National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Pope on Ethics & Economics




There’s a lot about Pope Benedict XVI not to like, but a so-called “prophecy” attributed to him this week by Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti on the current global economic meltdown resonates with a lot of truth.

The Bloomberg News Agency broke the news, picked up by news outlets all over the world, that Tremonti, speaking at a Milan university last week, quoted an article written 23 years ago by the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, entitled, “Market Economy and Ethics.”

The pope wrote in 1985 that it is an “obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system,” adding, “it has also become obvious that the decline of such (ethical) discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.”

While the pope believes that ethics can be sustained only by strong religious convictions, ethics are also embedded at the core of fundamental Constitutional values, as translated by America’s founding fathers into purely secular institutions of government and economic growth.

Built on the root notion of the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal,” the early American system quickly moved to embrace universal public education. It promoted science and technology, reason over superstition, and national infrastructure development. Alexander Hamilton’s National Bank fueled the economic engine, subordinating the accumulation of individual wealth to national development goals for the general good.

Abraham Lincoln catapulted the nation forward into the Industrial Revolution and standing as the world’s foremost power by implementing a legislative package that included the Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act and the Greenback Act, the latter designed to emulate the impact of Hamilton’s National Bank by directing the nation’s economic resources to purposeful and beneficial national ends.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was designed to do a lot of the same things, yet again. Using the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, it directed economic stimulus toward the creation of jobs, a restoration of individual standards of living, and expansion of national infrastructure.

The ethical roots of the American experience were directed repeatedly toward economic policies that drove the nation to global preeminence, capable of spreading the same model throughout the globe.

But the “dark side” has also always been there, starting with the oligarchies of Europe that the American revolution fought against and defeated on North American soil. These oligarchic elites have tirelessly espoused the philosophies of “might makes right” and “social Darwinism,” using superstition and ignorance to subjugate disadvantaged people to their will, and have fought against all “American system” policies that coordinate economic policies to a general good.

Imperialist economic rape and plunder, natural resources hoarding and slavery have been its preferred approach for accumulating wealth in their hands, at the expense of everyone else. They’ve not only plundered, they’ve fought wars to prohibit independent economic development, keeping Africans, among other things, fighting genocidal wars among themselves while limiting them to digging for water with sticks, instead of building railroads, canals, dams and large-scale irrigation projects.

The continental U.S. is the product of ethical economics. The underdevelopment of the African continent is the product of the immoral aristocratic approach.

The removal of all regulations from the U.S. financial markets by the backers of the Bush administration, driving down real wages in this decade while building a house of cards of fictitious derivative values and exporting them like a virus around the globe, has brought the world to the brink of economic meltdown now.

Ironically, so much of this greed and destruction was foisted on the world through ostensibly religious conviction. Rightwing Christian operations like “The Family,” interwoven with neo-conservatives gathered like moths to a flame around the infamous Sarah Palin-promoting Weekly Standard magazine and spouting “American exceptionalism,” have been at the cutting edge of the nation’s steep ethical decline.

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