When it comes to economics, people rarely think they contain a moral dimension. What could supply and demand possibly have to do with questions of good and evil?
According to Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's chief diplomat at the United Nations, issues such as free trade are profoundly moral questions. In a recent address, the archbishop expressed the Vatican's disappointment that the World Trade Organization's conference last September in Cancun did not result in wealthy countries agreeing to "reduce trade-distorting farm subsidies, slash tariffs on farm goods and eliminate agricultural export subsidies."
During the past decade, the Catholic Church has emerged as one of the strongest advocates of free trade. This reflects a growing recognition that tariffs, protectionism and subsidies inhibit the ability of producers in poor countries to compete economically with the developed nations.
The worst offenders are Western nations. France's record is especially poor. Ironically, the land in which the call for "liberte, egalite, fraternite" originated is perhaps the most notorious for denying economic liberty to some of the world's poorest nations. The U.S. government and European Union spend billions of dollars and euros every year to ensure their farmers enjoy unfair advantages in producing and selling their products.
This can become ludicrous, such as when American farmers are paid not to grow particular crops on their land. It needs, however, to be understood that Archbishop Migliore is not advocating free trade simply for economic efficiency. His position is derived from careful reflection upon Catholic moral teaching about the nature and ends of material goods.
The Catholic Church teaches that the goods of the earth are to be used by and on behalf of all people. The question of how the earth's resources are to be used for the benefit of all, the church teaches, is left to people to work out. But the church has always taught that this occurs through private property. The church has also taught, especially in recent decades, that the process of free exchange is how the goods of the world are most prudentially circulated to benefit all. Pope Pius XII, for example, spoke of the need for "the free reciprocal commerce of goods by interchange and gift."
For the Catholic Church, the right of free trade flows directly, like private property, from man's realization that all people have the right to make use of the earth's material goods. To inhibit free exchange, then, is a morally questionable act. This is not to say it should never be obstructed. But it does mean that serious moral reasons need to exist before free trade may be legitimately restricted.
The Vatican, however, is not suggesting that the developing world's economic problems are solely the result of Western protectionism. Archbishop Migliore also has underlined the persistent problem of corruption prevailing in much of the developing world. It is not politically correct to say so, but corruption is a prevailing evil in much of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Sometimes it is a societal-wide problem, such as in Argentina. At other times, corruption (and the subsequent lack of rule of law) is actively promoted by dictatorial regimes.
The latter is personified by the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. During the past 10 years, this government has systematically violated the rule of law and arbitrarily taken private property. By any standard, it has been treated largely with kid gloves by Western governments and human rights activists.
This moral problem of corruption has the economic consequence of deepening the reluctance of domestic and foreign companies to invest and promote economic growth. Who, after all, would be willing to invest in a country like Zimbabwe, where there is no guarantee that your property will be protected from arbitrary seizure by cronies of the regime?
There is no such thing as a genuinely free economy unless it is grounded in the reality of objective morality. The Vatican clearly understands this. One can only hope its listeners in both the developed and developing worlds heed its words.
Rev. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute (www.acton.org) for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids.