If only Pope Francis were in my Buenos Aires taxi last Christmas.
I could have used his moral authority (and Argentine-accented Spanish) in negotiating with a driver who’d forgotten the “Golden Rule.” And in witnessing my struggle, the self-described “very allergic to economics” pontiff might have gleaned a moral lesson, helping him Think Again about the free enterprise system he’s criticized.
Perhaps he’d grasp why the life-enhancing innovations that America continuously exports – cars, vaccinations, refrigerators, iPhones, 3-D printers, and the cheap and reliable taxi-alternative Uber, for which I longed – don’t happen in Argentina.
Nor do they spring from other Latin American countries, like Venezuela where a protest sign encapsulated people’s contempt for the social-justice espousing frauds who run many Latin nations: “These Castro-Chavistas speak like Marx, govern like Stalin, and live like Rockefeller, while the people suffer.”
Would His Holiness recognize how Argentina’s corporatism – the unholy alliance between government and conglomerates – corrodes social trust, rendering his countrymen voiceless and crucifying their wellbeing and dignity?
After successive governments eroded the rule of law, property rights, and sound money, replacing free enterprise with central planning and a debt-financed welfare state, Argentina slid toward the bottom of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.
Once the world’s breadbasket and fourth-richest nation per-capita – hence the saying “rich as an Argentine” – the Pope’s native land is now a basket case with economic wellbeing (GDP per-capita) only one-third America’s.
If the Holy Father had heard our cabdriver despair over widespread deprivation, corruption and distrust of everyone except the pontiff, might he agree with fellow rock-star Bono about how to lift up the masses? “In dealing with poverty,” Bono stresses, “welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure.”
The patient is mending, the World Bank reported: For the first time in history, extreme poverty afflicts less than 10 percent of world population. Meanwhile, people in economically freer countries enjoy higher living standards, cleaner environments, longer lives, and better-protected civil rights. They also have less corruption, child labor and unemployment.
In his new book, “The Conservative Heart,” American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks calls the free enterprise system “America’s gift to the world,” enabling more people to pursue their happiness through earned success derived from work.
“It was the free enterprise system that not only attracted millions of the world’s poor to our shores and gave them lives of dignity, but also empowered billions more worldwide to pull themselves out of poverty,” Brooks asserts.
At home, however, America’s asymmetric recovery “has cleaved the country into winners and losers like never before,” he writes. Consequently, Americans fear our free society’s trademarks – opportunity and social mobility – are disappearing, imperiling our children’s security and prosperity.
We may be better off than Argentines, but with median income down 6.5 percent since 2007, record numbers out of the workforce, poverty and government dependency rates at all-time highs, and deaths of small businesses (job creation’s primary engine) exceeding starts for the first time on record, it feels like we’re slouching toward Argentina.
While Wall Street and Silicon Valley have boomed, the richest and most generous nation on earth contains pockets of destitution and immiseration – like Baltimore – where millions are deprived of the dignity and fulfillment of work.
Brooks’ snapshot of the last seven years is “deja-vu all over again,” Argentine-style: “People see corporate cronies getting rich because of their cozy relationship with the government. They see bailouts for huge banks but small businesses going bust. They see government loan guarantees for big companies with friends in high places, but hear ‘No loans for you’ from their local bank.”
Ranked among the world’s most economically free nations for decades, America has fallen to 16 in Fraser’s Index, due to these unfair government policies. Consequently, US annual growth is projected to be half its 3 percent historic average.
That His Holiness is unaware of the relationship between economic freedom and human flourishing is a sin, though not original. After all, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sins similarly, arguing for greater government control of our lives, even at the expense of economic growth.
“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants,” Sanders declared, “when children are hungry in this country” – as if narrowing deodorant choice could decrease hunger.
The truth is, poverty is humanity’s natural state, and free enterprise is the most merciful economic system yet designed for moving people toward productive and dignified lives. No central planner exists who’s capable of improving on the endless autonomous decisions made efficiently, creatively and cooperatively in the free market, as if divinely guided.
Think Again – as long as we enjoy the blessings of economic freedom, we have the choice not to attend the Pope Francis & Bernie Sanders School of Economics where the tuition is free, but extraordinarily costly, as my Argentine cabbie would confirm.