As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is an esteemed faith leader and global religious icon. But an expert in one field doesn’t make an expert in another—and the pope’s understanding of economics leaves a lot to be desired, if his latest remarks are anything to go by.
Pope Francis recently made a statement on World Food Day that in effect blamed markets and capitalism for the persistence of world hunger.
“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,” he tweeted.
“We must adapt our socio-economic models so they have a human face, because many models have lost it,” the pope continued. “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.”
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. #WorldFoodDay— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) October 16, 2021
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:— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) October 16, 2021
The big food corporations to stop imposing monopolistic production and distribution structures that inflate prices and end up withholding bread from the hungry.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) October 16, 2021
In Pope Francis’s telling, the “cold logic of the market” is the main barrier to eliminating world hunger. But this argument betrays a woeful misunderstanding of how markets operate and how past achievements in reducing global poverty have been achieved.
“Free markets are arguably the single greatest tool to reduce poverty and create widely-shared abundance that mankind has yet discovered,” HumanProgress Managing Editor Chelsea Follett told me in an interview. “No country has ever become rich through charitable efforts alone.”
“Consider India, where the Catholic Church has done much admirable humanitarian work,” she continued. “In the 1970s, while Mother Theresa was helping to tend to that country’s poor, they were certainly in dire need, as over 67 percent of India’s children were underweight due to a lack of food. After India moved towards [freer markets] in the early 1990s, the country’s poverty rate plummeted. And the share of its children classified as underweight rapidly shrank, falling to around 30 percent in the most recent figures.”
So, too, Follett explained that competitive markets have fostered the technological innovation that has made food more abundant and more affordable.
But what about the current rise in food prices? Pope Francis isn’t wrong when he points out that food prices have gone up in the US and worldwide over the last year. Yet he gets the causality all wrong when he blames “big food corporations” and their supposed greed. (After all, the companies are no more or less greedy now than they were two years ago!)
Corporate greed is “not at all” to blame for the current rise in food prices, economist Alex Salter explained in an interview. “Food prices are rising due to surging demand and flagging supply. The only way to make sure there's as much food available as people want to buy is for prices to go up.”
“Remember, prices don't cause scarcity, they reveal scarcity,” he concluded. “Food would be even harder to get if companies didn't raise prices. We can talk about ways of helping the poor using redistribution, but blaming corporate greed is nonsensical.”
Meanwhile, Follett pointed out that the long-term trend in food prices is actually a story of rapidly increasing affordability.
“While the rise that we are currently seeing in food prices is worthy of attention, the long-term trend is heartening,” she said. “Over the last century, Americans have seen food become breathtakingly more affordable. So-called ‘corporate greed,’ in the form of food companies competing to offer consumers more options at lower prices, has helped to bring that about. Freedom to innovate and engage in market exchange is responsible for the long-term decline in food prices.”
Simply put, the pope is dead wrong about the root causes of global hunger and food inflation. It’s understandable that Pope Francis can’t be an expert in all things. But with such a massive platform and influential voice, he has an obligation to better inform himself before wading into economics affairs.
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