Economic & Semantic Ignorance: It Rolls Downhill
Acton’s Power Blog covered yet another piece on Pope Francis’ salvo against the free market today in the run-up to his meeting with President Obama, and the theme is quite familiar: “Pope Francis is not an economist or technocrat laying out policy…”
It seems as though this is now a magic incantation by which anything and everything a person says about economics becomes acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy. I could be grateful for the fact that there is a subtle implication here: if an actual economist were to say the things about free markets that Francis said, he wouldn’t have much credibility left as an economist.
The plain truth here is that whether or not a person is an economist has nothing to do with the actual nature of the statements they make. Let’s take a look at what Francis himself said in a follow-up interview to Evangelii Guadium:
I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view…
With all due respect, these are testable claims about empirical reality. “But what happens instead, is…” Yes, that is an empirical statement. An attempt to “give a picture of what is going on” is an attempt to explain reality. There’s no way out of it: these are “technical” statements, their lack of details or any evidence of systematic economic training notwithstanding. (I’m familiar with the translation controversies too – none of them help his case) Moreover, they are simply false. The world’s poor have benefited immensely from the globalization and liberalization of economies; according to the World Bank, in spite of a 59% increase in population in the developing world, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day) has fallen from 50% to 21% in the last 30 years.
The piece reviewed by the Acton blog highlights the absence of private property rights in the world’s poorest countries. Without private property rights and a stable legal framework, there is no “free market”; there is arbitrary political and social intervention into private economic activity, not to mention the instability of constant regional warfare, and thus little incentive to engage in any sort of entrepreneurship. “Economic growth, encouraged by a free market” – what Francis says doesn’t work – is precisely what is missing in the world’s poorest regions. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the countries mentioned in the Acton blog, noted for their lack of private property rights, also exist in regions that present the greatest challenges in terms of poverty reduction as reported by the World Bank.
In the end, the defense, “I was not speaking from a technical point of view” is utterly meaningless. It is nothing more than an excuse to say what one pleases, regardless of its accuracy.Then Cardinal Ratzinger put it best in 1985: ” A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality.” I do not accuse Francis of explicitly wanting to dispense with technical knowledge, but a familiarity with global trends in income, poverty, quality of life, and other important indicators of human well-being ought to inform empirical statements about reality.
Wealth is not the only thing that trickles down, in the end. Ignorance and misconception do as well. Every anti-capitalist and his mother was encouraged by Francis’ “non-techincal” statements. Hopes are high that Francis and Obama will come to some sort of mutual accord over wealth inequality as well. It would be great if the real sources of illegitimate wealth disparities could be addressed and eliminated: corporate subsidies, trillion-dollar bailouts as large as our national GDP, intellectual property laws, bloated public-sector salaries and pensions, and so on. But since all of that would mean targeting Obama and the rest of the ruling establishment’s friends and family, it will be legitimate businesses that profit in the marketplace and the hard work of professionals and entrepreneurs that are targeted as the great cause of global poverty in our time. People who become fabulously wealthy at the government trough needn’t worry, only those who make their fortunes satisfying other people’s needs and wants.