The Pope, the State and Venezuela
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro once claimed to be a disciple of a famous Hindu guru. But like his predecessor Hugo Chávez, who died in March, President Maduro is not averse to posing as a follower of Catholic teaching when it suits him.
In October he appeared in public wearing a rosary around his neck that was reportedly given to him by Pope Francis in Rome. It was a political gesture to suggest his government had the favor of the Holy Father. Some Venezuelans might believe it. The pope, like Mr. Maduro, has emerged as a severe critic of free-market economics.
Last week Pope Francis provided Mr. Maduro cover for his claim that state tyranny is morally justified when the pontiff blasted economic freedom in his first apostolic exhortation. Venezuelans are sinking further into poverty under Mr. Maduro’s anti-market policies. The pope wants the larger role for the state and an emphasis on equality of outcomes that those policies reflect.
Mr. Maduro needs a miracle. Venezuela will hold municipal elections on Sunday and the vote is seen as a referendum on his leadership. The government has multiple ways of cheating, but even so the opposition believes it will do well in the largest cities.
If that happens, it could signal change. Members of the armed service who were close to Chávez in the military and resent Mr. Maduro’s civilian status are said to be restless.
To save himself, Mr. Maduro has been lashing out at Venezuelan importers, retailers and landlords in recent weeks, charging that annualized price inflation, which reached 54% in October, is a symptom of their greed. He says the private sector is at war with the nation. It is his job to defend the working class.
After a new round of price controls last month, shoppers stripped electronics and appliance stores of their goods. Retailers cannot replace inventories at prices that avoid losses because a dollar costs around 70 bolivares in the black market. The official rate of 6.3 cannot be had.
Mr. Maduro needs to pin it all on the market. Pope Francis seems eager to help. In the document released last week he admonished those who 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.” There is no empirical evidence for this, he wrote. It is instead “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Millions of the world’s poor and excluded who landed in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries have been witnesses to the polar-opposite conclusion. Immigrants to the pope’s homeland, Argentina, during the same period have not done as well—precisely because they’ve had to plod along in an economy not unlike the one he advocates.
Heavy state intervention was supposed to produce justice for the poor in the breadbasket of South America. We all know how that turned out.
No Christian can doubt the love expressed in the pope’s message, which aims to shepherd the flock away from materialism. But the charge that grinding poverty in the world is the outgrowth of “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” ignores reality. To be sure, even prosperous economies regulate markets. But those that have a lighter touch do better. Human history clearly demonstrates that when men and women, employing their free will and God-given talents, are able to innovate, produce, accumulate capital and trade even the weakest and most vulnerable are better off.
Instead the pope trusts the state, “charged with vigilance for the common good.” Why is it then that the world’s most desperate poor are concentrated in places where the state has gained an outsize role in the economy specifically on just such grounds?
Exhibit A is Venezuela. It is an instruction manual on how to increase human misery. Without competition, the Venezuelan oil monopoly is a nest of corruption and a source of untold environmental damage. An unchecked chavista spending binge produced a fiscal deficit of 15% of gross domestic product last year, and the impulse to print money in order to pay for it. Among the unintended consequences of price controls are shortages, which drive hoarding for barter. An accumulated supply of toilet paper, for example, can be traded for cooking oil when none can be found.
Border states suffer shortages even more acutely since price-controlled items disappear rapidly into Colombia. The national chaos cultivates envy, hatred and violence.
Venezuelans need a moral authority that defends their rights to run a business, make a living, own property and preserve the purchasing power of what they earn. In short, they need a champion for a rule of law that will limit the power of the state over their person. Mother Church ought to be that voice. In siding with Mr. Maduro, however inadvertently, she harms her cause in the region.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com