Monday, April 23, 2007

Medieval thinking permeats Papal book.

In a couple of weeks the English edition of Pope Benedict's new book is to hit the market, itself a bit amusing, since he has a little hissy fit in the book about markets.

Catholicism is often a religion that is firmly stuck in medieval thinking. Even now there is no shortage of Catholics, especially those of the Mel Gibson variety, who have a perception of Jews firmed rooted in the thinking of the Dark Ages. And the reality is that Catholic thinking regarding economics has hardly made any progress at all. I am aware there are some market advocates who are intent on selling the theory that the Vatican is a champion of markets but this does not seem to be the case and never has been. It appears to me, at least, more an attempt for them to reconcile their religious presumptions with their economic knowledge than a useful analysis of what Vatican officials actually think.

Benedict doesn’t even seem to grasp the fundamental nature of markets in any sense of the word. He writes: “Confronted with the abuse of economic power, with the cruelty of capitalism that degrades man into merchandise, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and we understand in new way what Jesus intended in warning us about wealth.”

Of course it should be noted that the man lives in a palace, is chauffeured around the world, has servants, cooks and I sincerely doubt he ever scrubs his own toilet. Whatever dangers wealth provides it apparently doesn’t touch him and his jewels, his limos, and his palace. I know that Catholics will argue these things belong to the church. But surely if wealth is dangerous it is dangerous to the church as well as to businessmen. Throughout history the Papal power has quite voraciously accumulated wealth for itself while preaching to their followers that wealth itself is inherently bad.

Many people do take Papal discussions seriously. And while I sometimes attended Catholic Mass as a child I was not raised a Catholic and these day I’m a proud secularist without the tinge of religion. But I always found it odd that we should give any credence to Papal discussions on economics. And I did so for the same reason that I thought it absurd to listen to self-proclaimed celibates regarding sex.

So, this man who has comforts in life far beyond those of even many millionaires, is preaching to the world about the dangers of wealth. A man who has never had to earn a living in the marketplace preaches about the evils of markets and a man who allegedly has never had sex is considered a major authority on human sexuality. It is hard for me to take any of that seriously.

That the man gets his facts wrong is hardly surprising. It wouldn’t be the first time. According to the Washington Post: “Benedict decries how the wealthy have ‘plundered’ Africa and the Third World both materially and spiritually, through colonialism. He criticizes lifestyles of the wealthy, citing ‘victims of drugs, of human trafficking, of sexual tourism, people destroyed on the inside, who are empty despite the abundance of material goods.”

His caricature of the wealthy is as crude as the traditional Catholic caricature of Jews. The only difference is that many people think it fine to resort to such offensive attacks on the wealthy of the world.

If the wealthy plundered Africa through colonialism why was Africa richer then, than it is today? Don’t assume I support colonialism. I don’t. It was stupid and costly. It did some dumb and dangerous things. It established centralized governments and drew nonsensical borders both of which created the incentives for continual conflict. But the reality is that much of Africa was better off under colonial rule than they are today. What was poured into those countries from the West exceeded what was taken out.

What is worse is that Benedict is giving comfort to every tyrant and despot in Africa. Men like Mugabe have used the “colonial” card constantly. Mugabe destroys his own people and the claims that “colonialism” is to blame. It is pure rubbish. Colonialism in Africa died decades ago. Nor does it explain why former colonies around the world do extremely well for themselves. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, were all under colonial rule. The miseries in Africa are, for the most part, inflicted by dictators and Benedict has just handed those monsters another tool to use to oppress their own people. He is not only economically illiterate but foolish.

What Benedict ignores is that the funds that were poured into Africa came from one set of pockets and the wealth that was taken out was placed into another set. Colonialism did redistribute wealth but it was from the pockets of taxpayers in the colonial powers and into the pockets of the owners of those enterprises favored by the governments. That is not a feature of capitalism but mercantilism. Plundering “wealth” from Africa is like taking away the sight of the blind. It had no wealth to speak of.

It surely was a odd form of plundering. Colonial powers walked into a region where the average life span was abysmally low and where the accumulated wealth of the average person was a hut, some crude utensils and not much else. Medical care didn’t exist only attempts at using magic. There was no infrastructure of any kind in most of Africa. There certainly were some areas that had trade and so forth. But the standard of living was shockingly bad.

What was taken out? For the most part resources that weren’t being used by the locals. The indigenous people were not engaged in a diamond trade that was stolen from them. The gold mines were not ripped from their possession. Even Mugabe’s hated “white farmers” of Zimbabwe cleared land that had not been farmed before and created the farms that fed the nation well until Mugabe nationalized the farms and imposed famine on his people.

Africa is not poor because it was “plundered” as the Pope seems to fantasize. It was poor long before the first colonial power appeared on the scene. Wealth began dramatically increasing for the “poor” during the colonial era. After “liberation” most African countries went backwards in economic terms with poverty increasing. Only in recent years have there been a few bright spots on the African continent.

Oddly those bright sparks seem to be in nations that implement policies more in line with capitalism. The anti-capitalist nations are the ones with the worst poverty. If capitalism is impoverishing Africa the Pope will have to explain why the most capitalist countries in Africa are prospering.

Benedict’s idea that the wealthy are plundering the Third World through drugs, human trafficking, sex slavery and the likes sounds he’s been watching too many late night American TV dramas. I’m surprised he didn’t say that the wealthy are drugging people and harvesting their kidneys.

The reality is that the wealthy of the world don’t rush off to the Third World to sell cocaine to people who have no money. Very, very, very few people engage in “sex tourism”. And last I heard one of the prime locations for “sex tourism” was the impoverished, Third World city of Amsterdam.

Benedict decries the “cruelty of capitalism”. The rich in the non-capitalist world, outside the tiny ruling elite, do less well than the middle class in the West. The poor of America live lives that would be considered upper middle class in much of the Third World. Western trade with the Third World is relatively small and ought to be increased. Trade produces wealth, it doesn’t destroy wealth. Free trade requires an exchange where all parties to the exchange benefit otherwise they would not make that change. And what the people of Africa want is more trade not less. There is more support for capitalism in the typical African village then there is in the College of Cardinals.

Benedict seems to believe that wealth is a zero sum game. That the only way for one person to gain wealth is for another to lose it. Consider that at one point virtually the entire world was poor. If wealth is merely a redistribution of existing wealth then how did wealth come into existence in the first place? Wealth is created and the creation of wealth must always precede the distribution of wealth.

Americans don’t have automobiles because they plundered them from Third World indigenous peoples, as Marxist and the Pope would like to think. They have cars because individuals discovered how to produce cars and then established factors in the West to produce those cars. And what started as a luxury in the West is now a relatively common sight in the Third World.

On more than one occasion I’ve driven though one of the vast rural settlements of Africa. And while the homes might be extremely modest, even poor, by Western standards I was surprised at how many cars were parked outside. And the more insecure the property rights the worse the home and the better the car. When governments, such as Mugabe’s, routinely destroy these settlements, people don’t invest in housing but will invest in property they can move, such as a car.

This is not to say there has been no injustice done by individuals from the West to individuals in the Third World. But the “West” as some sort of collective entity has not. Nor have the “wealthy” as some collective entity. Again this sort of crude thinking should have died with the Dark Ages. If Mr. Bernstein acted badly his actions were attributed to Jews as a collective body. If Cecil Rhodes acted badly it is the fault of the West or the “wealthy”. This sort of scapegoating is beneath the Pope. It is the sort of thinking that oppressed Europe for centuries. It is crude, cruel and just plain stupid.

Photo: The little Vatican trinket in the photo is a model of a church made from gold and platinum. What was the danger of wealth again?

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