by Rod D. Martin
May 16, 2013
The Pope’s comments on capitalism today were unfortunate and wrong, albeit well-intentioned. He seeks the alleviation of poverty and the mindfulness of the wealthy toward the poor — I couldn’t agree more — but he attacks the only means through which those things are possible.
Now, for a Southern Baptist, I’m a pretty big fan of Pope Francis, and I certainly mean him no disrespect. Moreover, so far as I am aware, he said nothing in the comments I’m addressing that is much different from his predecessors.
Nevertheless, his comments miss the mark, in several key ways.
1. Nothing in human history has done so much to alleviate human poverty as free market capitalism. Nothing. This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement. The entire world lived in vastly greater poverty than the Pope’s “desperate” Argentine parishioners before the Industrial Revolution, a mere 250 years ago, and they had lived in exactly that level of poverty since at least Noah’s flood. Were there redistribution schemes in Rome? Pharaoh’s Egypt? China? Of course, and they are well documented. Did they lift anyone out of primitivism? No they did not.
Only free market capitalism was able to eliminate famine from most of the world. And the steps by which it did this were not obvious, and were entirely profit-driven. Someone invented a steam engine. Someone figured out to attach it to boats and trains. Some other people put up their hard-earned capital to invest in building boats and trains. Someone else thought of mass production. Someone else thought of using steam engines to can food. Someone built warehouses — not for charity! And one day, there was a famine in some part of Germany that you today cannot imagine as being subject to such terrors, and someone shipped trainloads of canned goods to the starving people. Thus ended famine.
We can tell similar stories about everything from polio to toilet paper. 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 done without first thanking God for what they have done.
2. Capitalism is the societal fulfillment of the Golden Rule. For those who might have missed Sunday School, Jesus famously taught to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Nothing achieves this so thoroughly — above the level of the individual — than capitalism, which is entirely based on free exchange.
What do I mean? It’s simple. In capitalism, for me to make a single penny, I must first think about my potential (and only 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 after thinking through all of this do I have the chance — and only the chance — to create a solution for her. And though it be the best solution in the world, if she does not like it, she does not have to buy it! Which is to say, I can invest my entire life savings in solving her problem and still be paid absolutely nothing.
Indeed, the only way I may ever be paid in capitalism is if I not only creatively solve someone else’s problem, but do so in a way they want before they know they want it, and having done all of this, finally, close the sale.
This is the Golden Rule. Even when I’m not consciously seeking to do good, the system itself forces me to put others before myself. And whereas every other system requires coercion at some level, this method, messy as it might be, is the only one that leaves me truly free.
3. The Bible precludes every other system. Pope Francis should know better than most: the Bible is no friend of socialism. Two out of Ten Commandments address it directly: you not only shall not steal, you shall not even think about it (“Thou Shalt Not Covet”). When King Ahab nationalizes Naboth’s vineyard, the Lord roundly condemns him. When Jesus teaches economics, in two separate parables He commends the entrepreneur who multiplies his money, while condemning the fool who buries his stake, giving the money entrusted to that “wicked servant” to the more successful investor and casting the loser into outer darkness.
Does this make the Bible “harshly libertarian”? No. This makes the Bible consistent. There is no “compassion” in taking someone else’s money to do “your” good works. Capitalism permits the massive multiplication of wealth. Pope Francis is absolutely right to call on the wealthy to be more compassionate with what they have. He is just wrong to attack the Bible’s own teaching on how and why to gain it in the first place.
At the end of the day, this sort of confused teaching hobbles Christianity. By teaching a sort of unbiblical “poverty gospel” (the flip-side of the equally erroneous Prosperity Gospel), the church demonizes exactly the sort of wealth creation Jesus demanded, and thus all the good works that could be done as a result. And that is not simply charity: as Ronald Reagan used to say, “the best jobs program is a job”.
The Church would do well to learn this.