In the west it is at Christmas more than any other time that we are called to remember all those who suffer under the burden of poverty. And now, in the mouth of Christmas, Time has announced that Pope Francis is the Man of the Year. A man who has uncompromisingly laid his cards on the table when it comes to the poor. He loves them and he wants more of them.
In a series of statements since his accession he has made clear his hostility to what he calls capitalism and the operation of the free market. The market, like sinful man, is a wild and savage beast that devours the weak and enriches the strong and the greedy. He has condemned those on the right who worship the market and believe it can provide humanity with the values it needs.
The problem is the Pope has no idea what the market is or what is it is for. The market is simply Wilde’s cynic. It knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And that perhaps is where Francis goes wrong. Like Smith and Marx before him he confuses price with value. But he should know better. It was after all Spanish Jesuits that first described the subjective nature of value.
I know of no conservative who thinks the market can tell her or him anything but the price of a good. Now be sure that is not a small thing but it is a long way from everything. Correct pricing allows for rational and efficient choices about investment, spending and use and distribution of scarce resources. It does not tell me that cheating at cards is wrong.
He in common with most leftists seems to believe that there is a correlation morally between free marketers and selfishness. To believe in freedom of the individual it seems is to reject the idea of society and decry the communal and cooperative action.
The cold universe of the Randian Objectivist may indeed be morally narcissistic and atomistic. A place where unattached and indivisible egos are the centre of a hostile cosmos. But this is the caricature of the position of conservatives and most libertarians. The sacrality of the individual lies at the heart of the Christian genius and liberal democracy. Francis would do well to remember that. The importance of the individual to the Right is not so I may assert that I –Ego- am the centre of the universe but that we are all separately and jointly the centres of all our moral universes. And in our universe we may be safe from power, coercion, theft and violence, be it of another individual or the awful violence of the State.
Empirically we know certain things, small and great. Of the small for example we know that conservatives in practice care more for the poor than others. They give more money. They give more time. They are more likely to be member of voluntary and community organisations. They are not greedy and selfish. They are altruistic and giving.
But there is a great thing we know and think Francis ought to know it too. If you want to reduce poverty, massively, radically, quickly, and permanently then get the market in to do the job, not some cabal of economists or politburo-crats. Those countries where the division is least between the rich and the poor are market economies. Those countries where the bottom quintiles have the highest standard of living are market economies. Those countries where the poorest have most access to education, to health care, to legal protection, to a good diet, to a long life, to freedom from corruption, to protection from violence, are market economies. Those countries where the poor are least likely to stay poor are market economies. Those countries which spend the most, by a massive difference, on relieving poverty at home and abroad are market economies.
It maybe simply easier for all involved to see poverty as something to be solved or relieved by lobbying governments rather than converting men’s hearts. To persuade a government to spend other people’s money is the work of an instant. To persuade a bad man to be good is very hard indeed. That is the wonderful thing about the market. Let it operate, let men act in freedom and wealth will fall on the good and the bad indifferently.
Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty by the choice of India and China to partially abandon their old planned approach to the economy. The single greatest leap forward for the biggest chunk of humanity ever took place in the great Victorian explosion of wealth creation. Which was by the way followed by the greatest explosion of private philanthropy seen since the middle ages. Hundreds and thousands of schools, hospitals, libraries, orphanages and universities were established and endowed by capitalists like Carnegie, Guinness, Rockefeller, Drexell and Vanderbilt. An honourable tradition carried on today by the likes of Bill Gates, Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett and Leonard Lauder. Men who give from choice not coercion. Is it really necessary to remind a pope that no moral act can be a forced act ?
It would be wrong to see philanthropy as the main contribution these men and others like them made to the betterment of the lives of the poor. When Rockefeller and the market drove down the price of Kerosene to one fifth of what it had been it had a massive positive effect on the lives of the poor. Now they could have light for one cent an hour. Which meant in winter their children could read and write, keep up with school work and ensure they would never need to worry about the price of a candle. Entrepreneurs and the free market make us all wealthy not just themselves. Look at the price of cars, TVs, laptops, fridges and air travel and see how much richer we are than our parents were. The first video player I ever saw cost over a thousand punts. The last dvd player I bought cost me forty nine euro. The market is transformative for not for the rich, but the poor. It has always been so. The rich can afford a little socialism, the poor cannot.
Millions of men women and children live on a dollar a day. The definition in 1990 prices of absolute poverty. None of them, none, not one, live in countries that have been historically Market economies. The gap between the rich and the poor in the old Second World of centrally planned economies was a vastly greater than that which pertained in the wild child eat their own young world of western market economies. The poorest people in Ireland today count as amongst the richest in the world.
If this pope is serious about caring about the poor and actually wants to reduce their number the he should take a couple of hours out his busy week to read about economics. About the world as it is and has been rather than the story he seems to have accepted without bothering to check the facts. The pope is an important man. When he speaks journalists pretend to listen. So he has a moral duty to speak from an informed mind and conscience. To that end I will send him a copy of Hazlitt’s ‘Economics in One Lesson’ as a Christmas present. If he applies himself I predict we maybe hearing some sense out him by Easter. Deo Volente.