Leading up to Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States, there was much consternation — and in some circles, celebration — about some of his recent statements, particularly with regard to capitalism. As a Roman Catholic American who leans right and is a big fan of capitalism, I certainly struggled with trying to square the circle, if you will.
Then I went to Mass last Sunday night and got some needed clarification in the form of a homily that had nothing to do with capitalism. What we’re all too quick to do, the priest said, is to parse every statement we hear and try to assign it to political ideology. The problem is that the pope is not in the political ideology business.
Pope Francis, the priest explained, is in the business of spreading the teachings of Jesus through the gospels and encouraging people to live a life based on those teachings. And that helped me understand that the pope doesn’t necessarily see capitalism writ large as an evil of the world; rather, in the pope’s mind, how capitalism is implemented and how its benefits are shared will determine its value.
I don’t think anyone would reasonably argue that capitalism is perfect, that crony capitalism doesn’t run rampant and that the system doesn’t take advantage of people. But conversely, there is also no denying that the free enterprise system — capitalism’s finest form — can be an incredible force for good.
For example, take a look at what capitalism has done to improve an issue near and dear to all those who profess to be Christian: poverty.
A 2013 report from the American Enterprise Institute, citing statistics from the private nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, showed an incredible decline in abject poverty around the world. In 1970, nearly 27 percent of the world’s population lived in the worst poverty, earning $1 or less per day. By 2006, that number was down to 5.4 percent — an eye-popping 80 percent decrease.
As AEI President Arthur Brooks proclaimed in a video that accompanied the report, “It’s the greatest achievement in human history, and you never hear about it. Eighty percent of the world’s worst poverty has been eradicated in less than 40 years. That has never, ever happened before.”
And it didn’t happen through the goodness of governments around the world or excessive regulatory action or massive amounts of U.S. foreign aid. But the U.S. most definitely played a role — by exporting its form of capitalism.
“It was globalization, free trade, the boom in international entrepreneurship,” Brooks said. “In short, it was the free enterprise system, American style, which is our gift to the world.”
Think back to the mid-1980s, when terrible famine was ravaging Ethiopia and images were splashed across TV screens and in newspapers worldwide. Then look at a report from The World Bank released this past January, noting that poverty in Ethiopia dropped 33 percent from 2000 to 2014. The report credited high and consistent economic growth, and noted that since 2005, agricultural growth — in a country once overrun by hunger — was responsible for a reduction in poverty of 4 percent per year.
I believe all the above numbers are ones Pope Francis would appreciate.
Now, is there still plenty of work to be done — God’s work, as the pope would say? Absolutely. But capitalism can and should play a role in that effort, as Brooks — himself a devout Roman Catholic — staunchly proclaims in the video.
“I will state, assert and defend the statement that if you love the poor, if you are a good Samaritan, you must stand for the free enterprise system, and you must defend it, not just for ourselves but for people around the world,” he said. “It is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.”
Indeed. If you do as Brooks says, working to help the least of your brothers and sisters, you can square that circle and find favor with Pope Francis.
Patrick Everson (email@example.com) is an editorial writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickCEverson