Last week, Pope Francis gave his first major speech on economics. In it, he demanded more government control over the economy, decried the gap between the rich and poor, and called on the world’s leaders to end “the tyranny of money.”
We should all be concerned about the plight of the poor. Unfortunately, the pope’s comments miss the mark in several key ways.
1. Nothing in human history has done as much to alleviate human poverty as free-market capitalism. This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement. Before the Industrial Revolution, the entire world lived in far worse poverty than the pope’s slum-dwelling parishioners in (socialist) Argentina did when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Moreover, humans had lived in that level of extreme poverty since at least Noah’s flood.
Were there redistribution schemes in ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and ancient China? Of course, and they are well documented. Did they lift anyone out of primitivism? No, they did not.
To give just one example of how capitalism reduces suffering: Capitalism has eliminated famine from most of the world. The steps by which it did this were not obvious, and were entirely profit-driven. Someone invented a steam engine. Someone figured out how to attach steam engines to boats and trains. Some other people put up their hard-earned capital to invest in building boats and trains. Someone else thought of using new technology to can food. Someone built warehouses. None of this was done for charity. But one day there was a famine, and so someone shipped trainloads of canned goods to the starving people. It took the genius of the market to conquer want.
We can tell similar stories about everything from polio to tooth brushes. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The poorest in capitalist countries live better — in all the ways that count most — than kings did just a century or two ago. Though rare even in the early 20th century, indoor plumbing is now almost universal in much of the world, and there are more cell phones than toilets. African children living in huts take courses on iPhones. The poorest illegal alien can walk into any emergency room in America — before Obamacare — and be treated with state-of-the-art equipment no one could have paid for just five years ago, for free.
Socialism produced none of this. Indeed, socialism feeds off the wealth and ingenuity of others. The pope should not rail against what free markets haven’t yet done without first thanking God for what they have done.
2. Capitalism is the societal fulfillment of the Golden Rule. For those who missed Sunday school, Jesus taught people to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” No economic system realizes this principle as thoroughly as capitalism.
What do I mean? It’s simple. In a capitalist economy, for me to make a single penny, I must first think about my potential customer. What does she need? What does she want? What problems does she have, and how can I solve them? How can I make her life better?
Only then, after thinking through all this, can I offer her a product. And then she has an opportunity to purchase my product — or not purchase it. I can invest my entire life savings in addressing her needs and still be paid absolutely nothing for my efforts.
This is the Golden Rule. Even when people aren’t consciously seeking to do good, capitalism forces them to put others before themselves. And while every other economic system relies on coercion, capitalism leaves people truly free.
3. The Bible precludes every other economic system. As Pope Francis should know better than most, the Bible is no friend of socialism. The Ten Commandments — especially the commandment against stealing and the commandment against coveting — directly conflict with socialism. In fact, several biblical passages contradict socialist principles. When King Ahab nationalizes Naboth’s vineyard, the Lord roundly condemns him. Jesus commends the entrepreneur who multiplies his money, while condemning the employee who buries his stake, giving the money entrusted to that “wicked servant” to the more successful investor and casting the failure “into outer darkness.”
Does this make the Bible harshly Darwinian? No, this makes the Bible consistent. There is no virtue in taking someone else’s money to do “your” good works. Capitalism permits the massive multiplication of wealth for all members of society.
Pope Francis is absolutely right to call on the wealthy to be more generous with what they have. But he is dangerously wrong to ignore how capitalism serves humanity.
Sadly, this sort of confused teaching hobbles Christianity. It demonizes exactly the sort of wealth creation Jesus demanded, and thus all the good works that could be done as a result. And those works are not limited to charity. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “The best jobs program is a job.”
Pope Francis — and the world — would do well to learn this.