The free society has many adversaries hell bent on discrediting it. The most pervasive examples are found in government institutions, political circles, academia and media outlets. Arguments against freedom are fundamentally based on the fallacy that a select group of benevolent elitists can make informed decisions on behalf of the selfish, ignorant masses.
Although businesses are often the target of government control, the free society encompasses more than economic institutions. There are countless, non-governmental organizations that provide services to our community, whether educational, spiritual or otherwise.
In fact, charitable donations in America in 2012 totaled over $316 billion, which is larger than the entire economy of Denmark, Chile, Israel, Egypt or Greece (and 151 other countries).
As of last week, Pope Francis joined the ranks of the outspoken utopian propagandists. As a Catholic and supporter of its ministries, I was flabbergasted.
I found it ironic that the leader of an organization, whose ministries are supported by the free society itself, would attack the foundation on which it was built.
Stated differently, incentives created by free markets produce the wealth necessary to support the church and its philanthropy.
Its educational institutions, like Bishop Dunne High School where I attended, successfully operate in troubled communities, offering opportunity, encouragement and inspiration to individuals that would otherwise be largely dismissed. Without the generosity of the free society, its doors would close.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world…This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth, nor is there anything but overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.
Consider the undisputed economic history of America. Billions of people around the world have been lifted out of abject poverty, directly as the result of its innovation and productivity that continues to spread globally to the present day.
Freedom and innovation not only create new goods and services, but make existing ones more plentiful and dramatically more affordable to the average person. Nations engaging in trade also rarely war with one another, as economic interdependence creates a disincentive to kill each other.
The progress made by Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are the most recent examples of progress following transitions away from tyranny to largely freer markets, both politically and economically.
Free markets are more equitable precisely because there is no central authority ‘wielding power’.
“We have created new idols…The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…bare are their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption…[People have] calmly accepted (the) dominion of money over themselves and society, [which was] expressed in the recent financial crisis and the continuing promotion of consumer-based economies…”
Are there economies of another kind?
The platitudes of the Pope are reminiscent of socialist dictators, who have used government coercion as a remedy for the alleged injustices of the ‘free market’ and its ‘inequality’, while dismissing the wealth and prosperity it creates.
They claim that economic inequality is produced by free markets, and that global wealth is fixed. As a result, the wealthy are impugned because they wrongfully created their fortune by taking from others. As a consequence, a benevolent government must correct the imbalance through ‘equitable redistribution’.
The simple fact is that global wealth is not fixed. And in the freest markets, wealth is largely acquired through voluntary cooperation, not by accident, theft, fraud or force.
Neither greed nor the failure of the ‘free market’ caused the financial crisis. It has been thoroughly documented that numerous government institutions subsidized poor investments. Additionally, regulatory agencies responsible for preventing systemic overleveraging rubber stamped the excessive risk taken by financial firms. In other words, the government oversaw and approved of the reckless behavior that created insolvency.
The financial panic was a failure of government coercion and central economic planning, not freedom.
History has proven that the utopian world-view has not resulted in a greater degree of prosperity, social justice or equality, but rather equality of another kind; one of oppression, misery and despair…except for those lucky enough to be in power.
I do believe the Pope to be sincere when he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.”
And in that context, I couldn’t agree more. In my judgment, the debate revolves around how best we get there.
Update: Below is the complete context of Pope Francis’ comments.
(The entire exhortation can be found HERE)
I. Some challenges of today’s world
52. In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occuring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.