Published in the New York Post
As President Obama prepares to meet the pope this week, the dominant theme from the White House will most likely be the two men’s supposedly shared vision for fighting poverty and inequality.
While Pope Francis’ exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, generated excitement from the left and consternation among free marketers from a few passages on economics, it’s a mistake to see the pope through a political lens.
Pope Francis is not an economist or technocrat laying out policy; nor does he see the government as the primary solution to all of our problems. He is a pastor exhorting us to take seriously the “joy of the Gospel” and to integrate it into every aspect of our lives, including economics.
I think it is fair to say that some of the pope’s words on economics lacked precision, yet his comments about the corrosive effects of consumerism and the exclusion of the poor are incisive.
In many countries “masses of people” do in fact “find themselves excluded and marginalized .?.?. without any means of escape.” It’s true the news is more preoccupied with the stock market than the fate of a homeless person. Human beings often are viewed as a “consumer good to be used and discarded,” a point attested to by the rise in human trafficking.
Further, the pope doesn’t say the free market can’t create economic growth. He says it’s a mistake to think that economic growth alone will bring “justice and inclusiveness in the world.” And he’s right. Justice and inclusiveness require personal acts of love. Benedict XVI said a similar thing about the limits of the state. (Somehow I doubt the president would embrace this idea.)
Now I am not trying to spin the pope or suggest that he’s friendly to free markets. Clearly he’s a skeptic. And that is unfortunate, because a free and competitive economy has much to offer the poor — specifically the inclusion the Pope desires.
As I read the pope’s words I thought of the many people I interviewed for PovertyCure (an international network seeking to foster opportunity in the developing world).
In La Cava, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, I spoke with a pastor and a local city councilman. They explained that within La Cava there is no private property, and no rule of law. The police don’t even go inside, but only drive around the perimeter.
Crime is rampant, but there is no law to protect them. Most people are hard working. They want jobs; they want to build businesses and be part of broader circles of exchange so they can provide for their families. But they are trapped. They live outside the law.
Joshua Omoga, a Kenyan shop owner who lives in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, tells a similar story. After years of trying to find work, he borrowed several dollars from a friend and now sells vegetables from the tiny shop attached to his house. He’d like to grow his business, but in Kibera there is virtually no titled property, so he cannot register his business. He is trapped in the “informal economy.”
These are examples not of domination by the free market, but of exclusion from it. Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse echoes Pope Francis’ words about exclusion: “You are stuck in a hole in a village with all your skills and all your talents, and that’s just unfortunately the way it is.?.?. The people here are not stupid, they’re just disconnected from global trade.”
It sounds counterintuitive, but free exchange is especially important for the “outcasts” and “leftovers,” precisely because they lack the political, economic and social contacts needed to navigate a system dominated by big business, powerful interest groups and entrenched bureaucracy.
The pope is correct that a free market cannot by itself bring about justice and inclusiveness. A myopic focus on economic growth can make us lose sight of “the primacy of the human person.” And yet, free, competitive economies can help create the conditions for human flourishing by enabling people to create prosperity for their families and communities.
Pope Francis is right that we must “have an ever-watchful scrutiny of the sign of the times” and that markets unhinged from morality can be corrosive. But there is another side of the story, one that is humanizing, and that fosters inclusiveness and the creative capacity of the poor. It’s a beautiful story, and we who support the free economy need to tell it better.