Pope Francis no Prophet on Profit

Pope Francis

Last month, Pope Francis, worldwide leader of the Catholic Church, in an address to a United Nations conference on nutrition, declared that food is a basic human right that should not be driven by profit concerns and market manipulations.

With all due respect to His Holiness, he has it exactly backward. The more important something is to basic human existence, the wiser we are to allow it to be provided by the free market. Because, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once noted, if you put the government in charge of the desert, within five years there would be a shortage of sand.

This is not an abstract, philosophical position. Just look at the nations that have followed the Pope’s advice, where governments have taken control of food production in the name of administering the precious commodity equitably. Russia, under the governance of the former Soviet Union, saw millions of its citizens either malnourished or dying of starvation, despite having land which contained among the world’s richest natural resources.

Zimbabwe was once a net exporter of food and grains, providing abundant nutrition for its own people with enough left over to ship off to other countries in need. Then, following the takeover by brutal dictator Robert Mugabe, whites were forced off their farms under threat of death, and those farms were handed over to black Zimbabweans with little knowledge or capacity to run the farms. Within a two-year period from 2001-2003, Zimbabwe went from exporting excess grain to having to import literally thousands of tons of food, with more than half the population suffering from starvation. When the farms were being operated for profit there was abundance, but when the profit motive was killed off, the abundance died with it.

Food is a commodity and a necessity, but it is neither a natural nor a constitutional right. A right is a power or privilege you possess by virtue of your birth as a child of the Creator; it is unalienable. It requires nothing of anyone else other than to let you act as you wish so long as you do not violate their rights.

That is why you have a right to free speech, but that right does not require the newspaper to print your ranting, nor radio or television to broadcast it. You have a right to free assembly, but not a right to a free gathering place. You have a right to keep and bear arms, but no right to force someone else to provide you a firearm. Food production, like health care, energy production, and water purification and delivery, is essential to a healthy life. All of these require the specialized knowledge, skills, and implements of those that spent years learning their craft in their respective fields. There is a lot of cost associated with that.

Those who claim a “right” to food, or energy, or health care seem not to understand the nature of rights. Their alleged “right” imposes an obligation and cost on those who provide it, regardless of ability to pay, which is therefore a violation of the provider’s rights, and indeed, in practice it is little more than modern-day slavery (and for those who would claim that statement a tad hyperbolic, what else would you call forcing one person to work for the benefit of another without just compensation?).

It is enlightening to look around the world and see where malnutrition and starvation is at its highest levels. A perusal of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s assessment of countries with the highest levels of “food insecurity” reveals that the overwhelming majority of people suffering are in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, both with more than 30% of their populations undernourished.

By contrast, in the United States, the very epitome of profit-driven, free-market economies, not only is actual starvation unheard of, the “poor” are far more likely to be obese than to be malnourished. We have so much food that not only can we feed every American easily, but we have so much excess production that we are the world’s top exporter in a variety of food staples.

And how have we managed to do that? By harnessing the power of the free market.

In the late 1700’s, when the United States was but a newborn nation, the overwhelming majority of American citizens (90%) were farmers, performing back-breaking labor from before dawn until after sunset, just to eke out a subsistence.  Today, less than 2% of American families are farmers and ranchers, yet feed an entire nation with enough excess to feed millions more around the world.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, American farmers today produce a 262% greater crop yield, on fewer inputs, than American farmers produced in the 1950’s. Some would have us believe such drastic increases in output have been done at great detriment to the environment, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In a free market, entrepreneurs become wealthy by producing goods and services in increasing quantity and higher quality, while competition drives down prices; the more efficient and responsible the use of resources, the higher the profit margin. This dynamic has occurred in American agriculture as well. According to the AFBF, “Careful stewardship by farmers has spurred a nearly 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water since 1982 [and] conservation tillage, a way of farming that reduces erosion (soil loss) on cropland while using less energy, has grown from 17 percent of acreage in 1982 to 63 percent today. At the same time, total land used for crops declined by 15 percent (70 million acres).”

Pope Francis, in his address, continued his condemnation of the profit motive, declaring “It is also painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by ‘market priorities,’ the ‘primacy of profit,’ which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.” This is a false narrative, completely undermined by current reality and historical fact. It is not the (relatively) free market nations of the world which struggle to feed their people; it is those with economies run by government. It is the free market economies which produce so much abundance that they have enough for themselves with enough to share.

In 1607, English settlers established the colony of Jamestown along the James River, and along with it a form of communalism which, in practice, was a strain of socialism. Without what we now call the profit motive, more than three quarters of the settlers were dead within three years in what came to be known as “the starving time”. Realizing the disastrous effects of such a philosophy, the governor established the right to private property and instructed the remaining settlers that, from that point on, except for the truly sick and infirm, those that did not work the land would not eat. Within two years the colonists once again had an excess of food.

The Pope may be, to many, the foremost authority on the salvation of men’s souls. But when it comes to matters of the free market, and achieving temporal comfort and security, it might be best if he focuses on the pontifical rather than the political.

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