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Show Me the Way to Poverty

In a recent speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis voiced his indictment of what he calls “the globalization of exclusion and indifference.” Speaking of what he believes to be problems universal to Latin America, he wishes, “May the cry of the excluded be heard in Latin America and throughout the world.” But who, I wonder, are they listening to?

It is true that the plight of the poor in Latin America can be tragic. Francis shared the harrowing stories he heard about people struggling to survive, lacking basic human rights and the means to support themselves. But it is not at all true that their voices have not been heard. As Sam Gregg recently pointed out, Latin American politics have been dominated by demagoguery for decades. And unfortunately the Pope’s own solutions to the problems of the poor are difficult to differentiate from the same protectionist populism that has kept so many in poverty in Latin America for so long.

Pope Francis boldly calls for “change, real change, structural change.” What change would Pope Francis like to see? He makes this clear: “It is an economy where human beings, in harmony with nature, structure the entire system of production and distribution in such a way that the abilities and needs of each individual find suitable expression in social life.” So far so good. Who doesn’t want that?

So what stands in the way, according to the pontiff?—“corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” Really?

Business, credit, trade, and fiscal responsibility are marks of healthy economies, not the problem, popular as it may be to denounce them. Indeed, these are also marks of economies that effectively care for “Mother Earth,” whose plight the Pope claims “the most important [task] facing us today.” That’s right, more important than the plight of the poor, to His Holiness, is the plight of trees, water, and lower animals.

That moral confusion aside, is there any way we could study what policies correlate with the Pope’s laudable goals? As it turns out, there is. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) ranks countries based upon an aggregate rating of economic growth, care for the environment, and health and living conditions—precisely the measures the Pope seems to care most about. Yet of the top 20 countries on the most recent HDI ranking, 18 also rank as “free” or “mostly free” on the most recent Heritage Index of Economic Freedom.

The only two exceptions were Liechtenstein, which wasn’t ranked at all by Heritage, and France, which was ranked 20th of the 20 according to the HDI, and which once was far more economically free. The takeaway? Nearly all of the top countries that have the sort of economies the Pope wants are also characterized by fiscal responsibility, openness to trade, accessible credit, and generally business-friendly environments. That is, precisely the policies that the pope decries.

Now, it might be unfair of me to criticize Francis for not being an economist . . . or, for that matter, not even being familiar with the basic conditions of economic growth taught in any Econ 101 course. At least he didn’t forget to mention Jesus. But it shouldn’t be controversial to say that he is still speaking outside of his competence and vocation. It is one thing to call attention to the moral roots of economic problems; it is another to pass judgment upon which prudential policies are the best means to moral ends.

Gone are the days of a pontiff who would only speak with great caution and nuance on such matters, and then in favor of, rather than against, the basic tenets of a free economy. As Pope John Paul II put it in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus:

Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

Acknowledging the answer to be complex, he cautiously answered yes, and rightly so, proposing that the free economy “ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World.” Too many of these countries, including in Latin America, are still yet to experience such freedom, however. And John Paul’s most recent successor isn’t helping them see what a help it could be.

Instead, while actual dictators, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and the Castro brothers in Cuba, sit at the head of Latin American countries, Francis prefers to denounce the “subtle dictatorship” of the economic freedom so few Latin Americans have been fortunate enough to enjoy. And it is for this reason, whether they know it or not, that the poor are excluded and cry out for justice.

It is not economic liberty but high taxes and overregulation that prop up “the domination of the big corporations” in Latin America. Only big corporations can afford to pay such taxes, hire the legal help to comply with such regulations, or otherwise bribe their way into business, undermining the rule of law. The profile of Latin America called Doing Business 2014 ranks it as one of the most difficult regions in the world to start a business. Bolivia, where the Pope decried the supposed evils of economic freedom, ranks 171 out of 189 countries in the world. Maduro’s Venezuela ranks 181.

The Pope is right to say, “This system runs counter to the plan of Jesus,” who came “to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). But he is wrong to identify that system with basic pillars of economic freedom. With the exception of Chile, economic freedom is just as scarce in Latin America as are other basic human rights, not to mention effective care for “Mother Earth.”

The poor there still wait for good news regarding their material circumstances, despite the Pope’s best intentions to spread a “globalization of hope.” He told the people there that they could take action themselves, and admirably so. But as long as their hands are tied by protectionist measures, and as long as popes and politicians continue to commend such policies to the people, I’m afraid they will excluded from the prosperity for which they hope.

Reader Discussion

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on July 14, 2015 at 10:15:17 am

[…] I have no objection to that, but what he seems to miss is that the very policies he criticizes all characterize those countries in the world that most closely resemble his goal. I write, […]

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Image of Pope Economically Confused in Bolivia | Acton PowerBlog
Pope Economically Confused in Bolivia | Acton PowerBlog
on July 14, 2015 at 10:26:23 am

Here follows a 2014 reaction to this trend from religious thinkers in South America, whose thinking *may* have some of the residuum of the "Liberation Theology" of their formative and seminary years. First the expression of that thinking, then the reaction.

Catholic social teaching, calls for “dealing with the structural causes of poverty and injustice.”

". . . the elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed." Cardinal Maradiaga, at the Catholic conference, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” (6/3/2014) Washington, D.C.

RRS (in reaction):

There are no "structural causes for poverty."

"Poverty," mere subsistence or less, even the failures of subsistence have been the beginning and end of much of human existence and experience. It has always been the beginning.

Sufficiency, which is the displacement of mere subsistence and of poverty, has been accomplished through human interactions with one another and their surroundings.

Where the conditions for those interactions have been optimal and occurred in the greatest conditions of freedom, abundance has accompanied sufficiency.

History is replete with examples of "structural obstacles" that have limited those conditions of freedom of interactions which could produce the sufficiency to displace poverty. They are with us everywhere today.

The "urgency" is to remove the structural obstacles to freedom of human interactions, without political direction or ideological determinations, before mankind's faith in its given nature to produce sufficiency is further weakened, requiring longer and harder efforts to regain the power of that nature.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on July 14, 2015 at 11:09:03 am

"That moral confusion aside, is there any way we could study what *policies* correlate with the Pope’s laudable goals? As it turns out, there is."

Consider that question again in the context of Mark 12:28-31 and all the way back to Leviticus 19-18 (I hope my citations are correct); which are probably loser to what Laudati Si implores than are "policies."

Direct care and concern of humans for one another, and to the extent of capacities, for all others, is for many, if not most, a matter of "moral" (oughtness) concern for which "policies," (transferring those concerns to governments, congregations and priests for performance) can not substitute; but may at best only supplement.

From a highly critical aspect, regardless of the degrees of moral motivations (or "good intentions") concentration on "policies" appears to result in transfers of responsibilities, intrusions into relationships and interference with the vast complex of human interactions in which concerns for one another can be met - morally for most.

Short version: You cannot "love thy neighbor as thyself" through any form of "policy."

Experience indicates that "policies" disrupt the conditions for the experience and expression of that "Love."

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on July 14, 2015 at 19:35:26 pm

To my previous accolades for you, let me add "biblical scholar" - nice synthesis.

BTW: In a different posting RRS made reference to "normative sociology"

Wonder if he would share some of those thoughts here as it would seem to help illustrate the *aspirational* nature of the Pope's policy prescriptions AND methodology.

BTW2: One wonders, does the Pope (and bishops) think that if they curry favor with this economic mumbo-jumbo that the Proggies will not maintain the pressure on them on SSM and abortion? More than likely the result will be the dilution of both your doctrinal discipline / cohesion AND the loss of your flock as had happened in many Mainline (nowadays Progressive) denominations.

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Image of gabe
gabe
on July 14, 2015 at 20:07:17 pm

The "Normative Sociology" was actually referred to, as I recall, by Arnold Kling whose articles appear at the sister site econlib.org.

It is lifted from the late Robert Nozick's well known "Anarchy, State and Utopia"
(p 247). Since I don't know how to enter the italics in the original text, I will block those words by * :

"Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems
*ought* to be, greatly fascinates all of us. If X is bad and Y which also is bad can be tied to X by a plausible story, it is very hard to resist the conclusion that one causes the other. We **want** one bad thing to be caused by another."

Poverty is bad.
Elements of materiality are bad.
Elements of materiality are the *cause* of poverty.
Commerce, business and corporations produce elements of materiality;
their "structures" cause poverty.

Thus it may seem some of the Catholic Bishops are inclined to be concerned with what they have concluded ** ought** to be the cause of poverty.

These are men of noble spirit and broad intellects whose wishes for mankind may lead them to forget that *ought* is not "is."

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on July 14, 2015 at 20:14:55 pm

sorry, in the quote above, "Normative" should have been italicized.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on July 14, 2015 at 20:33:41 pm

Oops! Breaking News:

The 10th Circuit just decreed that the Little Sisters of the Poor must provide contraceptive services. I guess this strategy of accommodation is going to pay real dividends:

http://hotair.com/archives/2015/07/14/10th-circuit-to-little-sisters-of-the-poor-comply-with-contraception-mandate/

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Image of gabe
gabe
on July 19, 2015 at 23:42:54 pm

[…] I wish Pope Francis knew about a free economy.  Francis denounces free economies, but has never experienced […]

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