Should non-Catholics care what Pope Francis says? Of course. His is a big, big voice; he is a good, good Christian man; and millions just may be swayed when he says capitalism hurts the poor. His high intentions in a recent papal statement are the kind forever paving the road to more socialist bedevilment, and we all have a stake in that.
Yes, obviously, free markets have their excesses, from consumerism to exploitation, but there has never, ever in the history of humanity been any economic arrangement even close to liberated commerce and relatively unencumbered trade in lifting humankind from misery, affording opportunities to one and all, and delivering civilized benefits in superabundance.
People have thought differently and repeatedly tried other solutions to the problem of scarcity. The pope issued his statement during what is Thanksgiving week in America, and it might be noted how the 17th-century Plymouth Colony pilgrims of historic Thanksgiving fame started out with commonly owned property and a promise of everyone getting taken care of.
It didn’t work, because not enough people worked. Half the early colonists died early on, there was a switch to private property, people did work for their own interests, and the colony then mostly thrived.
We have had such switches from the poisonous to the medicinal on massive, extreme scales and more subtle scales throughout modern times.
For an extreme, turn to China and think of Mao Tse-tung’s Great Leap Forward into greater communist depths out of concern that shallower communism was availing too little. What he got was 45 million killed by famine and other means, and what did Deng Xiao-ping get by freeing the economy extensively after Mao’s death? Hundreds of millions headed toward prosperity is what. It’s still an authoritarian regime with major troubles even as it is smarter than the United States in expanding trade opportunities.
For more subtlety, consider Sweden, long thought a semi-socialist welfare state blissfully proud of its humane accomplishments. In the 1990s, the welfare state began choking and Sweden tried reforms that included deregulation, balancing budgets, reducing spending, cutting taxes and embracing the private sector as an effective way to care for people. The reforms largely did their job as witness the fact that moderates there are still in charge, doing their beneficent moderating thing. Some European welfare states that are in hugely threatening fiscal funks have come grudgingly or just barely to such solutions, and for a number, recovery is problematic.
Matt Ridley, a British science writer who has shown how commerce, technological innovation and trade have provided the greatest well-being the world has ever known, is worried about Europe’s trajectory. He is positive about Africa, Asia and Latin America, however, and thinks American entrepreneurs are holding to the right course.
U.S. accomplishments are indeed remarkable, and some of the worst failings are due not to markets, as liberals allege, but to such cultural dysfunctions as fatherless homes encouraged by welfare programs. The government has nevertheless been moving in wrong directions, and it’s unclear whether it will back up.
The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith had some significant words on all of this when he wrote in the 18th century that there is an “invisible hand” bestowing mutual benefits in the self-interested workings of free markets. While wary of intervention, he did not deny the need for some regulation, and also wrote that decent societies depend on people heeding a natural sympathy for others.
The pope, in my view, is absolutely right that we should be deeply concerned about the least fortunate, but the way we exercise that concern is crucial.