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December 01, 2013 8:44 PM Ross Douthat struggles manfully to reconcile conservativism with Pope Francis’s teachings on economic inequality. The results? Not pretty.

By Kathleen Geier

It’s Sunday, and Ross Douthat has written another typical Ross Douthat column. On the surface, it seems to be all smarmy reasonableness. But that’s only on the surface. If you stop to think for one second — or even just follow one of his links — his argument falls apart. Douthat is shallow, intellectually dishonest and slippery as an eel.

The column concerns Pope Francis and the challenge this Pope’s powerful economic justice message poses to conservative Catholics. The heart of the column is where Ross outlines “three ideas” that, he says, “explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.”

Let’s look at idea one:

First, that when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.

Douthat offers no support for this statement. His link takes us to a blog post on the conservative Catholic website, First Things. That post describes a working paper — not a peer-reviewed study — which concludes that the world has seen a significant decrease in extreme poverty over the past several decades. (I don’t dispute those findings, btw). The post then discusses various possible reasons for the decline in world poverty. It cites a U.N. report, among other studies, as well as unnamed “scholars.” “Markets” are one of several hypotheses offered for the decline in poverty. But it’s just that — a hypothesis. The report says nothing about “global capitalism,” nor does it compare how the poor fare under “global capitalism” vs. how they do under other economic systems.

As it happens, economic systems other than free market capitalism can do an excellent job when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty. The poverty rates in European social democracies are far lower, and poverty there is less deep and persistent, than here in the United States, where the free market runs amok. And as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has noted, economic development policies such as the Kerala model, in which redistribution plays an central role, have been successful in reducing poverty and improving a host of human development outcomes.

Finally, it certainly seems that the magic of the market is not doing a whole hell of a lot for the growing numbers of Americans — nearly 40 percent of adults, and about half of our children — who experience poverty at some time in our lifetime. Never once have I seen Ross Douthat use his column to advocate a specific policy would help these Americans — policies like an increase in the minimum wage, expanded Medicaid, a guaranteed minimum income, making it easier to join a union, paid sick or parental leave, etc.

Moving on … here’s idea two:

Second, that Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity — that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.

Is he trying to argue with a straight face that an institution where every last t is crossed and i is dotted by a central command authority in the Vatican is in reality an institution which rejects “bureaucracy” and prefers “local efforts”? How interesting! Actually, I have no idea what he’s trying to say here — other than, perhaps, indulge in some dog whistling over the cherished wingnut principle of “states’ rights,” which allows state governments to block federal programs (like expanded Medicaid under the ACA) that benefit people they don’t like. You know … those people.

I gotta say, these “ideas” of his aren’t getting any more persuasive. Let’s move on to the third and final one:

Third, that on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.

Okay, let’s take this one apart. The first link goes to a paper that argues that growth in the welfare state during the Great Depression was associated with less church-based charitable spending. And he says that like it’s a bad thing! A volunteer charity is hardly a substitute for a government entitlement, especially for the most needy people in our society who depend on such programs. With charities, there is always the danger that there will be too much instability and unpredictability in terms of funding and services offered.

Moreover, poor folks shouldn’t feel like they have to endure being proselytized to in order to access needed services, and that’s always a danger when religious charities are providing them. Even many devout people realize that that asking a secular society to rely on religious charities to deliver social services is problematic, and most have no objection to the state delivering these services. As Jesus himself said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Douthat’s second link goes to a National Review piece about declining birth rates, and OMG here we go again with the wingnuts and their obsession with us ladies and our shriveling wombs. Suffice it to say, concern trolling women for not pumping out enough babies is creepy, in addition to being totally beside the point he’s trying to make here. This has what to do with Jesus, Pope Francis, or poverty, again?

His next link goes to another right-wing opinion piece about the importance of charity, a subject we’ve already covered. The final link argues that welfare states limit the Church’s “freedom to minister.” Click on the link, and it turns out “freedom to minister” means having birth control covered as part of your health insurance under the ACA. Again with the obsession with what we wimmenz do with our ladyparts! And just how does that conflict with Catholic principles? Purely religious employers, of course, are not subject to the law’s contraception mandate.

So in the end, how, exactly, does Douthat propose that Catholic conservatives to respond to the Pope’s message? He says nothing specific, but he does blather on about “an economic vision that remains conservative.” Ross, you know what? I think we tried that. We’ve been running this country on the basis of conservative economics for the past 30 years. It’s run this country into the ground. Conservative economic ideas do nothing for poor people except make them poorer. It’s time to try something new.

Pope Francis is posing a serious, and at times genuinely radical-sounding, challenge to neoliberal economic orthodoxy. In his most recent statement, he directly attacked trickle-down economics. Last week, blogger and sociologist Kieran Healy created a quiz: Who Said It — Karl Marx or Pope Francis? Funny! And yet it’s actually a hard quiz.

Pope Francis is a fascinating, perplexing, complex figure. He’s clearly making right-wing Catholics very, very uncomfortable. From the way they act, some of them appear to be under the impression that all Jesus ever talked about was the sinfulness of abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. But of course, Jesus never once addressed any of those subjects. He did, however, say that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Ross Douthat and his buddies might do well to ponder on that.

UPDATES: Contrary to Douthat’s claims, generous social welfare policies appear to increase, not decrease, the birth rate. Michelle Goldberg has more about how social welfare policies encourage higher birth rates in her book The Means of Reproduction.

Also, Lula’s Brazil is a a great example of a country which, over the past decade, has had stunning success in reducing poverty and inequality — in what had been one of the most unequal societies in the world. And they did it through vigorous government intervention and transfer programs — not the “magic of the market” that Douthat and his ilk love to invoke.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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