Newchurch of the Poor: Pope Francis-Bergoglio enforcing his Marxist Agenda to the nations. Next stop U.S.A…
If he’s true to form, the affable leader of Earth’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics will land in Washington next week with a smile on his face and a suspicion in his heart. In addressing the 70 million Americans in his flock, and a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis may use his bully pulpit to intensify his previous critiques of free-market excesses.
He repeatedly has denounced unrestrained capitalism. His attacks on “compulsive consumerism” and industrial damage to the world’s ecology came to a head during a fiery July speech in Bolivia. He said poor nations shouldn’t be mere sources of raw materials and cheap labor, and called the unfettered pursuit of money “the dung of the devil”:
“Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system,” he said, “it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”
Like all of us, Francis is a product of his past. That past is rooted in Argentina, where some of his countrymen decry the “savage capitalism” they’ve experienced at the hands of U.S. mining and agricultural companies. The pope is making the first U.S. visit of his 78 years; he can say as much or as little as he pleases about Latin America’s experience with the world’s most muscular capitalist economy.
Some of the pope’s criticisms are warranted. We write frequently about reversing environmental perils, creating economic opportunities for the poor, and enforcing legal and ethical restrictions on global companies — including the many headquartered in Chicago.
By riveting attention on economic exploitation, a man renowned as the pontiff of the poor has wildly succeeded. But in the 30 months of his papacy, Francis hasn’t focused on a companion truth: When it functions legally and ethically, capitalism does more to uplift people from even severe poverty than has any government policy, economic ideology, or redistribution of wealth.
That rescue began with the Industrial Revolution in decades bracketing 1800 and has quickened as free-market economies blanket more of the world. A United Nations initiative to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger — the Millennium Development Goals — in July reported that over the last 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has plunged by more than half, from 1.9 billion to 836 million today. Also since 1990, the share of undernourished people in developing countries has fallen by almost half, from 23.3 percent to 12.9 percent.
The greatest uplift to better and longer lives occurred in China as that nation embraced capitalism: Astonishingly, the extreme-poverty rate has plummeted from 84 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. India has experienced a similar (if similarly incomplete) trajectory since its government liberalized regulation of the economy in 1991.
Escape from extreme poverty isn’t a high bar; critics of Western capitalism more often cite income inequality within nations. Here, too, much can be done to give more opportunities and incentives to those moored in poverty. What the critics can miss, though, is the steady rise in living, health and education standards for poor Americans. “It is true that the share of all U.S. income earned by the lowest quintile has fallen slightly since the mid-1970s, so that U.S. income inequality has risen,” writes economic historian Edd Noell of California’s Westmont College. “Nonetheless, the growth in the real earnings of the poorest quintile has been large. On average, members of the lowest quintile had dramatically more real income in 2010 than in 1980.”
We would be shabby Chicagoans if we didn’t cite the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s unequivocal summary of evidence linking market freedoms to rising prosperity: “The only cases in which the masses have escaped (grinding poverty), the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that.”
That said, proponents of free-market capitalism can’t boast that its effects are net positive without admitting it also sows insecurity and destroys old orders. Many people fear dynamic economies, knowing some of them will suffer harsh consequences. Which is paradoxical: Capitalism thrives on voluntary, not violent, acts, with people creating goods and services that other people want to buy.
In a 2013 report, “Toward the end of poverty: The world’s next great leap forward,” The Economist synthesized how robust growth born of competitive instincts has helped people rise: “Poverty rates started to collapse toward the end of the 20th century largely because developing-country growth accelerated, from an annual rate of 4.3 percent in 1960-2000 to 6 percent in 2000-2010. Around two-thirds of poverty reduction within a country comes from growth. Greater equality also helps, contributing the other third.”
Which explains why the U.N.’s goal of cutting global poverty in half between 1990 and 2015 was achieved five years early.
Many of the 265 popes before Francis championed serious causes. Most recently, John Paul II crusaded against communism, and Benedict XVI decried moral drift that devalued human lives.
Now comes Pope Francis’ determination to help people by the hundreds of millions escape destitution. Excellent. Perhaps during his visit he’ll discuss how market economies already have let other hundreds of millions prosper, and bless capitalism for its saving grace.