Economic & Semantic Ignorance: It Rolls Downhill

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Acton’s Power Blog covered yet another piece on Pope Francis’ salvo against the free market today in the run-up to his meeting with President Obama, and the theme is quite familiar: “Pope Francis is not an economist or technocrat laying out policy…”

It seems as though this is now a magic incantation by which anything and everything a person says about economics becomes acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy. I could be grateful for the fact that there is a subtle implication here: if an actual economist were to say the things about free markets that Francis said, he wouldn’t have much credibility left as an economist.

The plain truth here is that whether or not a person is an economist has nothing to do with the actual nature of the statements they make. Let’s take a look at what Francis himself said in a follow-up interview to Evangelii Guadium:

I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view…

With all due respect, these are testable claims about empirical reality. “But what happens instead, is…” Yes, that is an empirical statement. An attempt to “give a picture of what is going on” is an attempt to explain reality. There’s no way out of it: these are “technical” statements, their lack of details or any evidence of systematic economic training notwithstanding. (I’m familiar with the translation controversies too – none of them help his case) Moreover, they are simply false. The world’s poor have benefited immensely from the globalization and liberalization of economies; according to the World Bank, in spite of a 59% increase in population in the developing world, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day) has fallen from 50% to 21% in the last 30 years.

The piece reviewed by the Acton blog highlights the absence of private property rights in the world’s poorest countries. Without private property rights and a stable legal framework, there is no “free market”; there is arbitrary political and social intervention into private economic activity, not to mention the instability of constant regional warfare, and thus little incentive to engage in any sort of entrepreneurship. “Economic growth, encouraged by a free market” – what Francis says doesn’t work – is precisely what is missing in the world’s poorest regions. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the countries mentioned in the Acton blog, noted for their lack of private property rights, also exist in regions that present the greatest challenges in terms of poverty reduction as reported by the World Bank.

In the end, the defense, “I was not speaking from a technical point of view” is utterly meaningless. It is nothing more than an excuse to say what one pleases, regardless of its accuracy.Then Cardinal Ratzinger put it best in 1985: ” A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality.” I do not accuse Francis of explicitly wanting to dispense with technical knowledge, but a familiarity with global trends in income, poverty, quality of life, and other important indicators of human well-being ought to inform empirical statements about reality.

Wealth is not the only thing that trickles down, in the end. Ignorance and misconception do as well. Every anti-capitalist and his mother was encouraged by Francis’ “non-techincal” statements. Hopes are high that Francis and Obama will come to some sort of mutual accord over wealth inequality as well. It would be great if the real sources of illegitimate wealth disparities could be addressed and eliminated: corporate subsidies, trillion-dollar bailouts as large as our national GDP, intellectual property laws, bloated public-sector salaries and pensions, and so on. But since all of that would mean targeting Obama and the rest of the ruling establishment’s friends and family, it will be legitimate businesses that profit in the marketplace and the hard work of professionals and entrepreneurs that are targeted as the great cause of global poverty in our time. People who become fabulously wealthy at the government trough needn’t worry, only those who make their fortunes satisfying other people’s needs and wants.

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  1. I take comfort in the fact that the Vatican could not run an economy more worsely than it runs its bank.

    The following likely does not apply to the Pope, but to his American adulators.

    “Before WWI, America had private monopolies controlled by the dreaded ‘Robber Barons.’ Since WWII, monopolies have been controlled by bureaucrats in Washington.

    Fred Siegel, in his 2013 book about the modern roots of American liberalism, “The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism has Undermined the Middle Class,” notes:
    “[L]iberalism began as a fervent reaction to wartime Wilsonian Progressivism, and it took its current cultural shape in the 1920s well before the Great Depression came crashing down on the country. It was the seminal 1920s that the strong strain of snobbery, so pervasive among today’s gentry liberals, first defined the then nascent ideology of liberalism.

    “Liberalism is anti-business and anti-democratic. It despises the small town business ethic which drove too much of American life. In its place was a heroic model populated by elite experts, writers and social scientists who fundamentally distrust the public and place great confidence in the ‘leading role’ of the state, to borrow the Marxist term. The scorn and fear generated among liberals by the Tea Party movement illustrates the basic contempt that liberals hold for the common man and the American middle class.”

  2. [I]f an actual economist were to say the things about free markets that Francis said, he wouldn’t have much credibility left as an economist.

    But he would have his very own column in the New York Times!

  3. “satisfying other people’s needs and wants.” Social Justice is satisfying other people’s needs to survive and it is a virtue. Social Justice is giving to the poor what is theirs in Justice. Satisfying other peoples’ wants is not social Justice. It is a free will gift. Money taken by taxes for satisfying other peoples’ wants in not charity. Involuntary “charity” or “social Justice” is taxation without representation and extortion.

  4. “It seems as though this is now a magic incantation by which anything and everything a person says about economics becomes acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy.”

    – perfect.

  5. Pope Francis has no excuse for being this ignorant about economics. There’s a book written by a famous South American economist that explain why capitalism works in some places and doesn’t work in others. “The Mystery Of Capital” by Hernando De Soto has been in print for years, and he’s very well known in South America. It’s incomprehensible that the Holy Father doesn’t know about this book. If he does know about it, I believe he chooses to ignore it.

    Another book I’ll mention that will give some valuable insights into Pope Francis’s life and career is “Francis A Pope For Our Time The Definite Biography” by Luis Rosales and Daniel Olivera. These men are Argentine nationals and have followed Francis’s career for many years. These guy love Francis, so this book is basically a love letter to him. But this “letter” reveals a lot about the man who became Pope. One of the things they mention is rather disturbing to me. That thing is the influence that Peronism and Communism had on the Pope while he was growing up. Shockingly enough, a communist by the name of Esther Ballestrino de Careaga was a great influence on Jorge Bergoglio from the time he was sixteen. He had a friendship with her that lasted until her death in 1972. This friendship, along with the Peronism, is probably the reason why his ideas on economics are so faulty.

    Another good source for information on our current Pope is Most of the information on Jorge Bergoglio career and life has been in Italian or Spanish. The lady who runs this site is a Cuban named de Stuart, and she translates many articles and parts of articles about Francis into English. I’d advise the readers of TAC to go to and bookmark this site, because we can only understand the man who became our pope by seeing him in the soil he sprouted from, grew up in , and became a man in.

  6. “Economic & Semantic Ignorance: It Rolls Downhill”

    This is a new twist for me. I always was taught and observed that s*#t, mostly floated!

  7. I wish I am something erudite and profound to say. Sadly I do not, and even more sadly I am very disappointed in Pope Francis. He is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and there is a reason that the Holy Spirit had him ascend the Seat of St. Peter. But he knows little to nothing about economics and worse, he is unaware of his own ignorance in these matters.


  8. Stephen E Dalton on Thursday, March 27, A.D. 2014 at 7:31am Pope Francis has no excuse for being this ignorant about economics.

    I must agree Stephen. I would add to the Holy Father’s reading list Centesimus Annus. To speak ‘technically’ under the prudential rubric carries with it an obligation to speak in an informed manner….or the humility to speak not at all.

  9. Paul, just to be clear — there is no Catholic teaching that suggests that papal selections or elections are divinely inspired. The Church is protected against an infallible teaching that is erroneous, no more. We’ve had some incredibly bad popes — the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with it.

    cthemfly25, I agree completely. CA’s counsel should have wider currency. Most Americans feel free to speak passionately and freely, unencumbered by information, facts, or reflection.

  10. Upon reading my last post I fear I should clarify — my comment to cthemfly25 was completely unrelated to my comment to Paul.

  11. The Holy Father is a product of his enviornment. Argentina has almost always been a turbulent country, politically and economically. Argentina has a population larger than Canada and had the world’s seventh largest economy in the year 1900, less than a century after becoming independent of Spain.

    Apparently Cardinal Bergoglio did little travel – or none – outside his home diocese and thus has little exposure to other parts of the world. Wojtyla and Ratzinger traveled a lot before becoming cardinals.

    Other than his words, the most troubling part of the current papacy is the resurgence of the “catholic” radicals. The next most troubling is the treatment and words directed at traditional Catholics, including the FFI.

    The Church hierarchy has historically shown a fragile grasp at economic thought. As earlier put, the Vatican Bank is often proof that a 7 year old with a lemonade stand in July could run a business better than the Curia.

  12. “It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children.” Pope Pius XI Quadragesimo Anno

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