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Wallis vs. Brooks: The Debate that Wasn't.

October 31st, 2010 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Capitalism may not have a soul, but working relations between Jim Wallis and Arthur Brooks might have a future.

The event last Thursday at Wheaton College turned more tea party (of the proper variety) than cage match.  Even when Jim Wallis announced that they had finally reached a point of disagreement, they weren't allowed to linger long enough to engage in anything approaching a substantive debate.

That disagreement, though, is an important one.  Some brief summary, followed by analysis:

When asked whether and when income inequality is a problem, Arthur Brooks pointed out that when people get above the subsistence level, their happiness is more determined by whether they feel they have created their success than their actual level of income.  Income inequality, he contended, is largely treated as a problem because we feel as though it isn't fair.

Wallis retorted that God cares about income inequality, and then pointed out from archeological evidence that prophets only arose in periods of extreme inequality.  He isn't interested in total redistribution, but does want the prosperity of the society to be shared.

Two points about this:  first, I haven't read all of Wallis' works, so I can't comment on whether he does this elsewhere.  But in the context of the debate, his decision to go outside the Biblical text itself to the archeology to make this point seems to presume that the correlation is actually one of causation (so the prophets arose because of income inequality, rather than some other sign of social decay or rebellion against God).

More importantly, as Brooks pointed out in his comments following, this emphasis on income inequality seems to reinforce the very materialism that is at the heart of our social problems.  Instead, Brooks emphasized throughout the night that the equality we need to strive for is the equality of opportunity to create value.  Brooks sounded variations on this theme throughout the night, underscoring that free enterprise isn't about creating wealth (and often doesn't lead to wealth for those entrepreneurs who most embrace it) but is about "productive flourishing."

Yet ironically, it was on this very point that Brooks was also at his weakest. At a previous point in the debate, he affirmed that capitalism would encourage materialism and individualism only if we didn't have a strong underlying culture.  He was asked directly again by Michael Gerson whether materialism is inherent to capitalism, to which he responded that "materialism is human tyranny" that isn't the province of capitalism alone.  Whether the structures designed to promote free enterprise inherently promote materialism, however, are crucial questions that we needed much, much more clarity on. A strong does of Acton-style anthropology would have been helpful.

The real story of the evening, though, was how similar Wallis and Brooks sounded throughout the night. Wallis was clear he did not want to destroy capitalism, but called it a "tool" that should be evaluated by its fruits.   He spoke positively of the importance of trade at lifting countries out of poverty, and suggested he wanted a multi-faceted approach to solving income inequality.   Throughout the evening, he positioned himself as a pragmatist who simply wanted to do what works.  If he is opposed to capitalism, it is entirely on those grounds.

At the same time, Brooks was able to affirm that equal opportunity sometimes required intervention by the government in order to level the playing field, particularly (and maybe exclusively) in the realm of education.  At that point, he took over the pragmatic mantle and suggested that government simply hasn't done a good job in that sector.  The clearest moment of agreement came when Brooks hammered subsidies for the way they give America and Europe an unfair advantage in sectors like cotton, a critique that Wallis gave full-throated affirmation to.

In conclusion, let me offer a few very tentative reflections prompted by the evening.

Wallis was at his best telling stories, and substantively most effective when discussing the role of profits for Christian businesses.  The reality is that profit for Christian companies should serve a very different end than secular companies, a point that Christians of every economic position need to affirm without reservation (even while disagreeing over the extent of taxation).

I have reservations that beneath Wallis' positions lie an anthropology that treats humans as primarily consumers, rather than creators and producers.  I haven't read enough (though I'm changing that) to know that for sure, so I register it simply as a worry.   Either way, it would have been interesting for the conversation to move into those deeper questions.  The question "what "works?" begs a gigantic "for what?" and that latter question is not properly the realm of economics, but is rather the sphere of theological anthropology.

At the same time, the left and right have competing stories about what "works."  The left emphasizes those areas where government works and free enterprise fails, while the right emphasizes those areas where free enterprise works and government fails.  This isn't to equate those two narratives for their accuracy, but the comparison should give us pause.  The neat symmetry suggests there are deeper unities than anyone would want to admit.

Finally, I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist--which everyone seems to be.  I am not suggesting that capitalism and socialism are equally productive of human flourishing.  I happen to think they are not.  But capitalism tied to materialism and consumerism may be far more destructive to society than when socialism is so tied.  That doesn't mean that we should solve the problem by substituting socialism instead.  That would be simply to try to remove the symptom without curing the disease.  But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.