The Pope's economics would move the world back to medieval mass starvation

Pope Francis as he leads the Christmas night Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica in 2017. | Reuters/ Tony Gentile

Many people are confused about how the West can be so rich and much of the rest of the world so poor. On World Food Day, Pope Francis blamed markets and capitalism. 

“The fight against hunger demands we overcome the cold logic of the market, which is greedily focused on mere economic profit and the reduction of food to a commodity, and strengthening the logic of solidarity.

We must adapt our socio-economic models so they have a human face, because many models have lost it. Thinking about these situations, in God’s name I want to ask… The big food corporations to stop imposing monopolistic production and distribution structures that inflate prices and end up withholding bread from the hungry.”

Dr. Thomas Woods, also a Catholic, argues in his book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy that the Pope enjoys infallibility in matters of theology and morality, but not science, according to Catholic doctrine. If he did, we wouldn’t need scientists. We could just ask the Pope to solve all scientific problems. Since economics is a science, the Pope has no more insight into it than does any layman. Catholics still must study economics in order to understand how the world works, just like Protestants.

If the Pope understood economic history, he would know that the world was poorer than Haiti from prehistory until the advent of capitalism in the 17th century when standards of living began to rise for the first time in human history, but only in the Dutch Republic, a Protestant country. Later, England and its colonies followed. 

How did the Dutch break the Malthusian cycles of famine and mass starvation that had plagued mankind for millennia? They implemented the economic doctrines distilled from the Bible by the Catholic theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain, in the 16th century. As a result, the Dutch outlawed the former “honorable” ways to gain wealth through looting in war and kidnapping for ransom. They prevented the nobility from using the courts to steal from the common people. And they created free markets and limited government. In other words, they instantiated capitalism. 

The Pope should know that the Catholic church at the time of the Industrial Revolution owned a third of all land in Europe, because wealthy people had given land to the church to help the poor for centuries. Yet, the charity of the Catholic church did not lift people out of poverty. Europeans were as poor at the launch of the Industrial Revolution as they had been 10,000 years earlier. 

The Dutch launched the Industrial Revolution by using peat and wind power to mass manufacture goods for the masses. They became rich and powerful because they produced more of the things that people wanted to buy at cheaper prices.

People are poor because they produce very little of what anyone wants to buy. They produce so little because they have poor tools, knowledge and skills. For example, women farm most of the land in the world using a short-handled hoe. They can farm at most an acre or two and will use most of the produce to feed their families and have nothing left over to sell in the market for other goods. 

Advancing to the cutting-edge technology of 5000 B.C., a team of oxen, would allow farmers to work 20 acres of land and produce far more food with a surplus to sell in the market so they can buy other necessities, such as clothing. Deploying mules would empower farmers to work 40 acres. Small tractors would enable them to farm 100 acres with less effort than is required for a team of oxen. So why don’t they? 

Envy is the main problem. Around the turn of the century, the United Nations tried to give oxen to farmers in Uganda to improve their productivity, but the farmers refused. The farmers said that others in the community would envy them for having oxen and would steal, butcher and eat them. Also, many Africans fear that envious people will use magic to cast spells on them and possibly kill them. 

Before 1900, this planet could not feed more than one billion people. Starvation from famines was common and kept the world population below that level. Today, the earth’s population is almost eight billion and famines are rare. How can we feed eight times as many people as we did a little more than a century ago? Capitalism and markets, the things Pope Francis despises, are the reason. 

So clearly, the poor need more charity, right? They do, but it will not lift them out of poverty as the Catholic Church proved throughout its history. Also, the poorest nations on the planet, such as Haiti and Tanzania, have received enough charity in the past 50 years to make every citizen a millionaire. Yet they’re still poor. 

The Pope needs to learn from the many nations that leaped from starvation to wealth since World War II, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile and most recently, China and India. According to the World Bank, China and India have lifted over 500 million people from starvation to relative riches in the past generation, not through charity, but through freer markets. 

Freer markets encourage businesspeople to invest in new and better ways of making things that others want to buy and enrich the sellers and the buyers. In that way, they serve their neighbors. And doesn’t the Pope want to encourage serving others, which lifts people out of poverty?

Roger D. McKinney lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife, Jeanie. He has three children and six grandchildren. He earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Oklahoma and B.A.s from the University of Tulsa and Baptist Bible College.  He has written two books, Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, and articles for the Affluent Christian Investor, the Foundation for Economic Education, The Mises Institute, the American Institute for Economic Research and Townhall Finance. Previous articles can be found at He is a conservative Baptist and promoter of the Austrian school of economics.

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