“Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Samuel Johnson said that in the 18th century, but the general preference for money over preaching is sufficiently strong and timeless that his wry quip remains pertinent. Most economists take Johnson’s sentiment too seriously. They assume that people always want more shillings and always resist wealth-denying morality. That is a serious error.
Consider, for example, the enthusiastic response from around the world to the material renunciations of Pope Francis. The crowds cheered when the new leader of the Catholic Church said he wanted a “poor Church for the poor”. His decision to stay in simple lodgings and wear simple clothes amounted to turning down shillings for the sake of giving a morality lecture, but few observers were bothered. On the contrary, it was welcomed as a pertinent comment on the excessively materialist values of modern society.
The need to be “for the poor” is eternal and universal. In every society there will always be people who cannot thrive without help from others. Despite Dr Johnson’s comment, the need for conscience-pricking discourses on the topic, papal and otherwise, is equally timeless. Otherwise, it would be too easy to find plausible but ultimately selfish reasons not to help out.
In the modern world, the challenge of being pro-poor is particularly difficult, because there are two distinct types of poverty: of the seriously poor and of the relatively rich. In poorer countries, including Francis’s native Argentina, poverty is often absolute: not enough to eat, squalid housing, no access to education. The poor there need Dr Johnson’s shillings. In rich countries, material poverty is only relative. Those called poor generally all have life’s necessities, but fewer comforts and luxuries than most of their compatriots. As Francis’s papal predecessors often suggested, this relative material deprivation is less significant than more intangible shortages: of opportunity and noble aspirations. The socially and spiritually deprived could benefit from something like Dr. Johnson’s “lectures on morality”.
Involuntary poverty, whether material or intangible, is a bad thing, but Francis said he wanted a “poor church”. He must believe that voluntary poverty can sometimes be virtuous.