Societies everywhere are grappling with the problems posed by unbridled capitalism. As a way of driving economic growth and innovation, capitalism has no rival.
Yet it has serious deleterious effects. It encourages individualism. It produces income and wealth inequality which has worsened over the last 30 years. It precipitates periodic crises, such as the recent financial crisis which caused a global recession, increased poverty, and reduced the incomes of middle-income workers.
Capitalism unbridled also tends to ignore the social costs of growth which include mounting waste, pollution of rivers and the oceans, greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, and deforestation, as well as urban decay, migration, and suppression or denial of workers’ rights.
The effects of unbridled capitalism have become more salient over the last few decades. Certainly, there is a general recognition that climate change is accelerating and that it has been induced by human action, mainly carbon-generating industries in the more developed countries.
Global attention has been drawn to deforestation in the Amazon, described as the ‘lungs of the planet’, desertification in the Sahara, and loss of vital coral reefs and mangroves.
The Supreme Court in the UK, in an important judgement for workers’ rights, recently ruled that Uber drivers were workers and not contractors and hence entitled to certain benefits which they were being denied.
The roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines has highlighted inequality at the global level, as well as social injustice within countries in terms of access to the vaccines. We are already seeing that developing countries, who are less able to afford it, are paying more per vaccination than developed countries who certainly can.
These issues have been addressed by several popes, from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (CA), written in 1991 on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
In Centesimus, John Paul wrote: “Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity” (CA, 34).
More recently, Pope Francis has addressed these issues as well. In Laudato Si’ (2015), he discussed the climate and environmental crises of our time and advocated the critical need for ‘care for our common home’.
In Fratelli Tutti (FT, 2020), Pope Francis wrote: “Individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal. The mere sum of individual interests is not capable of generating a better world for the whole human family. Nor can it save us from the many ills that are now increasingly globalised. Radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions, as if by pursuing ever greater ambitions and creating safety nets we would somehow be serving the common good” (FT, 105).
Archbishop Jason Gordon has long advocated an ‘exaggerated response for the common good’. The response today must be ‘exaggerated’ because the pendulum has swung too far under unbridled capitalism.
The ability to see our common humanity and the dignity of every human person is slowly being reflected in political and economic policy choices. President Biden has quickly returned the USA to the Paris Climate Accord and has proposed a global tax that would capture multinational companies which have been avoiding paying their fair share of taxes.
The European Union has similarly promoted action against erosion of the tax base and tax shifting by globalised companies. The idea of a wealth tax is gaining momentum to address spiralling wealth inequality.
The Chinese government has reined in its biggest internet companies whose market power was becoming excessive.
The key challenge of our time is the ‘ongoing conversion’ that allows our societies to balance the dynamism and creativity of a necessarily bridled capitalism with a responsibility to the common good and an acknowledgement of the dignity of every human person.