November 17, 2002

Is concern for the poor really an expression of our self-interest?

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Internationally, the anti-globalisation movement purports to be on the side of the poor (as does the pro-globalisation/trade movement).

Turn on RTE most nights and we are treated to tear-jerking documentaries about the poor, the inequality of our society and why this is just not right. Where does this obsession come from? I mean this question in the most precise way. Is concern for the poor philosophical or is it an expression of self-interest in the rest of us? Is it moral or simply self-preservation in response to a perceived threat from the masses? Is it revolutionary or evolutionary? Are the poor a bloc and if so, why do more poor kids end up living with DVDs in the suburbs than in the ‘Joy? As always, history offers a few insights.

In Rome in April 342 AD, a Christian named Julian and his wife Victoria recorded on their burial headstone the one thing that singled them out from the rest of the community. Julian boasted that he was an amator pauperorum, while Victoria billed herself as an amatrix pauperorum. Having passed on, presumably to heaven, Julian and Victoria highlighted their virtues as “lovers of the poor”. This moral claim, largely absent until the 4th century, became common across the Mediterranean in the late Roman period underlying an extraordinary revolution in thinking and philosophy where empathy with the poor became a moral touchstone for the middle and upper castes.

According to Mark, Jesus said “You have the poor always with you”. In this, he was borrowing from the earlier Hebrew scriptures: “the poor will always be with you” as quoted in Deuteronomy. Yet there is no evidence before the 4th century that the “poor” as a group were a philosophical concern for their betters apart from the periodic handouts of grain recorded by almost all the Roman Emperors. Indeed so strong was the concept of citizenry in Greek and Roman Republican thought, that the very idea of a bloc called the “poor” who might not be citizens was totally alien until the late Roman period.

So why the change? The concern with the poor coincided with the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. It was after the arrival of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, that the poor came to assume such prominence in thinking and writing.

Why, with so much talk about the poor, has nothing really been achieved? Is it all talk with really no intention of alleviating poverty but more a moral barometer for those of us who, like Julian and Victoria, want to feel good about ourselves? Or is it something more sinister whereby an awareness of the ubiquitous poor was a necessary gelling agent for the state, justifying the centralisation of the Empire that Christianity demanded?

Historians are fascinated by the reasons for the 4th century transition from classic patronage (where the rich citizens looked after the poorer ones in the name of the Republic) to the much more inclusive charitable activities of the Christians. Economics may well help explain this.

The new rhetoric about the poor came from the likes of Saint Augustine and Saint John who came from North Africa and Syria, places characterised by massive economic booms in the fourth and fifth centuries. Just as the Dickensian obsession with the poor in Victorian England spawned the Salvation Army and the like, a degree of “relative poverty” — rich and a significant poor living side by side — is needed to kick-start discussions on the poor.

Saint Augustine’s North Africa experienced huge salt-driven booms, driving the price of everything through the roof. Like the boom here in Ireland, the easy credit from Rome drove up the price of land dramatically leaving many people landless and isolated.

Booms also tend to attract migrants, many of whom simply end up being fodder in the system, never really making it. Victorian Britain displayed the same characteristics and Dickens made this his own. Booms are almost by definition a huge transfer of wealth from one section of the population to another leaving many in the lurch. In Augustine’s time, wealth went to the merchants, in Dickens’ time to the great mill-owners of Lancashire and in the time of McCreevy to the great landowners of early 21st century Ireland.

In addition to booms, Augustine’s Rome was characterised by a change in the power nexus of the church and state. The new merchants who replaced the aristocracy of earlier Rome included married bishops. In a sense they invented the “poor”. Because they were men of middling backgrounds, they weren’t rich enough to sustain the full-time job of being a cleric and so they needed charity. At the bottom end, the church needed religious lay-people who also needed to be maintained. They both needed charity. This explains why members of both groups were registered on lists from Rome to Antioch as deserving of support from the church. And so it is argued that the church invented the Christian concept of charity and the poor in order to maintain its structures and tighten its grip on power in the changing economic environment

Fast forward to today in the land of the poverty industry and Great Expectations. In Ireland, the boom brought back the idea of relative poverty. While it is wrong to say that the Church propagates the poverty lobby to keep power, it is fair to say that without a concept of charity, any church in a secular society loses much of its moral authority.

The poverty lobby in the guise of CORI (the Council of the Religious in Ireland) which is the direct inheritor of Saint Augustine’s philosophy, has written its submission for the budget. It is a very detailed, well-written and passionate document. The rhetoric is flawless and the analysis only slightly less so.

However, the underlying concept of charity interests me more than the economics of the submission and I’m sure economists of the right-wing persuasion will rubbish some of its recommendations. The idea of charity needs to regard the poor as an homogenous bloc, almost as a concept. For charity to be plausible, all the poor or the relative poor need to act, speak, breathe and underachieve as one.

Yet this is not realistic. Many argue that the poor, if there is such a well-defined entity, do not need our charity but equality of opportunity. As a starting point, this demands an end to regarding the poor as a single bloc like a flock of sheep.

Unfortunately, like our Roman friends Julian and Victoria, being “lovers of the poor” defines oneself more than the people you are purporting to help. And in a country where everyone is desperately seeking such self-definition, the facts should never get in the way of a good story or submission.