by Rod D. Martin
May 23, 2013
This week, the new Pope gave his first major speech on economics to a group of foreign ambassadors to the Vatican. In it, he demanded more government control over the economy, decried the gap between rich and poor, and called on the world’s leaders to end “the tyranny of money.”
This is most unfortunate, not least in that the Pope’s comments are utterly self-defeating. Francis admirably seeks the alleviation of poverty and the mindfulness of the wealthy toward the poor. But 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 slum-dwelling parishioners in (socialist) Argentina prior to the Industrial Revolution, a mere 250 years ago; moreover, they had lived in exactly that level of poverty since at least Noah’s flood.
Were there redistribution schemes in Rome? Pharaoh’s Egypt? Ancient China? Of course, and they are well documented. Did they lift anyone out of primitivism? No they did not.
Just one example: 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 using the new technology to can food. Someone built warehouses — and not for charity! And one day, there was a famine in some part of Europe you think of as rich, and someone shipped trainloads of canned goods to the starving people.
Thus ended famine. No one did it on purpose, no one did it as a matter of charity, and no government program could have brought these things together. It took the genius of the market to conquer want.
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 had at any price 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 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.
What do I mean? It’s simple. In capitalism, 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 could I solve them? How could I make her life better?
Only after thinking through all of this do I have 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! I can invest my entire life savings in solving her problem and still be paid absolutely nothing.
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 where every other system coerces, capitalism 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 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 of society. Pope Francis is absolutely right to call on the wealthy to be more compassionate with what they have; but he is dangerously wrong to ignore how that system works out over a few short decades’ time.
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.”
The Church – and the world – would do well to learn this.
Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Rod D. Martin was posted at The Daily Caller.