Capitalism According to Michael Novak

I met the late Michael Novak as the lone Protestant attending the first Tertio Millennio Seminar. The first year it was a month-long seminar held in Liechtenstein. The basic form continues today, with around ten U.S. students joining around twenty European students. The European students that first year were mainly eastern Europeans; it was just a few years after the wall fell. Joining Novak in organizing the first seminar were George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Rocco Buttiglione, and Fr. Maciej Zieba, OP.

The centerpiece of the seminar was focused study of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus and, more broadly, Catholic social doctrine and teaching. Several American works were included at the time as well, including a couple of essays from The Federalist and a few selections from Novak’s book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Novak and his “democratic capitalism” – an intentional play off the phrase “democratic socialism” – had something of a tough road. Originally a man of the left, leftists considered Novak an apostate from the cause and considered Novak’s democratic capitalism insufficiently democratic and way too capitalistic. Classical liberals appreciated Novak as a fellow traveler, but often harbored suspicions that his democratic capitalism was too democratic and insufficiently capitalistic. And Conservative Catholics often considered Novak’s democratic capitalism too democratic, too capitalistic, and insufficiently Catholic.

I have my own criticisms of Novak’s argument, but that’s for another time. One of the most important contributions of TSDC, and perhaps its most important contribution, was that it advanced a fundamentally personalist case for the market. Personalism was a consistent thread throughout much of Novak’s writings, even as he traversed the distance from left to right. The Catholic personalist par excellence of course was Karol Wojtyla, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, who developed implications of personalism in several areas, not least in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. While one misreads Centesimus Annus if one views it solely through the lens of TSDC, there is nonetheless an obvious and immediate affinity between the two works.

Large currents of religious opinion throughout the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. and elsewhere was decidedly and uniformly anticapitalist. Responding to this criticism, Novak argued that markets need not be selfishly, individualistically reductive. Novak drew from many sources in making his argument. I always thought the spirit of TSDC lay in channeling Tocqueville for the 20th Century. Like Tocqueville, Novak underscored the important, if contingent, interplay of politics, economics, and community in sustaining the good in American life. So, too, in a similar spirit, if not as American-centric as Toqueville’s Democracy in America, Novak updated and extended much of the thrust of Wilhelm Röpke‘s argument in A Humane Economy.

Most people don’t work merely for themselves, but to provide for their families and others. Market participation can be a form of vocation and self-giving rather than selfish consumerism. And the provision of employment by capital owners can itself be a vocation that sustains and nurtures families and communities rather than sunders them. As a result, Novak argued, markets are not necessarily destructive of moral community, and socialism is not necessarily protective of moral community. Indeed, Novak argued that market economies, while never to be absolutized, can sustain moral communities while socialism can destroy them. This was a bracing claim for many people in 1982, and often enough for today as well.