The New Papal Encyclical Has Good Intentions but Bad Effects

The Vatican has released a new papal encyclical on the environment. Based on the version of Laudato Sii leaked ahead of time, the document is a highly political discussion of the theology of the environment.

Pope Francis mixes heartfelt concern for ecology with an often limited or confused understanding of the problem of pollution and meaning of markets. Humanity’s obligation for the environment is complex and the Pope discusses ecological values in the context of economic development and care for the poor.

Unfortunately, the document’s policy prescriptions sound like they were written by an advocate. The resulting factual and philosophical shortcomings undercut the larger and more profound theological discussion.

For instance, the encyclical complains much of capitalism as well as property rights, which, in the Pope’s view, allow selfish individuals to act against the public interest. Yet capitalism provides the resources and technology to improve environmental protection. Indeed, he acknowledges that “science and technology are a wonderful product of human creativity that is a gift from God.”

Market prices operate as signals. Laudato Sii complains that disproportionate consumption steals from “future generations.” Yet rising resource prices encourage people to use less, producers to find more, manufacturers to operate more efficiently, and entrepreneurs to create substitutes. Claims that humanity was running out of resources and destroying the ecology go back centuries and so far have been proved wrong.

Markets also compare the costs and benefits of different means to achieve a common end. In fact, markets and property rights are the most important means to provide people with what the Pontiff calls “a dignified life through work.” However, jobs are not created, like the earth, ex nihilio. The more regulatory dictates and higher energy prices, the fewer the jobs and lower the salaries.

The Pontiff asserts the “social function of any form of private property.” Property rights may not be absolute, but the legal right to land is most important for those who lack wealth and influence. Property rights also create incentives for environmental stewardship. Ownership vests both costs and benefits with a sole decision-maker who can be held responsible.

Most environmental problems occur because of what economists call externalities—costs and benefits that fall on others. Without an appropriate legal regime, industry can spew emissions far and wide. Drawing the line requires balancing complex interests: prosperity, liberty, ecology.

The encyclical lacks much sense of the flawed nature of government. The Pope is disappointed that environmental efforts “are often frustrated not only by the refusal of the powerful, but also by the lack of interest of the other.” However, public choice economists diagnosed this problem decades ago: concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.

Laudato Sii also argues for redefining progress. The Pontiff should encourage people to ask, “How much is enough?” But it is important that those living in comfort in the industrialized West not try to answer for those living in the impoverished Third World.

As I point out in American Spectator: “The Vatican’s comparative advantage is not legislation. At one point the encyclical asserts the importance of education on turning off ‘unnecessary lights.’ The discussion of climate change is partisan, even though the encyclical notes the Church’s obligation to ‘listen and promote honest debate among scientists, respecting the diversity of opinion’.”

In contrast, the Pontiff truly is acting as spiritual leader when he advocates a personal, social, and spiritual transformation in how people relate to the environment. His proposed “ecological conversion” should spark much discussion.

Moreover, Pope Francis wants to change behavior. He contends: “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, sobriety and care will arise spontaneously.” It is committed individuals who form the “innumerable variety of associations” advocating on behalf of the environment, cited by Laudato Sii, and whose reformed buying behavior can “change the behavior of firms.”

The Vatican is ill-equipped to assess environmental problems and develop policy solutions. The Pontiff’s duty is much more fundamental. Hopefully Laudato Sii, despite its practical shortcomings, will advance the larger and more important theological debate.