Good News, Pope Francis

The media has exploded over Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation. In it, he denounced social and economic inequality, which he declared are “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” and “trickle-down theories.”1 The media hailed it as an anti-capitalist proclamation, while virtually ignoring other important factors like his attack on abortion.2 While some are seeing Francis’ remarks as radical, it is virtually the same message found in, say, the exhortations of John XXIII (1961) or Leo XIII (1891). This just reinforces Nathaniel’s point in his post “Meet the New Catholicism, Same as the Old Catholicism.”

But I have some good news for Pope Francis and the media: things have been getting better for some time. The world isn’t quite on its way to hell in a handbasket. Furthermore, it was the “autonomy of the marketplace” that achieved one of the major Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty five years early. And as I’ve noted before, global inequality is actually decreasing. A brand new study supports past research by demonstrating that–though inequality is still high and increasing within countries (not just in America)–global inequality has seen an unprecedented decline.

(Above graph provided by GMU’s Robin Hanson)

This is not to say that all is well. There is much, much more to be done. But these are positive trends; trends that caused one journalist to declare 2012 (at the dawn of 2013) the best year ever. We have seen incredible progress over the past couple centuries. If we want to address social ills like those Pope Francis spoke of, we should look to those policies (and yes, ideologies) that have made these positive trends possible.

4 thoughts on “Good News, Pope Francis”

  1. Nice post, Walker.

    Regarding Sowell’s complaint about trickle-down theories being non-existent, I agree that the term is often used to argue “against a caricature,” as Sowell puts it. However, to be sure that Sowell’s point isn’t used to do the same thing (viz., argue that trickle-down theories don’t refer to any serious theories or theorists), I think it’s helpful to name a few names.

    When I hear “trickle-down theories” I think of names like Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Douglass North, Joseph Schumpeter, Fama French, and, well, Thomas Sowell himself.

    In a sentence, I think all of these writers can be defending a broadly utilitarian(/consequentialist) logic building on Friedman’ idea that the ethical responsibility of managers is to maximize shareholder value because, well, a rising-tide lifts all boats (to use a commonly used inversion of the trickle-down argument…).

    Also, regarding inequality, you don’t argue this explicitly, but I worry your reference to reduced global inequality implicitly rests on the idea that all inequality is equal (sorry for this wordplay, I’ve been reading some postmodern stuff recently…). I take the idea that we are to care for our neighbor in a fairly literal sense — that in our efforts to use scarce resources to care for the poor and downtrodden, we are to prioritize those with whom we come into literal contact with over a more abstract idea (e.g., “global poverty”).
    This follow-up question about inequality is, of course, a whole other bag of worms, but I’d be esp. interested in hearing your thoughts sometime (a follow-up post) on how we should weigh the relative tradeoffs. That is, to try and pose the question a bit more specifically, if not provocatively: “If giving my marginal dollar abroad would most likely be more efficient than giving to the beggar in front of me, should I deny the beggar in front of me? How should I deal with this tension?”

  2. Robert –

    Thanks for stopping by! As for “trickle-down,” I’m aware that it is associated with market-oriented policies and the economists who support them. While goods and services that were once the privilege of the wealthy elite becoming common place could be described as “trickle-down,” I think a more accurate description is simply the rise in living standards. As for Friedman’s views on corporate social responsibility, I don’t think this accurately describes markets or his complete ideology (he also clarified his position decades later).

    As for “global poverty” and “global inequality,” Pope Francis was making a global address. Thus, speaking in global terms seems appropriate. The data I provided show that millions of flesh-and-blood human beings have been raised out of grinding poverty worldwide due to economic growth via globalized markets (I hope you hit the links I provided in the post). This is closing the income gap worldwide.

    As to your question, I think it makes the assumption that money transfers are the *only* way to help the poor. While immediate assistance is important in many cases (e.g. food for the starving, medicine for epidemics, etc.), your marginal dollar abroad or to the beggar will pretty much accomplish nothing. It will not permanently raise their standard of living above the poverty line. However, we sure feel good about ourselves, Christian even, when we give a panhandler money. But that’s about as far as it goes. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give our marginal dollar (I’ve never denied money to someone on the street). I am saying that if we are really concerned for the poor, our thinking needs to go beyond that.

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