This week, I am posting an interview with Dr. Marvin Olasky, provost of The King’s College in New York City, and the editor-in-chief of World magazine. We will be discussing Dr. Olasky’s journey from Marxist philosophy to Christian faith, his contributions to the idea of “compassionate conservatism,” and the political involvement of evangelical Christians.
Trevin Wax: During the past few months, you have been writing a series in World that tells about your philosophical journey from Marxism to Christianity. What are some ways in which your past experiences have helped form your current perspective?
Marvin Olasky: I was recently in Minneapolis at a conference hosted by John Piper in celebration of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Someone there said that it was Calvin’s difficult life experiences that gave him an acute awareness of the significance of the questions of his day. Had he not seen the persecution of the early Protestants in France, he might not have had the same sense of urgency.
I suppose that (in a much smaller way) my life experiences have also shaped me. I was able to see the Left in action. I saw Marxism in action. Had I merely read about Marxist philosophy in history books or considered it in the abstract, I doubt I would have had the same sense of the reality of this evil.
Trevin Wax: What was initially appealing to you about Marxism? What took you there first?
Marvin Olasky: I was an atheist looking for a purpose in life. During the late 1960’s, it seemed that Marxism was a good purpose. In some ways, it was a good purpose. The goal of peace was good. The goal of fighting poverty was good. But if you think that everything relies on you, and that you should seek peace by any means necessary instead of by relying on God and doing what he commands, then you are ready to go to all kinds of extremes.
In Communism, the goal in the abstract may sound good, but the particular means that people adopt to get there are extreme and murderous. They have to be. Why? Because human nature is not plastic in the way that Marxists think it is.
So Marxists are constantly frustrated. They think: If only you set up this certain type of environment, then people will respond. But because of human nature, people do not respond in the way that some idealistic Marxists may want. Sin has to be reckoned with.
The appeal of Marxism was idealistic. But the practice quickly becomes ruthless because it doesn’t take into account the nature of man. It doesn’t understand who God is.
Trevin Wax: Is it appropriate to say that Capitalism more closely aligns with Christianity than Socialism?
Marvin Olasky: The basic anthropology of Christianity is that man is made in God’s image, but that this image is marred. The whole world is marred. As many were saying recently at the Piper conference in Minneapolis, we are “broken actors on a broken stage.”
Any understanding of economics or any desire of any economic system has to take the nature of humanity into account. The stage is broken. There are real limitations in what we can do. There is scarcity. You have to make choices between different types of goods and so forth.
Any system that is going to help people become more productive and help us rise from poverty (which, since the Fall, has been the common state of most of mankind) to some degree of affluence has to ask the question: What do we have to do to be affluent? It is not natural to be affluent. The natural state, in fact, is to be poor.
Christianity sets up an accurate anthropology. We know we are broken actors, but we still have God’s image in us. That is why we are capable of working hard and doing some significant things. For hard work to actually be productive, you have to create a situation in which your work benefits you yourself and your family.
You must also have a system in which you actually know the value of different types of commodities and services so that people can trade. One of the things that a free market system does wonderfully is provide information. On the other hand, Marx taught the labor theory of value (different goods and services have a value dependent on the number of hours it took to produce them).
In the free market, individuals have to ask, “What am I going to pay for that?” Because of this, you always have a flow of information that helps you know the value of something. If you try to manage value in a centralized way, then you have someone arbitrarily deciding the value of things. You no longer have free trade at that point. It all has to run through government instead of simply letting individuals make trades that they see as beneficial to themselves.
A free market system generates more altruism from us. It can be self-serving altruism, yes, but it still benefits other people. I have to provide a good or service to someone who is going to want to purchase. Consequently, I am forced to think about that person. What are that person’s needs? What are that person’s desires? What are that person’s goals
As a result of our desire to help ourselves and our families, we begin to think about others. Free markets take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
There is a very useful game for teaching children about free trade. Take a class of thirty kids, and arbitrarily hand out different gifts. You give one boy a banana. You give someone else a doll. But do it arbitrarily. Some boys are going to end up with dolls, and some girls are going to end up with bananas. Then watch what happens when you tell them they can trade. The kids see the value they can gain from actually being able to trade freely in the classroom. It increases satisfaction for everyone.
When you have a command and control system, you no longer have good information flow. You wind up with a central planner making decisions based on limited information. You no longer have constantly changing and naturally updating information.
Trevin Wax: How does Capitalism increase the level of service?
Marvin Olasky: Capitalism is a negative word. The real word is freedom. Free markets and free trade help people improve their own situation by being forced to think about others.
I didn’t spend as much time in Russia as you did in Romania, but I suspect you are familiar with restaurants in Eastern Europe. Waiters there didn’t care too much about the client. They did not pay attention.
Does the practice of “tipping” put a person in a servile relationship to another? Is that a good thing? In a free market society, it works to the benefit of both parties. The people who are dining get faster service than they otherwise would. Likewise, the waiter gets more money than he otherwise would. Everyone is better off as opposed to a typical setting in Moscow, where you just sit for hours and no one cares.
Trevin Wax: Taking everything you have said into consideration, would you say that the problem with healthcare is not that we need more government intervention, but that we should instead let the free market do its work?
Marvin Olasky: Healthcare costs are going up for a lot of reasons. The history is complicated.
The big problem is that healthcare is not insurance. Insurance is for a catastrophe. Regular medical checkups are not really “insurance.” It would be much more efficient if people would just pay for them. Because we pay these big amounts for insurance and only a small fraction of the cost for visits, we no longer do price comparisons. We are not able to operate the way people price out other types of goods.
Trevin Wax: We don’t know what the value is.
Marvin Olasky: Exactly. We don’t know what the value is because we don’t have a free market operating there. We don’t have sufficient information about which doctors are better than other doctors, or which hospitals are better than other hospitals. Again, it’s the problem with command and control. We would be much better off if we had a system of insurance for catastrophe and we took care of our medical checkups ourselves.
Take dental insurance as an example. People tend to go to the dentist a couple times a year. You don’t need insurance for that. You can easily plan and forecast your costs there. It is a misnomer to call it “health insurance.” What we have is a very inelegant hiding system!
Tomorrow, we will continue our discussion with Marvin Olasky. We will be discussing politics in the pulpit, and the role of evangelicals in public life.