It’s official: 2013 has been the Year of the Pope. The latest evidence? Time has named Francis its Person of the Year, noting that the pontiff, during his first nine months in office, “has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.” Indeed, the pope’s writings and public pronouncements reveal a deeply caring and passionate man who speaks from the heart. In Evangelii Gaudium, an “apostolic exhortation” released late last month, the pope bemoans inequality, poverty, and violence in the world.
But here’s the problem: The dystopian world that Francis describes, without citing a single statistic, is at odds with reality. In appealing to our fears and pessimism, the pope fails to acknowledge the scope and rapidity of human accomplishment—whether measured through declining global inequality and violence, or growing prosperity and life expectancy.
The thesis of Evangelii Gaudium is simple: “unbridled” capitalism has enriched a few, but failed the poor. “We have to remember,” he writes, “that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity.”
Just how free the free market really is today is debatable. The United States is perceived as the paragon of free-market capitalism. And yet over the last two decades, according to Wayne Crews of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington has issued 81,883 regulations—or nine per day. Maybe the marketplace should be regulated less, and maybe it should be regulated more. But unbridled it is not.
Moreover, the government redistributes some 40 percent of all wealth produced in America—up from 7 percent a century ago. Much of that wealth comes from the rich and pays for everything from defense and roads to healthcare and education, which are enjoyed by Americans from all income groups. The top 1 percent of income earners earned 19 percent of all income in 2010 and paid more than 38 percent of all income taxes. The top 10 percent paid more than 70 percent of all income taxes. Maybe the rich should contribute more, and maybe they should contribute less. But contribute they do—well in excess of the biblical tithe.
As for the negative consequences of “trickle-down” economics that the pope bemoans, let’s look at them in turn.
First, consider inequality. Academic researchers—from Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University, to Surjit Bhalla, formerly of the Brookings Institution and Rand Corporation, to Paolo Liberati of the University of Rome—all agree that global inequality is declining. That is because 2.6 billion people in China and India are richer than they used to be. Their economies are growing much faster than those of their Western counterparts, thus shrinking the income gap that opened at the dawn of industrialization in the 19th century, when the West took off and left much of the rest of the world behind.
Paradoxically, the shrinking of the global inequality gap was only possible after India and China abandoned their attempts to create equality through central planning. By allowing people to keep more of the money they earned, the Chinese and Indian governments incentivized people to create more wealth. Allowing inequality to increase at home, in other words, diminished inequality globally. And global inequality, surely, is the statistic that should most concern the leader of a global religion.