domingo, 12 de febrero de 2017

Capitalism is a mix of praiseworthy and damnable behavior. At root, what matters is the morality of those who participate in the system.

Confessions of a Catholic convert to capitalism

by Arthur C. Brooks

The greatest conversion story of all time began at daybreak on Dec. 9, 1531, on a hill outside Mexico City. The ruthless Spanish conquest of the indigenous peoples was proving an uncompelling advertisement for the Catholic faith. It had produced a meager stream of voluntary converts up to that point.

That morning, according to tradition, an indigenous, Mexican peasant named Juan Diego reported an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her message was simple. “Dear little son, I love you,” she told him. “I want you to know who I am. I am the Virgin Mary, Mother of the one true God, of Him who gives life.”

That message might sound a little anodyne, but the political significance of the apparition was anything but. In the midst of a violent campaign that attributed little human dignity to the indigenous communities, Mary appeared as a mestiza, an ethnic mix of the Spanish and native peoples. And she appeared to an indigenous man, speaking in his native tongue. In this deeply transgressive act, Our Lady showed that the Catholic Church, despite the mistakes and crimes of those who had introduced it to Mexico, represented the radical equality of God’s love.

In the seven years after this apparition, eight million natives were brought into the church. The tilma of Juan Diego, a cloak that was miraculously imprinted with an image of Our Lady, became the spiritual symbol of an entire people. Even now, the image is reported to convert thousands of onlookers each year.

I know something about that last data point. I am one of those converts.

At age 15, I visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe as part of a school band trip to Mexico. I had no connections to the Catholic Church at the time; I am not sure I knew any Catholics at all. But from within a crowd of teenagers on a forced march through a boring old church, I looked up at the image of the Blessed Virgin on the famous tilma,which still hangs in the shrine. I did not fall into a rapturous trance. I was not overcome by sweeping emotion. But a simple observation captured my imagination and lodged in my memory: Mary was appearing to me.

“People often mistake their imagination for their heart,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “and so often are convinced they are converted as soon as they start thinking of becoming converted.” It is true that Mary did not convert me in that singular moment. But the image stuck in my mind. A few months later, I started the conversion process at my local parish in Seattle. My Protestant parents were mildly chagrined but quickly recognized that if this was my teenage rebellion, Catholicism was probably better than drugs. I entered the church at 16 and began the great spiritual adventure of my life.

“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Prov 16:9). God puts the truth before us in unexpected places, I have learned. Our job is to look hard and remain open-minded.

Sometimes that open-minded search has counterintuitive steps. I found that out in my short and ill-fated run at college. As the son and grandson of academics, I should have been a successful student, but I was an aspiring classical French horn player with little interest in studying. This led to academic probation. So I followed my heart and launched an era that my long-suffering parents would affectionately term my “gap decade.”

The first six years, spent touring with a chamber ensemble, sound more glamorous than they were. Imagine driving a van around the country with four other guys, earning $14,000 a year, and you get the idea. But this nomadic lifestyle had its rewards. In my early 20s, on a concert tour of France, I met a Spanish girl studying in Dijon for the summer. Shredding Pascal’s maxim and mistaking my imagination for my heart, I moved to Spain in hot pursuit, took a job with the City Orchestra of Barcelona and started working on my Spanish.

Big bets sometimes have big payoffs. Shortly thereafter, we married and commenced our journey of faith together. Twenty-five years later, as our children grow into adulthood, we find ourselves worrying they will do something crazy like drop out of college or move to Europe in pursuit of young love. We ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to pray for them.

Poverty on the Run

The next conversions were professional and ideological. As a Seattle-born bohemian living in Barcelona, my political views were predictably progressive. But my thinking began to change in my late 20s upon returning to college, which I did by correspondence while working as a musician.

I fancied myself a social justice warrior and regarded capitalism with a moderately hostile predisposition. I “knew” what everyone knows: Capitalism is great for the rich but terrible for the poor. The natural progression of free enterprise is that the rich and powerful accumulate more and more of the world’s resources while the poor are exploited. That state of affairs might be fine for a follower of Ayn Rand, but it is hardly consistent for a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Right?
Our ancestors had no concept that mass poverty was an acute social problem. Deprivation was simply the background condition for everyone.
As with most people of my generation, for me the symbol of world poverty was a starving child in Africa. I remember a picture from my childhood—I think it was from National Geographic—of an African boy about my own age. He had a distended belly and flies on his face, and he became for me the human face of true deprivation. As I grew up, I assumed, as do most Americans, that the tragic conditions facing the starving African boy had gotten worse. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans think global poverty has worsened over the past three decades.

This assumption and the attendant beliefs about capitalism hit a snag when I studied economics for the first time. In reality, I learned, humanity has starvation-level poverty on the run. Since 1970, the fraction of the global population that survives on one dollar or less a day (adjusted for inflation) has shrunk by 80 percent. Since 1990, the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has collapsed by more than 50 percent. Life expectancy and literacy rates have steadily climbed.

When faced with suffering, we often ask a conventional question: “Why are some people poor?” But grinding material poverty was the norm for the vast majority of people through the vast majority of human history. Our ancestors had no concept that mass poverty was an acute social problem that cried out for remedies. Deprivation was simply the background condition for everyone.

In just the last few hundred years, that all changed for a few billion people. So the right question today is: “Why did whole parts of the world cease to be poor for the first time in history?” And further: “What can we do to share this ahistorical prosperity with more people?” Economics taught me that two billion of my brothers and sisters had escaped poverty in my own lifetime. This was a modern-day miracle. I had to find its source.

My search for the “why” of this miracle required almost no detective work. Virtually all development economists, across the mainstream political spectrum, agreed on the core explanation. It was not the success of international organizations like the United Nations (as important as they are) nor benevolent foreign aid that pulled billions back from the brink of starvation. Rather, the responsibility lay with five interrelated forces that were in the midst of reshaping the worldwide economy: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law and the culture of entrepreneurship. In short, it was the American free enterprise system, spreading around the world, that had effected this anti-poverty miracle.

Again, this is a mainstream scholarly finding, not some political cliché. Informed people from left to right agree on these basic points. As no less an avowed progressive than President Barack Obama put it in a 2015 public conversation we had together at Georgetown University, the “free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history—it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.”

None of this is to assert that free enterprise is a perfect system—but more on that in a moment. Nor is it to claim that free enterprise is all we need as people. But it has unambiguously improved the lives of billions. It became my view that if I was truly to be a “Matthew 25 Catholic” and live the Lord’s teaching that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” then my vocation was to defend and improve the system that was achieving this miraculous result.

That is how an unlikely Catholic became an even more unlikely warrior for free enterprise.

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