Is world poverty really increasing? Actually, no, quite the opposite, and you can blame economic liberalism, capitalism, and free markets for that. Yet we hear exactly the contrary from Pope Francis who, despite his evident compassion, has an amazingly poor understanding of economics. He misstates basic facts, offers dimly reasoned analyses of human rights, and promotes ill-considered policies. Now that the Vatican is set to release the Pope’s first feature film, no doubt a stirring piece of social justice propaganda, it seems as good a time as any to review the confounded state of Francis’ economic reasoning. This is not the first time I’ve discussed the Pope’s policy views: this link contains three previous posts from SacredCowChips on which Francis was tagged.
The False Narrative
My inspiration for this post comes from Robert P. Murphy, whose recent commentary on Francis’ pronouncements is trenchant. Murphy covers this speech written by Francis for the World Economic Forum, but delivered by a Vatican proxy, in which the Pope asserts the following:
“… governments must confront … the growth of unemployment, the increase in various forms of poverty, the widening of the socio-economic gap and new forms of slavery, often rooted in situations of conflict, migration and various social problems.“
Francis refers to increasing unemployment and poverty, and I could let that phrase pass if he was referring to certain nations or locales that have experienced chronically depressed economic growth. But Francis’ description is rather general, as evidenced by his diagnosis of causes. More on that below. Regarding his statement about trends in poverty, he is flatly incorrect. Here is Murphy:
“As the World Bank reports, the global “extreme poverty” rate in 1990 was cut in half by 2010. Back in 1990, 1.85 billion people lived on less than $1.90 per day, but by 2013, the figure had dropped to 767 million such people—meaning that more than a billion people had been lifted out of crushing poverty.“
After the Great Recession, world unemployment decreased from 2009-2015, according to the World Bank, though it is estimated to have crept up slightly in 2016-17. Again, the Pope’s woeful tale of growing unemployment and increasing poverty is nonsense.
But the world is a difficult place. In the underdeveloped world, the range and quality of goods available is extremely limited, and $1.90 represents bare subsistence, yet it’s a condition that exceeds the historical norm in many places. Movement above that threshold can represent a meaningful improvement in economic well-being.
Francis may lack an appreciation for the general enrichment in material conditions that has been taking place over the last two centuries, which is ongoing, or perhaps he believes that even greater achievements are easily within reach but for certain injustices, though he offers no qualifications. Perhaps he is mistakenly generalizing specific instances of exploitation in the underdeveloped world, which often occur with the explicit blessing of the state apparatus in exchange for kickbacks.
Rights and Markets
Even more egregious is the Pope’s presumption that private markets are at fault for any stagnation that he has identified. A notable difference between countries with successful, growing economies and those mired in stagnation is the degree to which their citizens enjoy freedoms, especially economic freedom. That is a well-established empirical fact, as Murphy explains. But the Pontiff goes further with preposterous dogma on the meaning of human rights. Again, from Murphy:
“Although inspired by concern for the poor and the marginalized, the Vatican’s message is seriously flawed…. On a conceptual level, Pope Francis posits a false dichotomy between economic freedom and human rights. … ‘Economic freedom must not prevail over the practical freedom of man and over his rights, and the market must not be absolute, but honour the exigencies of justice.’
What does the concept of “economic freedom” entail? It means freedom to work in any occupation of one’s choice, without permission from the government, and certainly without being conscripted into service against one’s will. It means the freedom to start a business. It means the freedom to keep what you have produced, without having your assets seized by a rapacious regime. It means the freedom to trade with people who live in another country. It means the rule of law, where contracts are interpreted fairly and government officials can’t exercise arbitrary power.“
Economic freedom, more than anything else, means that individuals are endowed with property rights. To deny such rights is to banish any reward for work and differential rewards for work well done. If free individuals are rewarded, it is a matter of their own discretion as to whether they immediately consume the reward or save it in order to accumulate wealth. Yet Francis takes the misanthropic and childish view that economic freedom, private property and markets imply exploitation. He lacks a basic understanding of the revolutionary power of markets as a form of social organization.
Within just a few hundred years, a small fraction of the many millennia during which mankind was mired in poverty and pestilence, markets have dramatically transformed the existence of most human populations. Peaceful, arms length transactions made in mutual self-interest exploit only one thing: gains from trade that would otherwise be wasted. And only a form of social organization that enables those gains can dovetail with the human rights and justice that Francis so strongly desires. The denial of economic freedom, property rights, and self-interest prohibits those gains, however, denying humanity of the wealth necessary to achieve anything like justice.
Pope Francis is a redistributionist, and that goes well beyond the charitable giving, good works and service performed voluntarily by individuals. In fact, he is a statist, advocating an economic system in which property rights are abrogated, wholly or in part, and wages above a politically determined threshold are confiscated.
The Pope and Perón
Francis is often described as a “Perónist”, after Juan Perón of Argentina, the so-called “right-wing socialist” (and sometime associate of the murderous Che Guevara). Anyone familiar with the economic history of Argentina should know that’s not praise. Here is Maureen Mullarkey from the last link:
“Both Juan and Eva understood the enchantments of populism. A charismatic pair, they ruled more by dint of personality—personalismo—than democratic procedure. Ushers of an ‘option for the poor,’ they glorified the lower classes and denigrated the wealthy. (This, while they amassed a huge personal fortune from the Eva Perón Welfare Foundation.) …
When Francis speaks of ‘the people’ as a revolutionary vanguard that ‘overflows the logical procedures of formal democracy,’ he is lapsing toward that ecstatic Peronist vision of a Third Way—justicialismo. That the disposition and design of it ended in economic collapse and misery is nothing against the splendor of the mystique.
In his youth, Francis absorbed the myth but not its lessons. Chief among them is how much Argentina’s fiscal catastrophe owed to an extravagant welfare system that favored enforced wealth redistribution over development. Among the many factors of Argentina’s historic economic crisis, one cries for attention: Perón’s increasing reliance on redistributing income, not only between industries and occupations but between skilled and unskilled workers.“
For further perspective on Francis, Perónism, and the disastrous Argentine “experiment”, see this piece by Daniel J. Mitchell.
For many years, naive Marxists have accepted the myth that central economic planners could and would direct productive and distributional activities with foresight, efficiency, and integrity. None of those is possible. The only form of social organization capable of registering and processing the myriad and dynamic signals on preferences and scarcity is free market capitalism. It is the only system capable of spontaneously harnessing appropriate responses based on the complex incentives faced by consumers and producers, and all at a minimal administrative cost for society, free of the government intervention that typifies the Peronist welfare state and corporatism.
Pope Francis should know better than to make claims having no empirical support. He should also have the wisdom to understand and advocate for the empowering nature of private property rights and markets. Elevating the human condition is possible only by allowing people to be free — economically free — and endowed with opportunities to earn private rewards and build wealth. Francis should realize that the massive private gains afforded by the market mechanism enable rewards which spill over, inuring to the benefit of parties external to a given exchange. On the other hand, state domination and control of economic activity gives over decision-making to selfish and ill-informed public commandants, who are all too pleased to grant special advantages to those in a position to return private favors. Such graft and mismanagement of resources comes at the expense of others. That way lies decay and a return to the much more brutal conditions of the past, unlike the mutually beneficial promise of market exchange.