David Brooks, the Pope, and Capitalism

David Brooks’ most recent column about Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical operates as an apologetic for neoliberal economics with a most troubling, yet predicable, rebuttal.

To top it off, Brooks maintains a dismissive attitude throughout much of the piece. For example, he begins by claiming the Pope overstates the severity of the situation which results in “too many overdrawn statements like ‘The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.'” It’s hard to tell whether Brooks says such a thing because he is ideologically committed to the view that the current state of things really isn’t that bad or whether he actually thinks things aren’t that bad (probably both), but it’s plain evidence of the oft-unnamed moral logic behind neoliberal economics: things aren’t bad or bad enough to merit substantial intervention, and we should bet our future on the hope that whatever might be bad will get better if we leave the current stucture alone.

Brooks’ argument here is that capitalism is actually dealing quite well with our ecological concerns and will continue to do so if left to its own devices. Never mind that trying to address such a specific and imposing task is nearly impossible with such a fickle thing as the market, much of the pressing concern is that the problem is too dire to wait for the market to address it appropriately, even if such a thing were possible.

It should be obvious by now that Brooks’ beef with the Pope is over capitalism as much as it is over the facts about climate change, and while Brooks claims the realist position here it seems clear to me that he’s actually the idealist. The evidence points to the fact that the ecological crisis really is that dire and things are only expected to get worse. Thus the claim that things aren’t quite so bad and they’ll get better once the market (what is currently in place) is simply allowed more time to address them is far less realistic than Brooks cares to admit.

Scientific questions aside, the heart of Brooks’s beef with the Pope’s encyclical is this:

Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive…

[Pope Francis] is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.

Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world. He neglects the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good. Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness.

Brooks levels his gaze at the premise that the only “legitimate” human relationships are those based on compassion, etc. The language of legitimacy, which Francis does not use, is awkward here. I think it’s more accurate to say that Francis sees relationships primarily defined by self-interest and greed as immoral. And I don’t see that as a controversial claim. But for someone who is arguing for the moral acceptance of (largely free-market) capitalism, such a line of thinking is damning.

To ward off such a claim Brooks argues that self-interest and greed can be harnessed into rather productive engines of an economy. That may in fact be true, and I don’t see the Pope arguing against their efficacy as such. Rather what the Pope is calling into question can be asked in two different ways: 1.) is economic growth/expansion an intrinsic good? or 2.) will a model that prioritizes growth actually result in “enormous good” often enough (that is, will it actually promote the common good)? Brooks fails to deal squarely with this important point and his argument is significantly weaker for it. His continued adamance that market solutions have been and continue to work well enough nevertheless reveals his position, albeit without really explaining it.

Against claims like those made by Brooks Francis is arguing that we are in need of some sort of moral direction for markets (even if it’s minimal), rather than adopting those forces (self-interest, greed, etc.) which most productively drive markets as good or embracing economic success as a good per seFrancis writes, “We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth” (82).

That is, growth can be good, as can technology, but neither are good in themselves. They need at least some sort of moral directing, and I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. But Francis, who calls for policy changes across the globe, also powerfully calls for a change of heart. His call isn’t just for increased governmental regulation, as he understands the human condition better than that. He also calls for individual repentance/enlightenment/change-of-mind. It’s a dialectic for him, but very clearly neither individual change nor systemic change will get the job done alone:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system…

Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. (83-85)

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