‘Tis the season when many of us are swimming in the sea of excess. A few weeks after frantically trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and family members who already have everything they need, we’re back at the stores buying plastic bins to hold our holiday haul. After stuffing ourselves with cookies and bounteous meals we’re sucking in our stomachs and promising to lose those extra pounds. Some of us are swearing off alcohol or cigarettes or chocolate and vowing to live lives that are both simpler and healthier.
So Pope Francis’ recent remarks on global poverty have provoked emotional responses from people on both side of the wealth divide. Both the pontiff’s remarks and the issues they address are nuanced and complex and deserve similar serious treatment.
We should begin with acknowledgment of the good news in the global economic situation: Worldwide poverty is on the decline. Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution have studied the global economy and found the "rise of emerging economies has led to a dramatic fall in global poverty." They estimate between 2005 and 2010 the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010.
"Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history," Chandy and Gertz said. "Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time."
Poverty does, of course, still exist and in greater numbers than with which any feeling human being is comfortable. Its causes on both a national and global scale are many and diverse. It is not wholly the result of laziness on the part of the poor or greed and selfishness on the part of the rich. That some of those traits exist at both ends of the personal economic spectrum is true, but so do the traits of generosity, compassion and industriousness.
A society is comprised of individuals and each brings his or her own personal circumstances and responses to life experience to the economic table. Some of these reactions and actions will serve to uplift and strengthen both the individual and society, some will tear down. A large part of our challenge is to identify and encourage positive outcomes.
So Pope Francis’ admonition to world leaders to become involved in the redistribution of wealth was disappointingly one-dimensional. It was also most likely the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Time and again, studies indicate it is economic freedom, not government control, that best alleviates poverty and creates prosperous societies.
For almost 20 years Canada’s Fraser Institute has been studying the global economy and releasing an index of world economic freedom. The index measures the size and scope of government, adherence to the rule of law, access to sound money, freedom to trade internationally and the regulation of credit, labor and business. The institute has identified four cornerstones of economic freedom, which are: Personal choice rather than collective voice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets rather than allocation via the political process, freedom to enter and compete in markets, protections of persons and their property from aggression by others.
Nations whose governments honor the values embodied in the four cornerstones are consistently most prosperous, while nations with less freedom are also least prosperous. What’s more, the poor in the economically free nations are far better off financially than the middle class in nations with repressive economic systems.
In his remarks, the pontiff warned against "a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power," but then seemed to relinquish that power to the state, which he said was "charged with vigilance for the common good." Centuries of wars, man-caused famines and other atrocities bring into question the state’s ability to discern what is actually good for the people. Placing economic power in the hands of those whose actions have proven they do not deserve it seems the pinnacle of "crude and naive trust."
Haven’t volumes of history as well as uncomfortably recent scandals taught us that? Whether it is the targeting of people and political groups by the IRS, the massive collection of personal data by the NSA and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s possible involvement in punishing political enemies, don’t we have daily proof that for too many of our so-called leaders politics is a game of chess and we are the pawns?
Political power and economic power are all too often one and the same. Undesirable economic circumstances that are often blamed on capitalism are most often the result of collusion between those seeking political favor and those dispensing it.
A market that is dependent on government involvement is not free by any means. Governments should limit their roles to protecting people’s rights to interact and trade with each other peacefully. Power of any variety should be spread among as many people as possible, with individuals retaining the most with regards to the governance of their own lives.
Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.