Pope Francis’s Failure to See Entrepreneurs as Good Samaritans Undercuts the Poor

On April 25, a videotaped talk by Pope Francis was released at the international TED conference in Vancouver, Canada. The 18-minute talk, titled “Why the Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone,” can be viewed here.

Francis highlighted three themes, beginning with the observation that community is central to human existence:

[L]ife flows through our relations with others. . . . [E]ach and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions. . . . [W]e all need each other, none of us is an island, an autonomous and independent “I,” separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.

A better future is attainable, Francis said, but only if “we don’t lock our door to the outside world.” Peaceful social interactions are key to healthy communities and strong societies.

Next, Francis stressed the moral responsibility of every person to put themselves in the place of others, to see the world through their eyes, and to help those who are less fortunate. This “solidarity” of mankind, the pope explained, was exhibited by the Good Samaritan in the Bible who personally sacrificed to help a stranger in need who was found along a dirt road. As the parable relates, the Good Samaritan displayed true compassion by sacrificing his time, effort, and money to help.

Francis hopes that solidarity will become the “default attitude in political, economic, and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries.” He views the story of the Good Samaritan as the story of today’s humanity, where “thousands of human beings, or entire populations, [are being left] on the side of the road. Fortunately, there are also those who are creating a new world by taking care of the other, even out of their own pockets.”

Finally, Francis urged people in power to “act humbly”:

Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other. There is a saying in Argentina: “Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.” You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness.

The themes in Francis’s TED talk are very much in the tradition of classical liberalism: community, open social interactions, helping others, and humble, transparent institutions. What is troubling about Pope Francis is that he spends much of his time traveling around the world advocating for policies that undermine these goals.

Since becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th bishop of Rome in March 2013, Pope Francis has endorsed a larger and more powerful role for governments around the world and for international organizations. As Hayeon Carol Park and I show in “Pope Francis, Capitalism, and Private Charitable Giving” (part of a special symposium of The Independent Review titled “Pope Francis and Economics,” Winter 2017), Francis frequently lambastes capitalism and calls for more government redistribution of wealth and property, aided by international organizations to facilitate these transfers.

Rather than “humble” institutions, Francis calls for centralized governments and international bodies to act with hubris, replacing their plans and values for those of individuals in developing countries. The government-coerced-redistribution model favored by Francis has left a trail of tears and destruction everywhere it is pursued. Foreign aid generally props up dictatorial and kleptocratic governments that murder and steal from their own people. Governmental and multinational spending often is used to bail out cronies of corrupt government authorities for failed business and banking ventures, at the expense of the “discarded people,” as Francis calls them.

William Easterly demonstrates convincingly that even as foreign aid into Africa soared during the 1980s and 1990s, African economies performed worse. He thus writes in his book The White Man’s Burden, “Remember, aid cannot achieve the end of poverty. Only homegrown development based on the dynamism of individuals and firms in free markets can do that.”

The most effective path to lifting people from poverty by the millions is decentralized market-based entrepreneurship. Francis does not recognize that what he advocates around the world undermines the core institutions of capitalism needed for this process to work successfully.

His call to weaken private-property rights and decrease economic freedom results in slower economic growth, and shrinks the surplus that people use to start new businesses, hire more employees, and engage in effective private charitable giving. Unfortunately, the approach Francis advocates generally results in more human suffering, not less, thus undercutting his call to help the poor. He does not see the contradiction between his TED talk and his actions around the world to strengthen government power and undermine entrepreneurship.

Fortunately, Francis’s TED talk hints at the most effective approach to lifting people out of poverty, which is market-based entrepreneurship. Francis said, correctly:

The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.”

This aptly describes the entrepreneur, who dedicates his or her life to solving problems faced by others, and invests and risks his or her own time, effort, and money for the good of others. Entrepreneurs are true Good Samaritans.

Francis challenged each of us to be part of the solution, “to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” Again, this describes the entrepreneur, who is alert to other people’s unmet wants and seeks ways to satisfy these wants (see, for example, the classic 1973 book Competition and Entrepreneurship by Israel Kirzner). Most of the time, entrepreneurs are humble, toiling scattered around the world and often losing their investments in ideas that don’t pan out (the exception being entrepreneurs under crony capitalism and other forms of corrupt governments who are bailed out by governments—the “gin” at work).

Francis said:

[T]he future does have a name, and its name is hope. . . . Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree. . . . A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you.

This again describes the entrepreneur, an individual with a dream that turns into an idea which becomes reality and transforms the world for the better. Entrepreneurs create the future, or, as Francis would say, they create “a new world.” Whether it is defeating diseases or improving transportation or advancing communications or providing better water or sewage systems, entrepreneurs, not governments, are responsible for the great leaps forward—they are responsible for the hope. History demonstrates that governments tend to destroy hope, both with weapons and with obstacles to innovation.

The most effective anti-poverty program is a job. The most effective development strategy is sustained private investment by market-based entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, Pope Francis undercuts both with his worldwide crusade against capitalism.