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Capitalism: The Anti-Poverty Miracle

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By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

Have you ever wished that you could corner Pope Francis and his advisers and question them about their hostility toward capitalism? I have. The Pope comes across as a good man, decent, kind, open to a free-wheeling discussion of the issues of the day, yet he seems to have a blind spot that leads him to judge capitalism by its shortcomings and socialism by its promotional literature.
Neither you nor I is likely to get a chance for a meeting like that, but Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, accomplished the next best thing. He placed an article in the Jesuits’ America magazine on February 20 entitled “Confessions of a Capitalist Convert” that could reshape the dialogue in the Catholic world about capitalism. Jesuit Pope, Jesuit publication: It is hard to image that Brooks’ article will not be a serious topic of discussion at the Vatican.
I am eagerly awaiting America’s letters-to-the editor section in the upcoming weeks. If the liberal Catholics who make up a significant portion of America’s readers want to engage honestly with what Brooks has to say, they will have to do more than trot out the familiar bromides about materialism and inequality being inherent to capitalism. It will come across as an intellectually dishonest attempt to change the topic if they do that, in light of Brooks’ reasoned and persuasive case for free markets and entrepreneurship.
It makes one wonder if America’s editors were aware of what they were doing when they agreed to publish the piece. My suspicion is that they will be getting lots of heat from longstanding allies and supporters in progressive circles for doing so.
Brooks is a convert to Catholicism as well as to capitalism. He was converted from Protestantism to Catholicism as a result of an encounter with the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe while in Mexico on a high school trip. His conversion to free-market theory came later in life, at a time when he shared what he calls the “moderately hostile predisposition” toward capitalism of many young Catholics who see themselves as advocates for social justice.
What changed his mind? He studied economics. What struck him in the course of his reading was that before the birth of capitalism “our ancestors had no concept of mass poverty” as “an acute social problem that cried out for remedies. Deprivation was simply the background condition for everyone.”
The world was once filled with serfs, peons, day laborers, hired hands, drawers of water, and hewers of wood. It was the lot of mankind. Then something happened.
“In just the last few hundred years,” Brooks writes, “that all changed for a few billion people,” not only in Europe and the United States, but also in much of the Third World. “Starvation-level poverty is now on the run. Since 1970, the fraction of the global population that survives on one dollar or less a day (adjusted for inflation) has shrunk by 80 percent. Since 1990, the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has collapsed by more than 50 percent. Life expectancy and literacy rates have steadily climbed.”
Economics “taught me that two billion of my brothers and sisters had escaped poverty in my own lifetime. This was a modern-day miracle. I had to find its source. Why did whole parts of the world cease to be poor for the first time in history?”
There will be many on the Catholic left who will not like Brooks’ answer, but here it is:
“Virtually all development economists, across the mainstream political spectrum, agreed on the core explanation. It was not the success of international organizations like the United Nations (as important as they are) nor benevolent foreign aid that pulled billions back from the brink of starvation. Rather, the responsibility lay with five interrelated forces that were in the midst of reshaping the worldwide economy: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and the culture of entrepreneurship. In short, it was the American free enterprise system, spreading around the world, that had effected this anti-poverty miracle.”
This conclusion led Brooks to see it as his “vocation” as a Catholic “to defend and improve the system that was achieving this miraculous result.”
I can hear some groaning out there on the left: “Come on: a ‘vocation’ to defend an economic system that results in exploitation of working men and women and shameful inequality?” Brooks stands his ground: “To begin with, we should remember that inequality is not necessarily a bad thing when the alternative is the equality of grinding poverty, which was the case in the previous centuries” before the birth of free-market capitalism.
Beyond that, he writes, “Most of the places with sky-high inequality are not bastions of unfettered free enterprise. According to the World Bank, while the United States has the 63rd highest level of income inequality in the world, Communist China is higher (57th place). Pope Francis’ native Argentina, characterized more by government edict and economic planning than free enterprise, is higher still (53rd).”
Moreover, Brooks continues, in Argentina and China, “it is impossible to miss that prosperity depends largely on political power and privilege, much more so than in the United States.” Indeed, the United States’ success in breaking the link between political cronyism and economic opportunity “goes a long way toward explaining why so many people are so eager to relocate here” from places like China and Argentina.
“Our country’s attractiveness to immigrants has persisted to this day, belying the idea that the United States is now some kind of plutocratic dystopia.”
Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are drawn to the United States because they believe that they are “exchanging ossified lives in permanently stratified societies for one in which hard work could more directly yield a measure of prosperity.”
But what about the greed and vulgarity found in capitalist countries? Brooks is aware of these things:
“I have lain awake worrying about the coarsening materialism of our society and American popular culture. . . . Is capitalism to blame? My conclusion is that it is not. Systems are fundamentally amoral. The forces that make up the free enterprise system are fundamentally content-neutral….In reality, like basically every human endeavor, capitalism as currently practiced contains a mixture of praiseworthy and damnable behavior. At root, then, what matters is the morality of those who participate in the system.”
Look around, he continues: “Anyone who traveled behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s (or China and Argentina today) has seen every bit as much human selfishness and greed on the part of the powerful and privileged….Free enterprise — which has brought so much good to billions of people — is not the culprit.” You don’t have to pinch yourself: These words are from an article in the pages of America.
The bottom line: Brooks argues that Catholics who are “tempted to consider different economic systems must remember that only free enterprise (accompanied by necessary regulation and proper social safety nets) has helped fulfill the noble anti-poverty goals of our faith for billions of people all around the world. Meanwhile, capitalism’s collectivist competitors, such as state socialism or Communism, have left a long trail of misery and tyranny and atheism.”

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