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Was the Pope’s Criticism of Trickle-Down Economics Mistranslated?


It seems so. A blogging priest, Father John Zuhlsdorf, points out a problem with the English translation of maybe the most contentious passage in the pope’s first apostolic exhortation (via Jim Pethokoukis and Ryan Ellis):

Let us assume that the original composition was Spanish:

54. En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del «derrame», que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.

Official English…

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

Over at the other post a commentator pointed out that the official English rendering of EG 54 makes Spanish “por si’ mismo” into “inevitably”, but that it really means “by itself”.

Let’s swap in the “by itself” and read it again.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories ["trickle down economics"] which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will by itself succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

There is a big difference between “inevitably” and “by itself”! . . .

But the real point here is that in EG 54 the author says that “trickle down” economics cannot by itself produce the desired result.

That is, of course, correct.

No economic plan will solve the problems of the poor by itself.  Economic plans must be carried out by people who have good, solid morals and values.

I submit that these morals and values must be rooted in religion.

The assumption that the original composition in Spanish isn’t ironclad — Francis’s mother tongue is of course Spanish, but most of the people working with him on the text would be native Italian speakers, and the Holy Father has given most of his public speeches in Italian (breaking with Pope Benedict, for one, who jumped around linguistically). The French versions, regardless, seem to match up with the Spanish interpretation: In French, we have “en soi,” and in Italian, “per sé” (the cognate of the Latin “per se,” “through/by itself”). It’s hard to say which translation should be most authoritative, and there isn’t a Latin translation yet. While a Latin version may be forthcoming, Pope Benedict’s last two apostolic exhortations weren’t released in Latin.

But given three other translations, it seems that something is indeed awry with the “inevitably” interpretation. And Father Zuhlsdorf, and Pope Francis, are of course correct that free markets — or “trickle-down economics” — by themselves are obviously not sufficient for a just and inclusive society. This seems like a relatively uncontroversial proposition. In fact, it’s not a condemnation of free-market economics so much as it is a recognition of the limits of economics per se.

Some have taken issue with the pope’s use of an apparently pejorative term “trickle down,” but by the apparently clearer translation, the views of diehard evangelists of the free market aren’t really being caricatured. It would be good if the pope would also chide those who put too much faith in the ability of command-and-control economics to build a just society, too, of course, but the context here is important.

The pope’s discussion in this section (c. 54) is about how Catholics should respond to the overwhelming changes that have come to the world “in our time” (presumably the 20th century, especially its second half), which have made many richer and more secure, but left many impoverished and suffering. Those (on net beneficial) changes, as free marketeers would surely agree, are not the product of command-and-control economics, but of free markets.

The pope is arguing that freer markets haven’t so far brought us a properly just, caring society, and “in our time,” society has in many ways grown coarser, crueler, and more violent — so Catholics cannot advocate free markets per se. Some proponents of free markets may take issue with that sentiment; most would not.

What then should supplement and humanize economics? Perhaps a Gospel of Joy — that would be what the other 220-odd pages of the encyclical is about.


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