extolling can lead “to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
That’s about as damning a critique of modern welfare states as you’re likely to hear. Note, however, that the pope’s words concern not only the economic inefficiency and empire-building that’s part-and-parcel of today’s welfare states. John Paul was equally concerned with their deadening moral and cultural impact upon individuals and communities.
Centesimus Annus thus stressed that social and economic problems are usually better addressed by individuals and associations closest to the dysfunctionality. Think of it this way: Who’s more likely to be more effective in addressing one of today’s biggest causes of poverty, i.e., family breakdown? Is it a person’s extended family or church? Or is it a bureaucrat designing welfare policies miles away in Washington?
Now, Centesimus Annus was by no stretch of the imagination an endorsement of economic libertarianism. It affirmed, for instance, trade unions’ legitimacy, reiterated Catholicism’s longstanding position that property rights aren’t absolute, and noted that governments can regulate working conditions. Thus John Paul saw an economic role for government that went beyond maintaining rule of law, especially in emergency situations.
Nonetheless, the pope wrote, the government’s “principal task” is to provide “sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services.” In short, the state should support — not supplant — market economies.
At a time in which some Americans are enamored with whatever they imagine socialism to be, Centesimus Annus reminds us that many countries went down that path before. Even milder versions, such as the European social democracies that Sanders praises, are now cracking under the weight of unsustainable welfare burdens, excessive debt and a refusal to be more competitive.
That’s not just something that Sanders needs to know. It’s a reminder for the rest of us as well.
Samuel Gregg, author of “For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good,” is research director at the Acton Institute.