President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican yesterday. After the meeting, Obama said that he was “was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him [the Pope] about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded… And I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”
Later, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “Obama pointed to the Pope’s concern for income inequality, saying … ‘Given his great moral authority, when the Pope speaks it carries enormous weight.’ Continuing to focus on income inequality, Obama said, ‘And it isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a moral issue. I think the Pope was speaking to the danger that over time we grow accustomed to this kind of inequality and accept it as normal. But we can’t.’”
Writing in The Atlantic last December, I took issue with some of Pope Francis’ assertions about the state of the world, including income 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.
Similarly, in a recent ReasonTV video, I explained why more—rather than less—capitalism is good for the poor. Simply put, poor people in countries with more economic freedom earn a higher share of the national income and have higher per capita incomes than poor people in countries with less economic freedom.
If Pope Francis and President Obama want to help the world’s poorest people, they should advocate for:
- Free trade, so that African farmers and Asian tailors can sell their goods in Europe and America free of tariffs and quotas.
- Ending agricultural (and other) subsidies, which are the products of modern crony capitalism and benefit agricultural conglomerates and large corporations at the expense of everyone else.
- Property rights, so that poor people can gain title to their land and use it as collateral for borrowing.
- Privatization of education, water supply, health care and other supposedly public goods, which the corrupt and unaccountable governments in poor countries have underdelivered for decades.