Morning Press 3.12.10

Wallis/Olasky discussion on poverty

MP is all Wallis/Olasky today. My afternoon (and evening) yesterday was mostly spent at the three poverty and affluence meetings here at Cedarville. Overall, I think it was a success–though I think Olasky and Wallis were playing two different sports. Let me explain:

At 2:00, Marvin Olasky gave his reasons for an approach he calls “compassionate conservatism”–decentralizing government, giving your money to local charities rather than bureaucracies in Washington, trusting free market capitalism, and not giving economic power to the same people who have political power. He exegeted Micah 6:8–“Do justice” (not the same as “social justice,” which is really unjust), “love mercy” (by allowing individuals give to charities of their choice, not coercing people to give large amounts of money to the government), “and walk humbly with your God” (instead of arrogantly thinking that a centralized government can solve the world’s problems). He stressed the important difference between equality of opportunity (which he encourages) and equality of result. Each person should not be given and equal amount of money because each person doesn’t work equally hard to earn it. In fact, the government shouldn’t give money to people at all, because when political powers also have economic power to distribute wealth, that creates a situation of absolute power, which always corrupts.

Wallis gave his presentation at 4:00, and his talk used pathos to motivate people into caring for the poor. His thesis of sorts was to reorient our faith to true, biblical Christianity–which is centered on helping the poor. He used a particularly effective illustration of this point by mentioning a friend who had gone through the Bible and cut out every mention of the poor. The Bible was in shreds. Wallis then took the Bible and held it before his congregation, proclaiming “Brothers and sisters, this is your American Bible!” The rest of his presentation was composed of passionate stories about poor, disadvantaged people he knew.

The differences between the two speakers were stark. Olasky’s presentation was more argumentative, more academic and more thorough. Wallis’ presentation was more agreeable (before the talk, I heard Wallis say to Olasky: “you don’t expect me to agree with everything you disagreed with, do you?”) and he used lots of stories to try to get people on his side. The presentations were rather agreeable, but Olasky was certainly more polemic (if I can use that word in this context…please comment if I can’t), while Wallis tried to act as if they had few differences.

To be honest, it was almost like Wallis forgot that it was supposed to be a debate. I thought the purpose of the event was to get two different perspectives on dealing with poverty and affluence, but all night Wallis refused to commit to one perspective, despite the fact that he clearly favored one over another. He is liberal—though he continually denied it. It’s classic Wallis, really—“don’t go left, don’t go right, go deeper.” Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything. You’re talking about decentralizing governmental power or allowing government to occasionally get involved in free market affairs. It’s a black-and-white issue, especially in Olasky’s case. I think Olasky’s point (though he never got the chance to say it directly) was that any kind of centralized government will always entice the politician to take advantage of his political power. That’s Original Sin. Wallis’ attempt to “find middle ground” thus just rings hollow.

The 7:30 discussion session was quite a bit more interesting than the two presentations. Olasky opened the discussion with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “Sojourner’s Bible” he “found” in the Hearthstone Inn the night before. Of course, there is no such thing as the Sojourner’s Bible, but he used this method to expose the Sojourner’s Magazine’s own leftist ideology. He gave a leftist re-reading of classic Biblical passages such as the poor man healed by Peter and John in Acts 3. Only, Peter replies to the man’s plea for money by saying, “silver and gold have I none…but I do have a sandwich!” A clear reference to welfare, the monologue set the tone for what turned out to be an interesting, and occasionally passionate hour-and-a-half of discussion.

Wallis’ best strike was probably when he criticized Olasky’s faith in the free market. If the recession has taught us anything, Wallis said, it’s that the market should not be trusted. “What happens when Adam Smith’s invisible hand can’t hold it up anymore?” he asked in his 4:00 presentation. In the 7:30 discussion, Wallis said that Smith himself suggested free market accountability in The Wealth of Nations,which shows that the market can therefore not be trusted. This is a rather curious point however, considering that Olasky didn’t say that the free market should never be held accountable, he rather said that we should trust its design. Isn’t this Adam Smith’s very point? The market needs accountability, so we build mechanisms into it which help to control corruption. But that doesn’t mean we give up on the free market. I’m no economist, so if my thinking here is flawed let me know.

In conclusion, I thought Olasky’s logic was far superior, but the puzzling thing is that it seems Wallis got more students on his side. All he needed to do what use the buzzwords “social justice” and “global poverty” over and over again (without properly defining them, of course) to get people to respond emotionally. As soon as that happens, he wins.

Keep in mind that we are a generation raised on television, so we are far more likely to side with the guy who was entertaining and personally convicting (don’t you feel bad every time you buy something? And doesn’t helping the poor just make you feel better?) rather than the guy who was simply more rational. Academic lectures like Olasky’s just wouldn’t cut it yesterday; but pathos-driven pleas to help the poor carried the day. I guess Olasky’s biggest problem was that his argument was solid, but his audience was too bored to care.

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