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The Pope’s Tweet: Are There Good And Bad Types Of Inequality?

The Pope is right that inequality can be socially toxic. But is all inequality problematic? Is it like cholesterol, with good and bad types?

Economic inequality (or, to be more precise, opposition to it) is very much “in” these days. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century is a best seller. Paul Krugman has left his academic perch in Princeton for a position with the Income Inequality Institute (which pays $25,000 a month, natch). Even the Pope is getting in on the action. On Monday, a tweet by Pope Francis on the evils of inequality was widely shared throughout social media.

I haven’t read Piketty’s book, and I probably never will. And I don’t really have much to say about the Krugman move. But as a practicing Catholic who can’t seem to get all that worked up about inequality, I suppose I should address the Pope’s comments.

My first instinct, of course, is to try to downplay or interpret away what Francis is saying. After all, there’s a lot of nuance that inevitably gets left out when you’re limited to 140 characters. Probably it was just a Vatican staffer who wrote the thing anyway. And so on. But the truth is that the tweet is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ other statements and writings on the matter. Last year the Pope devoted a substantial portion of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium to the issue of inequality, and the views he expressed on the matter then were very much in keeping with this week’s tweet. If anything, the tweet is milder than the exhortation. The tweet only condemns inequality, whereas the exhortation seemed skeptical about the free market system itself.

I confess that when Evangelii Gaudium came out, I was a little annoyed by it. Part of it was that the document seemed to be a bit casual with respect to the facts (suggesting that inequality was on the rise worldwide, when global inequality has fallen in recent decades). Just a few months prior to the release of the apostolic exhortation, U2 front-man Bono gave a speech where he noted that capitalism had lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history. And he’s right! In the last few decades alone hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in India, China, and elsewhere due to the forces of market globalization. Bono, like the Pope, doesn’t have any special training in economics, and by temperament is pretty left wing. Yet he seemed to have grasped an important truth about the world that has so far eluded Francis. I found myself thinking something very strange: why can’t the Pope be more like Bono?

It was particularly galling to me given that this Pope is from Argentina. A hundred years ago, Argentina was one of the richest nations in the world. Then a century’s worth of Peronist led autarky, welfarism, and right-wing socialism intervened, with the result that Argentina is now the world’s only “formerly developed” country. And yet the lesson Francis seems to have drawn from this is that Argentina’s problem was too much capitalism.

On the other hand, the Pope’s statements about inequality make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of his Argentine origins. As a conservative, free-market-loving American, when I hear about inequality my mind immediately envisions a creative entrepreneur who got rich by making people’s lives better. Inequality, in that case, seems like just a necessary byproduct of prosperity. But in much of the world, inequality has a very different character. Great fortunes are amassed and maintained not through improving people’s lives, but through connections, and government favors. For Latin America, the stereotypical rich guy is not Steve Jobs but Carlos Slim, who became one of the world’s richest men through a telephone monopoly in Mexico.

And if I’m honest about it, I’ve got to admit that even in the United States a lot of inequality is the result not of the heroic innovator but of government favoritism. I’m thinking here not just of the obvious examples like Goldman Sachs or Archer Daniels Midland, but even folks like doctors and lawyers, who benefit from overly restrictive licensing regimes.

This isn’t the sort of thing that is captured in inequality statistics. To my way of thinking, any measure that ranks Canada (which has a Gini of 32.6) alongside Egypt (30.8) and Bangladesh (32.1) is probably not a reliable indicator of societal well-being. Still, there clearly is a form of inequality that is socially toxic, and it’s more common than those of us who believe in the power of the free market might like to admit. It may be that, like cholesterol, there are good and bad types of inequality, and we need to focus more on combatting malignant inequalities, rather than just dismissing the issue out of hand.

Flannery O’Connor once said that “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” In the grand scheme of things, hearing the Pope say things about economics that make me cringe is not that great a form of suffering (whether this cringing is really my fault I will leave for God to judge). And if Pope Francis’ statements help me to think more deeply about how our society does or doesn’t live up to its own principles, then that’s a form of “suffering” I am more than willing to endure.

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