In his latest exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis made the bold claim that the issue of poverty is morally on par with the issue of abortion — that the lives of the impoverished are “equally sacred” as the lives of the unborn.
This statement ruffled some feathers in the pro-life movement, but an earnest believer should have no problem with it.
True pro-lifers care about all human persons, from conception to natural death, and poverty is one of the worst scourges on humanity (roughly 36 million people will die from hunger this year).
My problem with the statement is that Pope Francis, like so many other caring souls, has fallen victim to the inevitable lure of the socialist mentality. He assumes that government is the only solution poverty and that those who oppose the monopoly of force are immoral.
Libertarianism, for instance, is the political philosophy that posits no one — not even a well-intentioned bureaucrat — has the right to initiate force against another human being.
In Pope Francis’s ill-gotten criticism of libertarianism, he calls it an “anti-social” philosophy that “minimizes the common good,” for the sake of individual reward.
He states that, “Libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good, since on the one hand it presupposes that the very idea of ‘common’ implies the constriction of at least some individuals, on the other that the notion of ‘good’ deprives the liberty of its essence.”
Pope Francis’s was not the first official of the Catholic Church to attack libertarianism. Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga said in 2014, “The libertarianism [sic] deregulation of the market is much to the disadvantage of the poor.”
Libertarianism, to him and skeptical believers like Pope Francis, is for money-grubbing libertines, not for caring people who want to help the poor and who have the common good in mind when they vote.
But what these clerics (and many other bleeding-heart Christians) fail to realize is that the libertarian free-market system is the best one possible, not just for the one percent, but for the poorest of the poor.
While off-shoots of libertarianism (such as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) certainly oppose the concepts of charity and altruism and while libertarian Austrian economics is not overtly intended to benefit the poor or the common good, many libertarians hold the common good as the highest political end and the paradoxical result of the selfishness of libertarianism is that it actually benefits the common good — much more than the alternative economic philosophy of socialism.
Pope Francis fails to understand that the primary value in libertarianism is not liberty; it is the non-aggression principle, which boils down to “the initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property is inherently illegitimate.”
Libertarians seek freedom, but only insofar as it is not harmful to another’s natural rights: my freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose. In a true libertarian system, one doesn’t have the right to harm even one person, let alone the broader population. And despite what the Pontiff and other anti-libertarian Christians may think, libertarianism is rooted in the theology of the Catholic School of Salamanca, and not Ayn Rand, and is the basis of the free-market economic system.
Pope Francis would probably argue that that’s the problem. The free market allows for people to be filthy rich while simultaneously leaving others to starve to death. It allows for — perhaps even encourages — individualistic greed and promotes inequality so that others suffer. As he says in his letter, libertarianism leads to the conclusion that, “each has the ‘right’ to expand to where its power allows it even at the price of exclusion and marginalization of the majority more vulnerable.” And as he says in his exhortation, “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”
But as the brilliant free-market economist Milton Friedman would counter, what society doesn’t run on greed? In what society is there no inequality? Even the most socialist economies in the history of the world (USSR, Maoist China, and modern Venezuela and North Korea) run on greed and have disastrous wealth inequality. It is impossible to remove greed from humanity and you don’t eliminate inequality through socialism, you just ensure that everyone is less wealthy.
The ardent socialists say that socialism is the only means to achieve the common good, but the opposite is true: only when you acknowledge the rights of everyone, can the common good be achieved.
Socialism says some rights (fictitious or otherwise) of some people are more important for society. Libertarianism says that all rights of all people must be respected.
And the result of libertarian principles applied specifically to economic systems is a rising living standard for everyone, including the poorest of the poor. Sure, free markets create the ludicrously wealthy Jeff Bezoses and William Buffetts of the world, but no economic system in the history of the Earth has been better at redistributing wealth from those who have to those in need than the free-market.
Time and time again, this is proven to be the case in practical application. Every time you separate a population into more and less economically free, you get the same results. West Germany prospered exponentially more than East; South Korea flourished infinitely more than their neighbors to the North; and Hong Kong’s economy was in another galaxy compared to mainland China’s. Free economies increase the standard of living for everyone. As a result, free-market capitalism has helped bring over a billion people out of poverty in the last 40 years. This is more than any institution — including the Catholic Church — can say for itself.
I have no reason to doubt the earnestness of Pope Francis in his desire to help the poor. I am skeptical of his economics, however. As a scientist, he should respect data and the data on free markets are clear. If you really care about the poor, you must support free markets.
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