Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pope Francis and Wrong Ideas

I am a great admirer of the Catholic Church, even though it has been under attack by the left and their media allies for decades. The child abuse scandal is the most recent of many failures during the Church’s 2000 years history. Popes have been less than infallible, the church has often been intolerant, cruel, self indulgent and power hungry. But none of that should be unexpected. The Church is made of men,  and men are by definition failed, even men of God. Therefore the institutions made of these men are failed as well. How could it be otherwise? However, failure does not mean evil. When all the church’s wrong doing is tallied, and there is a great deal of it, the sum total is tiny when compared to the massive good it has done for centuries.

For example…how many readers are aware that one third of all healthcare in the United States is provided by a Catholic institution. Imagine what that number would be if all the christian faiths were included. One quarter of healthcare worldwide is provided by the church. Education, adoption services, all manner of care for the poor and infirmed and other charitable works too numerous to name are staples of the church.

I could go on and on about their good works, but these are but a small part of what the church does for society. It works every day to provide a moral framework, a guide to life, teaching people how to maintain the important building blocks of self, the family, and community. There is no metric I know of to quantify this, but I do know we would be in a Hobbesian state of nature without it. The church is at the heart of our social structure, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and nourishing the mind and spirit. There are many valid arguments why moral behavior is self serving. But at the end of the day right for right’s sake is indispensable for a civil society, without which it would crumble into chaos. Teaching this through God and His goodness is the church’s raisnon d’ĂȘtre.

This is why I am distressed by the recent 84 page apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis. Some of what he says is insightful and of great value to us all. But much of it shows a complete blindness to economic and social history, and no understanding of the dynamics of either. He is seeking a Utopian dream instead of advocating capitalism, the only path for the material betterment of mankind.

The paper refers to unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny.” It criticizes the “idolatry of money” and beseeches politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare.” If ever there was an argument against papal infallibility, the certain abuses to come from these ideas would make a compelling case.

In the movie Wall Street Gordon Gekko said, “For lack of a better term, greed is good.” He was right. Instead of condemning greed and unfettered capitalism, the Pope should be condemning theft, fraud, misrepresentation and dishonesty in all its forms, but pursuing wealth through honest means should be celebrated. To condemn greed is to condemn most men’s call to greatness. Would the Pope condemn Beethoven for wanting to write great symphonies, Michelangelo’s want to create unfathomable beauty, or Newtons rewriting of the laws of physics? Was their push for the perfection of their craft a sin? If they pursued it seeking fame and fortune, was what they did any less valuable to society? Why then would the Pope condemn a man’s want to create more and more wealth? The creation of wealth is as important a public good as the works of any of the great men listed above. It rewards its creator, but it rewards society far more.

Bill Gates, his employees and shareholders made untold billions. But that is trivial when compared to what the people using his products made. His work lifted people out of poverty and improved the lives of everyone. None of the goodness Microsoft did could have been done without profits. The magnitude of those profits reflect the magnitude of what society gained. Walmart is the richest largest retailer in the world, making more money than probably the next 10 retailers combined. But the impoverished are the biggest beneficiaries of their high quality and low prices. Would Pope Francis want Walmart to cease operations? Profits are the life blood of these wealth producing machines. This is a debate about capitalism, unfettered as the Pope would say, and socialism, the anti-christ of economic prosperity.  

Look at history. In every case capitalism has fed the poor while socialism has created more of them.
Thanksgiving calls to mind one such example. The first arrivals here from England set up a socialist system in the Plymouth Colony of New England in 1623. It failed miserably. Food and other essentials were scarce and everyone suffered. Out of desperation the Governor switched to a free market system (privatized property, eliminated collective farming etc.) and the colony flourished. It produced more food and staples than could be consumed, and was the start of our great economic machine, the greatest  in history.

Chile was destitute in 1973 under it’s socialist system. Pinochet took over and changed it to a capitalist one and Chile quickly became the economic miracle of South America. Is there poverty still in Chile…of course. But far less than before, and everyone, even those still impoverished, are far better off than before. In 1945 under a capitalist system Argentina had a standard of living equal to France. Then the communists took over and a country blessed with more oil and minerals than most languished in economic purgatory. In China Mao Zedong promised Utopia to the people, but instead gave them poverty and death… 60 million to be exact. Stalin promised the same, and like Mao, delivered death, 80 million. Castro has promised a workers paradise for over 50 years but instead created a police state that survives on denial, lies, and locking its people in this impoverished island prison. Beacons of capitalism like Hong Kong and Singapore support their children, elderly and infirmed as well as any country on earth.

With this record why is the siren song of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia sung by many great men like Pope Francis? Utopia values the group over the individual, and assumes that everyone can be indoctrinated to share that perspective. This has never and will never be done. Man will always act in his own individual interest…period. The idea of working for the collective has wonderful outcomes in story books, but in the real world it always ends tragically. It is an unachievable fantasy.

The goals and aspirations of this apostolic exhortation are laudable. Who could disagree? But the Pope’s tacit endorsement of socialism and condemnation of capitalism has plotted a road not to those ends, but one that undermines what he is seeking to achieve. Socialism breeds tyranny, misery and death. Unfortunately, the Pope is a spokesman with a huge megaphone, and advocating for these ideas gives currency to those who appeal to the masses with impossible dreams, while leading them towards disaster.

The inequality of income the Pope condemns is a symptom of good, not evil. A healthy economy is an expanding universe. It is not, as the Popes statements and those on the Left suggest, finite. A finite economy requires someone to lose a dollar for every dollar someone else gains. There is no creation or destruction of wealth. That is not the real world. An expanding economic universe, which is real, increases wealth for everyone. Wealth production is greater for those at the top, but this concentration of wealth allows investment by those people creating even more wealth. That is a gift to us all. One just needs to think about the Microsoft and Walmart examples to understand. The same applies to every business, large or small. In this real world there are only two choices. We can expand the gap between those of great means and those of little, while raising both up, or reduce the gap, while driving both downward.

Wealth creation fuels new and better cures for illnesses, feeds more people, builds better housing for less money, protects the environment, and generally helps us all.  Capitalism works because that very greed that the Pope refers to (I would call it self interest), in a capitalist society is harnessed so that the “greedy” man’s interest and society’s interest are aligned. Henry Ford said, “A man gets rich thinking how much he can give for a dollar, not how little.”

The Pope’s paper suggests that we need a group of well intended politicians. We have a few, a very few. That is because self interest is a stronger force than altruism. I would suggest we might sooner find a benevolent dictator than politicians so disposed, with both being very unlikely.

A capitalist must entrust his survival to the consumer. That consumer votes with his dollars every day with every purchase. The capitalist can never relax and rest on his laurels, no matter how successful he has been. He must win every election every day by producing improved products for less money, for if he fails, if someone else does that job better than he, he will cease to exist. The magic of capitalism is its ability to direct mankind’s survival instinct in a way that works for us all. If only Pope Francis understood that.