Pope Francis, Michelle Bachelet and the market

Michelle Bachelet, after winning the runoff for Chile’s presidency this month.
Michelle Bachelet, after winning the runoff for Chile’s presidency this month.

Pope Francis has given his version of the market. It is very negative. He titled it Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel.” It says that capitalism kills, whereas it is evident that, in the past two centuries, political freedoms, the market economy and private enterprise combined have improved and substantially extended the lives of people.

Before the industrial revolution, the lives of men, Hobbes stated, were “solitary, poor, dirty, brutal and short.” Thanks to liberal democracy and the drive of entrepreneurs, it ceased to be that.

Francis even quotes St. John Chrisostom, a golden-tongued 4th-century archbishop who was the worst anti-Semite of the ancient Christian world, and appropriates a judgmental phrase: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

In the words of Argentine economist Alberto Benegas Lynch: Is Francis inciting the poor in Italy to raid the treasures of the Vatican with that argument against property rights?

Francis says: “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.

“Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

Oddly, without referring to it, Francis implicitly rejects the encyclical Centesimus Annus proclaimed by John Paul II in 1991 after the collapse of communism.

The Polish pope was an outspoken apologist of the market, perhaps because he had lived through Marxist collectivism, or maybe because he was under the powerful intellectual influence of his adviser Michael Novak, author of that extraordinary book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Because almost everyone is a child of his or her circumstances, the Argentine pope is a detractor of the market. He grew up hearing Peronist gobbledygook on economic issues, although the Peronists don’t like him very much and some unfairly accuse him of collusion with the military dictatorship.

In any case, it is very difficult to reach adulthood amid the noise and fury of populism without displaying scars and deformities.

In the long run, which pope does one follow? Let the Catholics deal with that dilemma. I am an agnostic, thank God.

Michelle Bachelet, who also is an agnostic, is not far behind Pope Francis in her rejection of the market, however.

Both share the suspicion that that malignant way to assign goods and resources is responsible for the pockets of poverty in the world, and especially for the inequality seen in Chile.

She is going to redistribute wealth, because she doesn’t believe — as Francis doesn’t — that economic growth spontaneously reduces the gap between the rich and the poor.

Let’s accept this with some melancholy: Latin America is mostly populist. As a whole, Latin American society is closer to the ideas of Pope Francis and Michelle Bachelet than to those of us who believe that the market, rather than public officials or political commissars, is the economic tool that reduces poverty and creates and redistributes wealth in a manner that’s less imperfect and better adjusted to morality.

Chile demonstrates this precisely. At least, that’s the opinion of Norwegian expert Erik Solheim, chairman of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], who points to that country as an example of the reduction of poverty in Latin America. In 25 years, the Chilean poverty rate fell from 46 percent to 14 percent, and the nation rose to the head of the entire region.

It is true that Chile, according to the Gini Index, is a very unequal country, where the wealthiest 10 percent earn 35 times more money than the poorest 10 percent, but that detail does not reveal the entire complexity of the inequality.

The world’s least unequal country is Azerbaijan. Jamaica and Sierra Leone have better inequality indices than the United States and Chile. So what? Egalitarianism is a perverse mirage that leads to collective misery.

If you don’t think so, ask the Chinese who lived through the terrible Maoist era. Or the Cubans.

Better yet, ask Raúl Castro.

© Firmas Press

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