Reading the new exhortation by Pope Francis after the wildly misleading presentations of it by the Guardian and Reuters (both from the left side of the U.K. press), and reading it with an American ear for language, I was at first amazed at how partisan and empirically unfounded were five or six of its sentences.
But reading the exhortation in full in its English translation, and reading it through the eyes of a professor-bishop-pope who grew up in Argentina, I began to have more sympathy for the phrases used by Pope Francis.
For one thing, I have closely studied the early writings of Pope John Paul II, which grew out of long experience of an oppressive Communist regime that pretended to be wholly devoted to “equality,” yet enforced total control over polity, economy, and culture by a thorough and cruel state. From 1940 (under the Nazi/Soviet occupation) until 1978 (when he moved to the Vatican), Karol Wojtyla had virtually no experience of a capitalist economy and a democratic/republican polity. To come to understand the concepts behind that sort of political economy, he had to listen closely and learn a quite different vocabulary.
The early experiences of these two popes were very different. So, having spent not a little time lecturing in Argentina and in Chile since the late 1970s, I read the entire exhortation with an ear for echoes of daily economic and political life in Argentina.
In my visits to Argentina, I observed a far sharper divide between the upper middle class and the poor than any I had experienced in America. In Argentina I saw very few paths by which the poor could rise out of poverty. In the U.S., many of those who are now rich or middle class had come to America (or their parents had) dirt poor, many of us not speaking English, with minimal schooling, and with mainly menial skills. But before us lay many paths upward. As Peru’s Hernando de Soto stresses, the U.S. had the rule of law and clear property rights, on which one could safely build over generations.
Virtually all my acquaintances while I was growing up had experienced early poverty. Our grandfathers were garment workers, steelworkers, store clerks, gardeners, handymen, blue-collar workers of all sorts, without social insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, or the like. But they labored and somehow were able to send their children to colleges and universities. Now their children are doctors, lawyers, professors, editors, and owners of small businesses all over the country.
In his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith compared the economic history of Latin America with that of North America. He noted that in Latin America there were still many institutions of feudal Europe — large landholders, plantations, plantation workers. In North America, only the southern United States was something like that.
Throughout Latin America, for almost two centuries at the time Smith wrote, many economic powers and permissions were doled out by government officials in far-off Spain or Portugal. In the Dominican Republic, for example, a farmer who wanted to build a small iron foundry had to wait months or years until a decision came back from Spain. Trading with pirates was easier. In the English-speaking colonies of North America, however, a farmer could just build his foundry without asking anybody. And even after the various Latin American countries achieved independence, habits of state direction were still entrenched, as if by immemorial habit.
Besides, experience in the Anglosphere had led to a distrust of monarchs and their courts, and later of barons and dukes and the aristocracy as a whole, since these people could not be counted on either to see or to serve the common good. By contrast, the opposite habit of mind had grown throughout the Latin world. There, officials of the state were regularly entrusted with minding the common good, despite a long record of official betrayals of duty, outbreaks of tyranny, and the use of economic resources to enrich successive leaders of the state. In Latin America, the pluralistic private sector was mistrusted, but not the state.
By contrast, in the U.S., under a government strictly limited by law, there grew up almost universal property ownership by individuals (except under the evil institution of slavery, America’s primal sin), a large swath of small enterprises, and a huge base of prospering small farms. Smith described the creation of wealth in North America as welling up from below, from the prosperity at the bottom, where frugal habits led to wise investments in railroads, canals, and other large business corporations.
Less than 70 years after Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a son of the frontier farm country of central Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, spoke eloquently about the evidences of global trade visible in homes across the prairie — tobacco, cotton, spices, whiskey, sugar, tea, glassware, silverware. He attributed this enprospering trade to the daring of American seamen (as Tocqueville also did).
Lincoln also wrote about the patent-and-copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed to inventors the right to the monetary fruit of their inventions. Lincoln thought this small clause one of the six greatest contributions to liberty in the history of the world. He thought it critical to liberating human beings everywhere from misery and tyranny.