Although I am not a Roman Catholic, there is a lot I admire about Pope Francis. His devotion to God and his love for people is inspiring. Out of that devotion and love, the Pope demonstrates a deep concern for the poor and will often speak out against systems of economic oppression that bring great harm to the poor. Much like the prophets of ancient Israel, and much like John the Baptist and Jesus, Pope Francis uses strong words and imagery to draw attention to the ongoing plight of those who dwell in poverty.
Based on several of his comments, it seems as though the Pope believes one of the worst economic systems ever created is capitalism. He seems to share the view of many left-leaning intellectuals that free markets and the pursuit of profit have led to vast inequalities and injustice. The Pope referred to profits as “the dung of the devil” and later declared “inequality is the root of social evil.
There seems to be an ongoing perception among many that the economic system of capitalism is based on an appeal to human greed and selfishness. Thus, anyone who has done well in a capitalist economy is a lover of money who does not share with the poor and has grown wealthy on the backs of the poor. This inequality must be remedied by government; usually through higher taxes, regulations, and the creation of large-scale social welfare programs.
I admit that I am not a professional economist with a PhD from Harvard, but this negative description of capitalism seems to be more of a mischaracterization. Certainly, like any economic system, capitalism can be (and sometimes is) abused and misused by greedy individuals who climb to the top of the economic ladder while harming the environment and neglecting the basic dignity of workers. Some level of government regulation is good and necessary to prevent such abuses. But true capitalism is not founded upon the unbridled pursuit of profit. Capitalism is founded on the idea of providing goods and services that improve the lives of others, and offering those goods and services at an affordable price that still allows for a profit.
In a capitalist economy, the key to doing well is not to be greedy and selfish, but to find ways to meet needs and solve problems so that people will want to do business with you and laborers will want to work for you. Serving others and meeting needs is the basis for success in a capitalist economy. Individuals and businesses are compensated according to their ability to meet needs and solve problems for the largest number of people at a price that seems reasonable to the marketplace. This is something the Pope should celebrate and the Church should encourage. Capitalism is not about getting rich through oppression, it’s about adding value by meeting needs with goods and services in a free market economy.
The Church should continue to focus attention on the plight of the poor, but the real problem is not capitalism. The real problem is the way in which totalitarian regimes and corrupt governments stifle freedom, trample property rights, and fail to establish the rule of law in a meaningful way. If those issues are not addressed and remedied, then it doesn’t matter what kind of economic system you have, you’ll still end up with inequality, injustice, and widespread poverty.
While no nation and no economic system is perfect, free market capitalism combined with a stable democratic government can actually be a helpful tool to combat poverty. Just compare North Korea and South Korea, and you’ll see my point. When rightly understood and correctly practiced, capitalism has done more to reduce poverty than any other economic system, religion, or political system in the history of humankind. I would like to see religious leaders like the Pope spend less time condemning the wealth-creating power of capitalism, and more time harnessing that power to make a positive difference in a broken and hurting world.