The Pope’s Economist

Despite Francis’s South American background, gestures toward liberation theology, and his new apostolic exhortation‘s critique of the “tyranny” of the market, Heather Horn argues that we shouldn’t look to Marx to understand the new pope’s approach to economics. Instead, she points us to Karl Polanyi, author of the classic counter-history of the rise of capitalism, The Great Transformation:

Economic activity, Polanyi says, started off as just one of many outgrowths of human activity. And so, economics originally served human needs. But over time, people (particularly, policy-making people) got the idea that markets regulated themselves if laws and regulations got out of their way. The free market converts told people that “only such policies and measures are in order which help to ensure the self-regulation of the market by creating the conditions which make the market the only organizing power in the economic sphere.” Gradually, as free market-based thinking was extended throughout society, humans and nature came to be seen as commodities called “labor” and “nature.” The “market economy” had turned human society into a “market society.”

In short (as social sciences professors prepare to slam their heads into their tables at my reductionism), instead of the market existing to help humans live better lives, humans were ordering their lives to fit into the economy.

How that connects to the vision of Pope Francis:

Where things get really interesting is when Pope Francis brings up the financial crisis. “One cause of this situation,” he writes, “is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!”

It’s nothing new to say the financial crisis came from a lack of regulation. That’s a fairly popular analysis. But what Pope Francis is saying is more Polanyan, hearkening back to the idea that the tipping point has to do with the relationship between the market and society/humanity, and which is subordinate to the other. Just as Polanyi argued that the extension of the market economy across the globe (through the gold standard) was the root cause of World War I (and you’ll have to go back to the original book for that, but it’s a beautifully, hilariously gutsy, Guns, Germs, and Steel kind of argument), Francis is arguing that failing to keep humanity at the center of our economic activity was the root cause of the financial crisis.