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Capitalism and the Common Good According to Michael Novak: A Law and Liberty Symposium on First Things

Novak-as-Liberationist Won’t Fly

By Michael Matheson Miller

In his recent essay on the legacy of Michael Novak, First Things editor Rusty Reno has explained to longtime subscribers to Richard John Neuhaus’ old magazine where Reno is going with it and why. Observers such as John Zmirak and Joe Carter have wondered at several First Things pieces that shyly or openly make defenses of socialism.

Reno’s piece makes it clear that he disagrees with Michael Novak, and perhaps by implication Father Neuhaus, on the viability of a dynamic, open society—and the economic system that underpins such a system. He is looking for some alternative to the market economy. For him, that involves a number things including succumbing to the allure of what I’ll call “managerial capitalism.”

The merit of Reno’s piece is to provoke discussion about complex issues and to highlight some of the problems we face in the current system of global capitalism. I share some of his worries. Unfortunately, he seems to have let his desire to be provocative overcome a fair and reasonable assessment of Novak, and his analysis of the current state of affairs reveals less about Novak’s flaws than his own. Continue Reading Here

Getting Global Markets Wrong

By James Rogers

First Things editor R.R. Reno, a good friend of 25 years, is surely right that Michael Novak’s classic book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), is a work birthed in response to intellectual trends of the 1960s and 1970s. Novak’s book supplied a critical entry for many of his coreligionists into a moral case for capitalism. For Novak, not only is capitalism an economic system that feeds the belly (a particularly good thing for people with empty bellies), but the system’s call for economic freedom, properly understood, uniquely provides for and supports human dignity. “Human dignity” is a critical concept in Catholicism’s, indeed, in Christianity’s, social thought, a necessary implication of the Imago Dei, that is, the creation of humanity in the image of God. Continue Reading Here

Novak’s Restless Defense of the Good

By Grattan Brown

Like R.R. Reno, Michael Novak’s passing earlier this year prompted me to reread some of his writings. I served as Michael’s research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute from 2001 to 2004, admired his work, enjoyed his friendship, and with many others, including Reno, remembered him fondly. Unlike Reno, I think, my rereading led me to a deeper appreciation of Novak’s arguments and to the conviction that they should be developed, not set aside. His sophisticated analysis of the political economies of our age probe human good and evil as they manifest themselves in the social systems we inhabit.

Novak showed that capitalism has distinctive moral, spiritual, and social contributions to make to a society composed of good but also fallen people and of relatively few saints and few wicked. As Reno observes, Novak wrote during a time when societies emerging from colonialism and later from communism had the opportunity to establish capitalist economies. Novak demonstrated the fatal philosophical flaws of communism, the disadvantages of democratic socialism, and the relative advantages of capitalism, or, as some prefer to say, a business economy. A business economy not only generates wealth more abundantly than its socialist counterpart but tends to promote broad political participation and cultivates the practical reasoning and relational habits needed for meaningful, effective work and the sensible use of property. Continue Reading Here

Reno’s Critique of Globalism Doesn’t Solve Anything

By Michael M. Uhlmann

For the past 20 years or so, conservatives of all stripes—neo-, paleo-, traditional, libertarian, and more or less everyone in between—have been engaged in a lively debate about the meaning and matter of conservativism. Diverse think tanks, magazines, and symposia, not to mention innumerable blogs of every description, have devoted considerable energy to the task, addressing topics of grand theoretical import no less than practical disputes about candidates, parties, and elections.

Among the more important of these debates are those that occur at the intersection of religion, politics, culture, and political economy. Not so long ago, there was a rough consensus on such matters, not refined enough to satisfy all comers, to be sure, but sufficient to permit operational tactical agreement in opposition to the moral and political threat posed by an aggressive Soviet Union. Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982, neatly captured that workable consensus while furnishing a philosophical framework that, among other things, brought depth and breadth to the policies that made Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher such successful politicians. Many of Novak’s arguments even made their way into John Paul II’s remarkable 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. Continue Reading Here

Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Remains Essential for Our Time

By Jay W. Richards

Rusty Reno’s recent editorial in First Things, which took aim at Michael Novak’s 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was uncharitable. It also missed its target.

I have a personal stake in the matter, since Novak’s book played a pivotal role in my own intellectual journey. As a young graduate student, I struggled. My study of economics had convinced me (against my earlier instincts) that a free market was much better than the live alternatives at lifting societies out of poverty, and at allowing human beings to channel their interests in ways that benefit others. But I had read enough Ayn Rand to worry that “capitalism” clashed with Christianity. After all, that’s just what Rand had argued.

The result of this tension between my practical reason and my moral intuitions was, predictably, mental fog.

Novak’s book helped sweep away the fog. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was no partisan pamphlet. It was a nuanced and satisfying treatise that tallied up both the costs and benefits of the system. Novak understood that the economy is only one part of our social reality. Human flourishing, he argued, required not just freedom in the economic sphere, but rule of law in the political sphere, and virtue in the cultural sphere. Without all three elements, a society could not sustain itself for long. Continue Reading Here

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