Is Pope Francis Right About the Golden Calf and “Tyranny of Money”?

I’d like to draw attention to the Pope Francis’ recent homily in which he renounced the “tyranny of money” and a system in which markets and financial speculation allegedly are allowed to operate with complete autonomy, which ends up treating the poor as sub-human, and leads to rising income inequality with the rich exploding upwards in wealth while the incomes of the poor collapse. He identifies this era of market autonomy with a story from the book of Exodus:

“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.”

Now, whoever criticized me for being arrogant for correcting the Cardinal’s mistake in turning the tax collector Zacchaeus into a loan shark, will be doubly angry with me for critiquing what seems to be a clear misreading of the story of the golden calf. But so what? The text is the text and even great men can, and do, misunderstand it.

The story is told in Exodus 32. After the escape from Egypt, and the passage through the Red Sea, Israel made its way to Mount Sinai. Moses went up onto the mountain to receive the law of God while the nation waited below. After a long absence in which Moses was away from provisions, the Israelites became impatient and demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother and second in command, fashion gods which could lead the people in Moses’ absence. Aaron collected jewelry from the people and out of it fashioned a graven image of a calf, a traditional object of worship in Egypt.

So, where exactly in that story is the tyranny of the neo-liberal market order to be found? This account is clearly a conflict over political power. Pharaoh held political mastery over the Israelites. Moses fights against the Egyptian State and prevails. The Israelites become a newly independent nation, with Moses as civil ruler under God. Moses loses the confidence of the people, and they demand a new leader.

Egypt had used graven images of gods, including calves, to buttress the authority of the pharaoh who was both king and god. Aaron did the same. Gold was taken out of circulation (that is out of the realm where it might be used in market exchanges) and collectivized by the new civil head for propaganda and political cohesion, who would then use the Egyptian-style political system to form a leader who would lead them back to Egypt, back under the dominion of an all-powerful State.

How do we know this? It is fairly clear from the details of the story in Exodus. But in case that it’s not so clear, the prophet Nehemiah later in Israel’s history interprets the story that way (see Nehemiah chapter 9), as a search for a leader (in Hebrew a rosh, a head) to return them to Egypt. This is why during the period of divided political rule in Israel (after a national split arising from excessively high taxes) the civil ruler of the northern tribes, Jeroboam, creates golden calves for the purpose of consolidating political power.

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.’ Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt’” (1 Kings 12:26–28).

I believe the Pope, with all due respect, has this story reversed. What are golden calves for? To be ridden by kings. The story in Exodus is a story of people enslaved to the State, led by God to freedom, but who keep lapsing back to the security of Egypt with its divine king and its steady meals and without the burden of choice.

Moses was on the mountain receiving the Book of the Covenant, the civil implementation of the Ten Commandments, a short national constitution with a small State and strong protections of property rights. While he did that, the people reverted, and tried to reconstitute Egypt and its political cult.

Over the past two hundred years, the world, led by England and the U.S., has moved toward enormously higher levels of economic freedom and the resulting prosperity. Since the fall of the Soviet experiment, that was extended to more of mankind. But since the financial crisis, the general trend in the world has been to go back, to extend to the State power over markets. Any call to elevate the State even more, to collect our assets and melt them into some collective image which we can all ride backwards in history to the time before the free-market seems like a call to go back to Egypt, to security and slavery.

The Pope attacks the market order because he finds it ‘faceless’ and ‘lacking any truly human goal.’ He’s right. The market does not have a face. But that’s only because it has 7 billion faces. It doesn’t have a human purpose, but that’s because it has 7 billion human purposes. If you want an economy with a face and a human purpose, then the Egypt of the Exodus era is your place and the Pharaoh of the exodus is your man.

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Mr. Bowyer is the author of The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide, published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.