Does Capitalism Cause Poverty?

CAMBRIDGE – Capitalism gets blamed for many things nowadays: poverty, inequality, unemployment, even global warming. As Pope Francis said in a recent speech in Bolivia: “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”

But are the problems that upset Francis the consequence of what he called “unbridled capitalism”? Or are they instead caused by capitalism’s surprising failure to do what was expected of it? Should an agenda to advance social justice be based on bridling capitalism or on eliminating the barriers that thwart its expansion?

The answer in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia is obviously the latter. To see this, it is useful to recall how Karl Marx imagined the future.

For Marx, the historic role of capitalism was to reorganize production. Gone would be the family farms, artisan yards, and the “nation of shopkeepers,” as Napoleon is alleged to have scornfully referred to Britain. All these petty bourgeois activities would be plowed over by the equivalent of today’s Zara, Toyota, Airbus, or Walmart.