Doug Bandow, member of the Advisory Board of the Acton Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, discusses the problem of politics with regard to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical.
In Calling on Government, Laudato Si Misses the Problem of Politics
by Doug Bandow
In his new encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis challenges “every person living on this planet” to adopt a new “ecological spirituality.” But his economic and policy prescriptions are more controversial than his theological convictions. Indeed, his ideas already are being deployed by political advocates. For instance, with the UN pushing a new climate agreement, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, proclaimed that the encyclical “is going to have a major impact.”
The Pope’s commitment to the poor and our shared world is obvious and appropriate. Yet there is much in his practical arguments to criticize. When he speaks of spiritual matters his vision is clear. When he addresses policy his grasp is less sure. In practice, markets and property rights have much to offer humanity as it seeks to build a better, cleaner world.
Perhaps of even more consequence, 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. Thus, he hopes transferring environmental and other crises created by the flawed marketplace to the enlightened political realm will lead to the better world which we all desire.
Alas, experience suggests that this isn’t so.
Government creates more than its share of problems, some of which are cited by Laudato Si. For instance, the Pope contends that not owning a home “is a major issue for human ecology,” with the rise of dangerous and unsafe slums. He blames lack of sufficient housing on inadequate state budgets. Yet the real issue is poverty, created and exacerbated by over-politicized states which serve the influential and victimize the poor. Affordable housing is an issue even in wealthy societies, though the problem in America largely reflects government regulation, such as building codes and zoning restrictions, often designed to keep the poor out of middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods.
The Pontiff worries that public transportation often forces “people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.” This is the nature of government monopolies, however. Flexible private “jitneys” are the common response in many countries, though they often must operate outside the law. They are banned even in the U.S. lest they provide riders with a better option than the subsidized public system.
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. That is, our activities impose costs (or benefits, though no one then complains) on others. Garrett Hardin famously wrote about “the tragedy of the commons,” in which everyone has an incentive to overuse land held in common.
Government has an important role in creating a legal and policy regime to redress this market “failure.” When possible, it is best to create quasi-markets (establishing instream water rights in rivers and fishing quotas in the ocean). Emission taxes attempt to impose an approximation of the estimated “social cost” of pollution. Tradeable permits limit total emissions while encouraging companies to more efficiently comply. Selling ivory seized from poachers or collected from elephants which died naturally or were culled provides revenue for surrounding communities, encouraging them to help preserve the animals.
In contrast, where government acts a property manager it typically does its job 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. Laudato Si points to water shortages but then criticizes the “growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market.” However, public monopolies routinely provide poor service and squander resources. Third World energy enterprises—in Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, and elsewhere—are highly political with little concern for efficient operation or the environment.
Politics does no better in caring for future generations—in this case, preserving resources for those who follow us, an important concern of the Holy Father. Despite their studied public-oriented rhetoric, politicians have a short time horizon, usually to the next election. Regulators look ahead to the next appointment, oversight hearing, or budget decision. With a political process dominated by existing interests, the yet-to-be-born have no voice.
In contrast, private landowners care about the future condition of their property since poor environmental stewardship reduces its value today. The Pontiff complains that “no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in [resource] preservation.” Even this person has a greater incentive than the typical politician to take a more future-oriented approach.
No surprise, governments often attempts to override property rights when they are used to advance ecological values. For instance, the encyclical notes how “in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on [indigenous communities] to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” In many cases the indigenous peoples lack legal, defensible property rights. That makes them vulnerable to interest groups, especially when the latter win government’s support.
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, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems 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.” At least Pope Francis applies the principle of subsidiarity to local governments. He admits that “Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems.”
However, this actually is a reason why we should not expect government to solve difficult economic and social problems. 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, on the widest number of participants, array of information, and variety of perspectives. Just as the national government should look to state and local ones, all governments should look to private organizations and individuals.
While Laudato Si largely ignores the government’s woeful record as an environmental steward, it does express frustration at politicians’ failure to pass the kind of program the Holy Father advocates. He notes that “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.” At international conferences “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.” This appears to surprise the Pontiff, but Public Choice economists long ago explained how interest groups with concentrated benefits so often defeat a disinterested public bearing diffuse costs.
Apparently unrecognized by the encyclical, not everyone claiming to speak for the common good does so. The Pope commends “young people demand[ing] change” and “those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation.” Later he says he “cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.” He cites “the efforts of many organizations of civil society” seeking to push environment issues onto public agendas.
No doubt, most if not all of these people, groups, and bureaucracies believe in what they are doing and many are doing at least some good. However, environmental interest groups can be as myopic as profit-making corporations. Such organizations 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. All these are important for “every person living on this planet,” who the Pontiff is addressing.
The encyclical demonstrates a similar blind spot in its criticism of policymakers who treat the poor as an afterthought. Contends Laudato Si: “This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.”
Very true, but this critique applies even dramatically to many environmental advocates who care little for the poor, except in the “tangential way” mentioned by the Pope, and who often advance expensive, expansive regulatory controls which victimize the poor. For instance, it is not only elephants who suffer when they encounter humans. So do Africans. Farmers die every year attempting to protect their crops from the huge, destructive creatures. Yet ivory bans and other measures supported by the wealthy industrialized states represent proposals from those “located in affluent urban areas” and “far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.” The poor cry out for many things, but usually economic opportunity before environmental protection. The poor most desire and require a balance among objectives.
Moreover, it is not enough to blame special interests for influencing government. Such is the nature of the state which regulates in ways which threaten companies, industries, and entire economies with harm. Politicians are no more virtuous than the people they represent, which the Pontiff recognized when he complains that “We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all.” Moreover, he admits that officials act “in response to electoral interests” and are part of “the myopia of power politics,” which prevents passage of the sort of policies that he endorses. In the end even the Pope acquiesces to compromise, recognizing “that political realism may call for transitional measures and technologies, so long as these are accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments.”
The governments of industrialized states are not uniquely to blame for the world’s problems. Very often those of poor nations are at greatest fault. Laudato Si complains that “the foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them,” yet they were not forced to borrow. Too often ambitious, corrupt officials arranged loans and squandered the proceeds. The encyclical also criticizes the dealings of foreign multinational corporations which may result in environmental damage: Companies may “operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home.” Yet it is local political institutions which fail to protect their citizens, indeed, which invite companies to seek special privileges. “Because the enforcement of laws is at times inadequate due to corruption, public pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action,” admits the Pope.
These governments often are ineffective even if honest. Laudato Si admits that “A number of countries have a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness,” and that “Laws may be well framed yet remain a dead letter.” The Pontiff cites nations with statutes protecting forests which are ignored. The encyclical blames loss of respect in the law and, curiously, drug production as apparent causes. Likely more important is public officials who seek to regulate promiscuously and well beyond their competence. These and other abuses by the state have led to a well-deserved loss of respect, including in highly developed states.
In spite of all this, the Pontiff pushes for not just more government, but more global government. He writes that “it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.” He advocates “enforceable international agreements” and “global regulatory norms … to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions.” He even cites earlier papal teaching in advancing the “urgent need of a true world political authority.”
He does so despite recognizing that this approach has failed in the past. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” Here, as in national governments, special interests have trumped the public interest: “The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.” Later he notes that recent World Summits on the environment “have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment.” Unsurprisingly, such efforts “cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good.”
While universal problems may require global solutions, international bureaucracies are least accountable to common people, especially the poor and dispossessed. During the 1970s and 1980s selfish Third World leaders and misguided political activists pushed the so-called New International Economic Order, which advanced policies that impoverished peoples of developing states. It was globalization and the expansion of the circle of exchange which enabled the least among us to escape immiseration. International organizations are even more likely to be essentially occupied by interest groups, whether financial or ideological. One should carefully consider the intersection of Original Sin with Lord Acton’s warning that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” before advocating “a true world political authority.”
Despite the many well-documented reasons for questioning both the severity of the environmental problem and the wisdom of entrusting government with so much new power, Laudato Si appears to doubt the legitimacy of the views of those who disagree with the Holy Father. The encyclical admits “that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” Yet 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. We need a new and universal solidarity.” However, as the leader of but one expression of the Christian confession, Pope Francis surely understands the difficulty of achieving theological consensus. It is even more unrealistic to expect political consensus when the issues are so complex and divisive.
This lack of openness to dissenting viewpoints is evident in the encyclical’s brief discussion of climate change. Despite the newspaper headlines, Laudato Si only touches on global warming along with a series of other environmental topics. The conclusory section ignores the critique of those who acknowledge that the globe is warming, but point to manifold anomalies: consistently flawed climate models, accumulating research that future warming is likely to be in the lower predicted range, and studies showing that adaptation by addressing specific harms is most cost-effective than “mitigation,” that is, attempting to hold down temperatures through draconian and arbitrary reductions in energy use.
The Vatican may act as a state, but its leadership always has been spiritual, not legislative. The Pope emphasizes “that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” However, he offers a very lengthy and specific policy agenda. Governments at all levels should promote more efficient industrial production, ban less efficient products, improve transit, boost more energy efficient construction, change people’s consumption, develop “an economy of waste disposal and recycling,” diversify agriculture, invest in rural infrastructure, reorganize markets, improve irrigation, develop sustainable agriculture, and promote new community organizations. “Truly, much can be done!”, he proclaims.
But that’s not all. Laudato Si also insists that water is more important than other environmental objectives. Priority should be given to public transportation, which must be greatly improved. Carbon credits are bad. We should “prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.” Government should “adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.” Fossil fuels need to be “progressively replaced without delay.” There should be “better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.” Environmental impact statements should be required “from the beginning.” A system of governance is needed for the oceans. “Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas.” The industrialized states “ought to help pay” the debt of the developing world.
Expansive “ecological education” is necessary. It should encourage better behavior, “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.” Whew!
Worse, the encyclical endorses the “precautionary principle,” which basically demands proof of safety before allowing innovation rather than proof of harm before blocking innovation. We see an example of the ill consequences of this approach in the way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration delays the entry of safe and effective medicines, thereby killing more people than it saves. However sensible the idea of the precautionary principle may sound in theory, in practice it would empower ideological groups to stop innovation, and not just for health and safety but economic reasons. Perhaps the greatest enemies of the poor are entrenched economic interests determined to stifle competitors and alternatives. The economically privileged would take advantage of such a system to most everyone’s detriment.
Yet the Pontiff insists that his proposed program should not be subject to electoral change or oversight, since “continuity is essential, because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government.” However, putting policy on autopilot and turning it over to unaccountable elites would undermine the democratic principles so important for those without economic and social influence.
True, the Pontiff hopes for a new kind of politics and politician: “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.” Moreover, “a healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia.” Politicians should be courageous, have dignity, and demonstrate selfless responsibility. They should “keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity” and “a greater sense of responsibility.”
These admittedly are laudable objectives, but they run against thousands of years of experience. Laudato Si criticizes “a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.” It is equally important to reject the magical conception of government, which assumes every problem can be solved simply by an increase in the power of parliaments, officials, and agencies. Even the Pope admits that some in politics only are concerned “with holding on to or increasing their power.” The Holy Father rightly challenges everyone in the political process to do better. However, he should not advocate action based on the assumption that everyone will do better.
Pope Francis has undertaken an extraordinary challenge in Laudato Si. Larger themes abound in the encyclical, which warns that “the market alone does not ensure human development and full social inclusion.” Unfortunately, the Vatican is not well-equipped to dissect environmental issues, assess ecological challenges, and formulate policy solutions. In contrast, Pope Francis is in a position to ask, “How much is enough?” The Gospel, unlike the market, reaches the empty hearts which the Pope sees. Thus, he seeks to apply what he terms “the great wealth of Christian spirituality, generated by twenty centuries of personal and communal experiences” in an “effort to renew humanity.” That the earth, its people and creation, desperately need.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway) and a member of the Advisory Board of the Acton Institute.