In an apostolic exhortation issued last Sunday Pope Francis characterized the free enterprise system as a form of “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
This is not the first time that Francis, known for his love of the poor, has criticized markets. This apostolic exhortation, however, represents a more official statement of Francis’s personal philosophy.
“ [S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” reads the exhortation. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” [emphasis mine – JS]
Thus does the pope discount a wealth of data, years of economic theory, and practical experience which shows capitalism to be vastly superior to its alternatives at promoting higher standards of living for all classes of society, including the poor. Francis should consult the Frasier Institute’s Index of Economic Freedom, which shows that people living in freer economies enjoy higher per-capita income, longer life expectancies, less unemployment, and less infant mortality. That last fact should be of great interest to the pope, who reminds Catholics in his exhortation that Jesus “identifies especially with the little ones.”
Capitalism does not breed poverty; it alleviates it. Compare the life expectancy of a medieval serf–rarely 30 years–to someone living in Western Europe today: Pope Francis, for example, who has reached the ripe old age of 76 thanks to modern medicine. He lived through the Cold War and its showcase of the obvious disparity between the United States, a land of economic “survival of the fittest,” according to Francis, and the Soviet Union. It was “a country with some of the most fertile land on the continent of Europe,” writes economist and TAS contributor Thomas Sowell, where the market principles that Pope Francis regards suspiciously were abandoned, and as a result “at least 6 million people starved to death in the 1930s[.]”
Pope Francis also laments that “we calmly accept [money’s] dominion over ourselves and our societies.” But it is money that allowed people to escape the backbreaking toil of sustenance farming, where men are at the mercy of the weather, or the weevil.
The pope, who recognizes in his exhortation the importance of economics, should keep in mind that the limited resources of the world could not possibly be allocated or “distributed” without some sort of system that allocates them efficiently, taking into account supply and demand, as well as scarcity and the difficulty of production and extraction: that is, prices. For someone who writes of others’ displaying “crude and naïve trust”, the pope sometimes betrays a rather naïve understanding of economics.
To his credit, the exhoration makes it clear that “[i]t is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality,” but I still think that someone who abhors poverty should be careful with his economic prescriptions–and proscriptions.