Economist seeks to reconcile Francis with free market economics

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Some of the harshest criticisms of Pope Francis have come from people upset at his continued criticism of the global capitalist system.

From his firm rejection of "trickle-down economics" in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") to his recent lament that speculation on the price of foodstuffs leaves many hungry around the world, the pontiff has been clear about his displeasure about how global markets sometimes do not serve those with the most needs.

That has led some to go so far as to accuse the pope of being a Marxist, an accusation he has rejected.

But the winner of a recent award from the staunch free-market promoting Acton Institute says that while the pontiff may not seem to be the most enthusiastic promoter of free-market ideals, his critiques can be beneficial to those most supportive of the global capitalist system.

In fact, says Finnish economist Oskari Juurikkala, free-market supporters should listen to and respond to Francis' critiques if they wish to make their own work more credible.

"Correctly understood, Francis' message in the realm of economic ethics is not only acceptable but also beneficial for economic freedom," Juurikkala said at an event last Thursday at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

"That is the paradox," Juurikkala continued. "Freedom-friendly economists need not be afraid of the Pope -- they should follow him, seek to advise him on his own terms, and make their own message more credible, more attractive, and more consistent."

Juurikkala, who holds joint doctorates in economics and law from the Helsinski School of Economics and the London School of Economics, respectively, was giving a lecture Thursday as part of receiving the Acton Institute's annual Novak Award.

The award, named for U.S. author and economist Michael Novak, has been given yearly since 2001 by the Acton Institute, a think-tank run by Fr. Robert Sirico. The award comes with a $10,000 prize.

During his lecture, Juurikkala focused on what he called a "free-market appreciation" of the pontiff and argued strongly that the pope's criticisms of the capitalist system can be reconciled with the system itself.

"Francis' message on economic issues has tended to be appropriated ... by the political left," Juurikkala said, which has "lead to a neglect of the more fundamental issues that the pope wishes to impart on us."

"What he wished to say is capable of being appropriated by those who hold onto the principles of economic freedom," the economist continued. "It is possible to reconcile Francis with free market economics."

"Beyond mere reconciliation ... the message of Francis reinforces those ideals that free market advocates consider fundamental," said Juurikkala.

Central to the economist's argument was the notion that those who support free-market economics can do so in a way that gives preference to charity -- that they can exercise free market ideals while also keeping in mind those most in need.

Saying that Francis "does not propose a system; he calls us to a constant conversion," Juurikkala said "it is not money, but the disordered love of money that is the root of numerous evils."

"That challenge is always present, and it is especially present when there are great opportunities for wealth creation," he said. "Yet the problem of greed touches upon everyone, not only the rich, and the temptation cannot be removed by laws. It can only be overcome by moral conversion."

"Francis message and language may sometimes seem to be in tension with ideas dear to free-market advocates, but instead of a contradiction, that can be a positive tension that helps to purify and enrich our economic thinking -- just as sound economics is needed to complete the message of Francis," said Juurikkala.

"The outcome of such a synthesis will not be free-market economics closer to the left; it will be free-market economics closer to Christ," he said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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