Pope Francis over the past couple of years has stirred up quite a bit of controversy with his statements on economics. Of course, we would never presume to challenge the pronouncements of Pope Francis in the areas of theology and Catholic doctrine, but on economics, his views do seem dangerously foolish. Consider, for instance, an interview that Francis gave to La Stampa, an Italian daily, back in 2014. He devotes much of his focus to the duty to help the poor, which is fine.
“Jesus tells us that it is the ‘protocol’ on the basis of which we will be judged, it is what we read in Chapter 25 of Matthew: I had hunger, I had thirst, I was in prison, I was sick, I was naked and you helped me: dressed me, visited me, you took care of me,” the pontiff continues.
“This is the touchstone.”
Fair enough. But later the pope declares:
Markets and financial speculation cannot enjoy absolute autonomy.
What does this mean? Where would we see markets enjoying “absolute autonomy”? We doubt that Pope Francis means to critique merely the theoretical construct of completely unfettered markets. An economy with absolutely no regulation or interference with market activity remains the dream of only a tiny number of anarchists and radical libertarians, and exists nowhere in the world. Almost no professional economists advocate totally unfettered markets in everything. This position amounts, therefore, to little more than a straw man.
So assuming that Pope Francis does not intend to attack only a straw man, we must therefore conclude that he means to critique relatively market-oriented economies as they exist today. But if so, then this contradicts his stated desire to alleviate poverty. Because the fact is that the only places in the world that have successfully eradicated poverty, the places where even the relative poor enjoy a standard of living that is enviable by world and historical standards, are places where the bulk of economic activity is organized by markets.
Back in the stone age, everybody in the world was poor. As recently as a few hundred years ago, everyone except a tiny percentage in the aristocracy basically existed near the subsistence level. The only places in recorded history where the teeming masses managed to escape this grinding poverty were places with market-based economies.
In the world today, widespread prosperity exists almost entirely in three broad regions: East Asia, North America, and Western Europe. Prosperity in these regions is so widespread that poor people from the rest of the world are desperate to migrate there. These wealthy areas comprise many nations with very different cultures and histories, but they have one thing in common: a market-based economy.
If Pope Francis is serious about alleviating poverty, he should be promoting markets, not attacking them.
More specifically, here is Pope Francis commenting on youth unemployment, an especially big problem in Southern Europe.
I have the impression that in the developed countries there are many millions of young people under 25 years that don’t have work. I have called them “nor-nor”, because they don’t study and they don’t work: they don’t study because they don’t have possibility to do so, don’t work because they can’t find it.
But youth unemployment is a big problem only in those “developed countries” like Spain, France, and Italy where the government tightly controls and regulates the labor market. Youth unemployment is much lower in places like the U.S., the U.K., Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where labor markets are relatively free of state interventions like steep minimum wages, licensing requirements, forced unionism, and laws making it almost impossible for employers to fire an employee (making employers reluctant to hire people in the first place).
If Pope Francis is really serious about youth unemployment, he should actively promote freer labor markets.
Supposedly quoting Pope Paul VI from 1967, Francis says the following.
Private property does not constitute an unconditional and absolute right, and that no one is authorized to reserve for their exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities.
The last thing the world’s poor need today is a 1960s-style attack on property rights. Property rights are essential not only to the proper functioning of markets, but to political and human rights as well. Much misery was caused in the 20th century by undermining property rights, not least in the pope’s home region of Latin America.
Although Pope Francis has repeatedly denied that his views are Marxist, his statement on property reflects a Marxist perspective. Indeed, it leads naturally to Vladimir Lenin’s famous formulation: Who? Whom? Who gets to decide how much wealth someone really ‘needs’? Who decides, and on what basis, what will be taken from whom, and given to whom?
Suppose that the current property owner refuses to surrender his property. Is Francis prepared to condone thievery by the have-nots against the haves? Is it morally legitimate to overcome the owner’s resistance by force? Is Pope Francis prepared to advocate force–pointing guns–at those who have more wealth than he thinks they ‘need’? Because if it’s the government that is doing the redistributing, then that’s how the government obtains property: at gunpoint.
It’s one thing to say that the rich should give to the poor of their own accord, but quite another to say they have no right to their property. Denying property rights opens the door to expropriation, strife, and misery.
Has Pope Francis really thought through the implications of his economic pronouncements? We know he is very well schooled in theology, but did he ever take a course in economics? He really needs either to educate himself or to stick to his areas of expertise.