Imagine yourself in the fifteenth century, at a university in Spain or Italy, a time of increasing scientific discovery, technical innovation, economic development, rising prosperity, and increasing intellectual awareness of the meaning of economic science. You are involved in the great intellectual project of discovering the laws of economics and applying these laws to the world. You have discovered what goes into the creation of a price, what causes inflation, how trade works, and why innovations come to be available to all. You begin to see a glimmer of a great hope: a future without mass deprivation, disease, persistent infant death, and human suffering.
Now jump forward more than 500 years and observe: The world population has exploded in size but instead of suffering you see that the masses live better than all the kings of old. There is food, medicine, and clothing available for the world, and rates of development are remarkable. Markets are global, technology is advancing at a break-neck speed, people from all over can communicate and cooperate instantly, and the productive efforts of nearly the whole human population are being employed to the betterment of the whole human family.
Might you think that those scientific discoveries 500 years earlier were spectacularly successful? Most certainly. To see the human population flourish and prosper is a grand and glorious thing, and a step toward realizing God's will for the world.
And yet: This very prosperity has given rise to some very strange political impulses in our time. There are those who, instead of rejoicing in the increased prosperity, see nothing but evil. They see the spread of technology as imperialism. They denounce global integration as wicked and capitalism as corrupting. They see vast supermarkets filled with food for all at low prices and they say it is a disgrace.
Only a few decades ago, we saw a political left that celebrated wealth for all and sought redistribution precisely so that people would no longer experience radical material deprivation. Now that it is increasingly clear that the means toward that end is markets and freedom—the democratization of the means of production, not forced redistribution, it seems that the left is more attached to its statist means than its material ends.
Others are driven by a more legitimate, if misguided, view that wealth necessarily corrupts the soul. Certainly wealth can corrupt. But so can poverty, or nearly anything else if misused. Wealth without morality leads to vice and moral corruption. So the answer is not an imposed poverty, but evangelism and conversion. This is why entrepreneurs and advocates of market freedom have a special obligation to emphasize the responsible use of prosperity, leisure, and charity.
Still others become very upset that wealth is not shared equally by all. This is a dangerous conviction because it can only lead to the celebration of expropriation. We need to realize that material equality should not be a policy goal; what we should seek is the universal increase in material well-being, even when its benefits are inequitably distributed. All of human experience and study suggests that there is only one means for bringing about this ideal: the market economy within a strong juridical framework that protects the right to property and life.
The Acton Institute has long undertaken to translate into English the writings of the first economic scientists of the late middle ages. In a time of great ambivalence toward the spreading of prosperity, we need to be reminded that to seek the well-being of all, defined in both spiritual and material terms, is a goal consistent with moral and scientific thinking.