"When I see this going on in different places, my question is, 'Is this so unusual that it can't be replicated?' The answer is no," he said. "If ordinary people can become heroic in the process of doing this, then this thing has a chance to go."
Olasky's idealism rankles some historians, who say he is romanticizing the past, where the poor were exploited and languished in filthy poorhouses. Robert Bothwell, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, has noted that "life is far more complex now," and that economic and sociological changes make a return to the past a fantasy. But Olasky believes he speaks from experience when he says the current system isn't working, so "we should learn from the past in the sense of what they did right."
Five years ago, Olasky dressed in rags and roamed the streets of Washington, D.C., as a homeless man. Shelters plied him with sandwiches and soft drinks but ignored his spiritual needs, he said. When he asked for a Bible, he received a bagel.
Olasky calls this "feed-and-forget" principle a false form of compassion, comparing it to giving a chocolate chip cookie to a little girl wandering the streets at midnight and sending her on her way. "Few of us will . . . feel that we have acted with compassion. Why should we act differently to others who are also lost in the dark?" he said.
In Olasky's vision of privatized welfare, individuals will make a "narrow but deep" commitment to the poor, becoming as personally involved as time allows. "People wouldn't mind investing their own time and money if they had a sense it was actually helping," he said. "That's the trade that people can be offered: Replace the welfare system with a system that's more personal and private, and have the satisfaction of doing something useful."
That may sound unrealistic in an era when motorists run red lights to avoid roadside window cleaners. But Olasky is convinced that Americans are primed for a radical change.
"I suppose I could have called [the book] 'The Frustration of American Compassion,' but it's much more than that," he said. "It's tragic when, with good intentions, the ball starts rolling but it ends up in a ditch. That's what happened here. People with good intentions ended up with tragic consequences."