In Calling on Government, Pope Francis Misses the Problem of Politics

In his new encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis challenges people to adopt a new “ecological spirituality.” But his economic and policy prescriptions are more controversial than his theological convictions.

The Pope’s commitment to the poor and our shared world is obvious. Yet when he addresses policy, his grasp is less sure.

The Pontiff ignores the flawed nature of government. He is disappointed with its present failings, but appears to assume that politics, unlike humanity, is perfectible.

Most environmental problems result from the absence of markets and property rights. For instance, since no one owns the great common pools of air and water, “externalities” abound.

When possible, government should create quasi-markets or apply market incentives. In contrast, where government acts as property manager, it typically performs badly. For example, at the behest of business interests, Washington subsidizes grazing and timbering on its lands, opening up areas which otherwise would not be developed.

Politics does no better in caring for future generations. Politicians have a short time horizon, usually to the next election.

There’s even a more basic point. The Pope notes how hard it is “to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world,” which “cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.” He goes on to complain how hard it is “to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge.”

However, officials often come from “a single perspective” and cannot consider the mass of knowledge available in the world beyond. In contrast, markets act–imperfectly to be sure–with the widest number of participants, arrays of information, and variety of perspectives.

While Laudato Si largely ignores government’s woeful record as environmental steward, it does express frustration at politicians’ failure to pass the kind of program the Holy Father advocates. Public choice economists long ago explained how interest groups with concentrated benefits so often defeat a disinterested public bearing diffuse costs.

As I point out for the Acton Institute: “Apparently unrecognized by the encyclical, not everyone claiming to speak for the common good does so. Many ecological interest groups seek to impose their visions and policies on others, rather than achieve a responsible balance, in this case of ecological values, human liberty, and economic prosperity.”

Moreover, it is not enough to blame special interests for influencing government. Politicians are no more virtuous than the people they represent.

In spite of all this, the Pontiff pushes for not just more government, but more global government. He does so despite recognizing that this approach has failed in the past. While universal problems may require global solutions, international bureaucracies are least accountable to the poor and dispossessed.

Despite the many well-documented reasons for questioning both the severity of environmental problems and wisdom of entrusting government with new powers, Laudato Si appears to doubt the legitimacy of opposing views. The document complains that “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” This lack of openness to dissenting viewpoints is evident in the encyclical’s brief discussion of climate change.

The Pope offers a detailed policy agenda and then insists that his proposed program should not be subject to electoral change or oversight, since “continuity is essential.” This undermines the democratic principles so important for those without economic and social influence.

True, the Pontiff hopes for a new kind of politics and politician, but that runs against thousands of years of experience. There is no guarantee increasing the power of parliaments, officials, and agencies will solve problems.

Despite his failings as a policy analyst, Pope Francis is right to ask, “How much is enough?” But expanding government power will not fill the empty hearts that he sees.