Last week, 80,000 residents of New York got a free gift: a ticket to see Pope Francis’s procession through Central Park on September 25.
Not surprisingly, soon after the tickets started showing up for sale on websites like eBay and Craigslist for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Also not a surprise is the disgusted reaction some people had to news about the ticket scalping:
“Tickets for events with Pope Francis are distributed free for a reason — to enable as many New Yorkers as possible, including those of modest means, to be able to participate in the Holy Father’s visit to New York,” Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in a statement. “To attempt to resell the tickets and profit from his time in New York goes against everything Pope Francis stands for.”
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal Dolan (at an event I attended for free). I think he’s a wonderful, charming, gregarious leader. But on this point, I think he’s wrong.
As an evangelical, it’s probably not my place to tell an archbishop what the pope stands for. But if there is one thing we know about Francis, it’s that he is concerned about the poor. And because he stands for the poor, he should be in favor of reselling tickets to his event. If you want to help the poor, one of the things you should do is give them the freedom to sell their luxury goods.
A ticket to the Pope’s procession is a limited, luxury good. Not everyone can get a ticket (hence the limited part), and while it may make life more pleasant, the ticket is not a necessity (thus the luxury part). This means that some people who have the financial means will be willing and able to pay—and pay a premium—to attend the event. This sets up an arbitrage situation in which poor people who were fortunate enough to get a ticket can sell it to someone else. They can then use the profit to improve their condition. As economist Steve Landsburg says,
[A]ccording to Cardinal Dolan, “everything Pope Francis stands for” consists of the proposition that for New Yorkers of modest means, nothing should take precedence over turning out to see Pope Francis — not groceries, not medicine, not car repairs, not any of the other things that people can buy with the proceeds from selling their tickets.
Landsburg is a bit harsh on Dolan, but he’s essentially correct. Refusing to let poor people sell their tickets is saying that they should prefer a luxury good over the necessities of life. Some poor people, of course, would turn down the extra money they could earn from scalping for a chance to get a glance at the popemobile. But that should be their choice to make. if we care about the poor, we should give them the option to make the economic decision about what they do with the ticket rather than making it for them. If the Pope cares about the poor—and he does—then he should let them scalp their tickets.
Addendum: Obviously, not everyone who is scalping tickets is poor. While I personally have no problems with anyone from any income bracket selling their tickets, Cardinal Dolan and Pope Francis might have a legitimate objection to the non-poor engaging in scalping. In that case, I think they should encourage those who would sell their ticket and don’t really need the money to simply donate them to someone else.
For what it’s worth, I think this is also what most Protestants should do. If I had received such a ticket I would give it to a Catholic friend who would surely be more interested in seeing the pope than I would be. Alternatively, while I’d be doing nothing wrong by selling the ticket for a profit, I’d probably be more inclined to sell it and give the money to charity. Since it would essentially be getting a free gift from Francis, I’d feel the need to “regift” the ticket in a way that he would approve.