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Pope Francis, Income Inequality, Poverty, and Capitalism

Guest Post:  Pope Francis, Income Equality, Poverty, and Capitalism  

By Nicolás Cachanosky

The criticisms of free markets in Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) have generated strong reactions around the world. One example is a recent post by Gregory Mankiw on his blog with brief but interesting reflections. Special attention was paid to the passage where the document criticizes the “trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” (p. 46).

First we must recognize that there may be possible semantic nuances that can lead to inaccurate interpretations because Evangelii Gaudiium is not an economic document and, certainly, the “prevailing economic system” is not exactly a blueprint for free market economies. However, the criticism of free markets is clear and presents a difficult challenge to suggest that the document does not refer, indeed, to free markets after arguing for “semantic nuances.” Secondly, I agree with Mankiw that “trickle-down” is not a technical term, much less a theory, and is a derogatory word used by the left and other groups critical of free markets. By using this phrase, the Pope inserts a negative bias against the free market; a neutral term would been a better choice of words. The terminological slip on economic issues in the document (an example of many) suggests the need for caution regarding the strong claims that the document puts forward on economic issues. Categorical statements in a document of this importance should be better supported and articulated. Imagine an economic document critical of the Church with a clear superficial use of the language of the discipline being criticized accompanied by adjectives such as “crude and naive.” Using imprecise definitions can make us see non-existent problems. Third, the effect produced by the Evangelii Gaudium on public opinion invites us to review some general indicators of social and economic welfare in countries that are more and less inclined to free markets. Is it true that the free market leaves the homeless and marginalized the less wealthy? How much truth and how much myth is in the so-widespread criticism of “evil capitalism”? What Pope Francis expresses is ultimately a reflection of a widespread belief across a number of sectors in most countries around the world.

It is easy to get an overview of the economic and social situation of more and less free market countries if we group them into four categories according to their economic freedom. This allows a gradient of results and to observe differences between more and less free countries. It is important to note that the data of all countries must be observed, and not chosen, for example, from only a few (more details here). This would allow both an advocate and a critic of free market to choose a couple of countries at their convenience. Is the entire sample, not ad hoc selection, what should be used as reference. Let us consider, then, some economic and social data from countries around the world according to their economic freedom.

The following graphs show the GDP per capita (PPP) [i.e. adjusted for cost of living] and the average 10-year growth rate for four groups of countries according to their economic freedom. As the graphs show, on average, the freest countries are not only richer, but also grow faster in the long run.

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