On his inaugural visit to the United States next week, Pope Francis will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. There he will no doubt demonstrate why the word pontificate is both an alternative reference to the papacy as well as a way to describe pompous and dogmatic speechifying. While pontiffs are historically prone to weighing in on various moral and social questions, the current pope seems especially disposed toward speaking out on issues on which he has very little understanding. Because of his position and perceived moral authority, the pope’s ignorance is not simply disappointing – it’s dangerous. Someone needs to tell him to STFU.
Pope Francis has made poverty and its alleviation a focus of his papacy. That’s all well and good, but in so doing he has also demonstrated a disheartening failure to understand the nature of poverty and how to eliminate it.
The world, he says, suffers from “an unfettered pursuit of money,” which he calls the “dung of the devil,” and that has left “behind all this pain, death and destruction.” He similarly rails against the “new colonialism” of standard institutions of market commerce like “corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties,” while hand-wringing “the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
The ‘austerity’ he so disdains, while used in different contexts to refer to policies that can be either good or bad, generally calls for tightening the belt of irresponsible governments and the politicians that are otherwise pissing away the labor of those the pope claims to care about. His confusion of the welfare of government and politicians with the welfare of people through mindless pooh-poohing of ‘austerity’ is telling if for no other reason than that it’s perhaps the most popular fallacy among modern statists.
Worse is the severe lack of perspective that seems to guide his economic thinking. Defending his stances, the pope said, “I recognize that globalization has helped many people to lift themselves out of poverty, but it has many other people condemned to starve. It is true that in absolute terms the world’s wealth has grown, but inequality and poverty have arisen.” He is not merely wrong here as a matter of opinion, but also as a matter of fact. Globalization is not the cause of poverty, some or all of it, but that’s at least arguable. What is not arguable is the fact that not only is poverty not increasing, but prosperity is advancing by leaps and bounds and reaching more of the world’s population than ever before.
Across a variety of metrics, life continues to get better and better. Extreme poverty – measuring those living on $2 per day or less – has been cut in half since 1981 and will be all but eliminated by 2030. Global GDP per person has never been higher. Pick a measure of human wellbeing and it’s virtually the same story over and over again: life expectancy is up, infant mortality rates have plummeted, women are better represented in governments than ever before, etc. etc.
The world is simply not the horrible place the pope describes. It is better than it ever has been and we have precisely those institutions that he savages to thank for it.
Specifically, we owe this golden age of human prosperity to the spread of economic freedom.
Modern poverty isn’t a tale of those held down from the outside by capitalist oppressors, it’s a story about those – or more specifically their governments – who for whatever reason have failed to follow the proven path to prosperity. It’s North versus South Korea. It’s the deterioration of the socialist Venezuela before our eyes versus the thriving Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. It’s the floundering of populism-embracing Argentina (once a world class economy) versus the growth of the smaller but now more prosperous market-embracing Chile. Being an Argentinean himself, you’d think that would be a lesson Pope Francis would have learned when Peronists squandered his nation’s wealth on leftist fantasies like the ones he preaches today.
In erroneously blaming economic freedom for the ever-diminishing share of the global population not yet enjoying the fruits of modern prosperity, the pope would have more follow the examples set by each of these notable failures rather than that of the successes.
Poverty, in truth, isn’t a thing that needs explaining. It’s the natural state of being – a state which has been the norm for the vast majority of human history. The growth of wealth is what requires explanation. And that explanation is the presence of classical liberal norms like property rights, the rule of law and democratic institutions.
For all the talk of privilege we hear today – on the holy trinity of race, class and gender – the real privilege is access to free markets. Those with it are empowered; those without it despair.
Just about every American is in the global one percent, not because of economic colonialism or exploitation or any number of myopic leftist explanations, but because the United States has the longest, if not always the most committed, track record of economic liberty. Other western nations wobble in their own commitment from time to time, but still thrive compared to those who flat out reject it.
The rush of immigrants into Europe is not just a tale of refugees escaping conflict. Much of it is economic, and to the surprise of many, is being driven not by increasing poverty, but by just enough gains in wealth to allow the now slightly less poor the resources they need to get themselves to a place where they too can access that western privilege.
If the pope wants to help solve that crisis, he should encourage the countries from which people are fleeing to be more like their intended destinations, rather than the other way around.
Pope Francis is probably not a bad guy. Were I part of his flock and interested in the functioning of the religious institution he commands, I’d probably look favorably upon many of the reforms he has undertaken. From the outside I am certainly sympathetic to his charges that the bureaucracy at the Vatican suffers a “pathology of power,” and has “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” But I am not part of that institution and ultimately will leave assessing his leadership over its functioning to those with a stake in it.
It is his foray into global economic affairs – beyond just basic principles of kindness that might guide person to person interactions – that commands my attention, because I do accept a stake in global welfare. While the pope is entitled to his opinions like anyone else, his also require extra scrutiny. He has not been elected to a true governmental office, but he wields considerable social power, perhaps more than any other single individual. It is disheartening to see him, through misguided ignorance, deploy that power in pursuit of ideas that would condemn even more to poverty rather than help raise everyone out of it.
Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images
Brian Garst is an advocate for economic and individual liberty. He works as Director of Policy and Communications at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free market think-tank dedicated to preserving tax competition. His writings have been published in major domestic and international papers, and he is a regular contributor for Cayman Financial Review. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.
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