Michael Novak, Defender of the Common Good

Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) helped define the way in which a generation of Christians—especially Catholics—thought about politics and economics. Novak made a theological case for democracy and free markets, arguing that they better corresponded to the truth of human freedom and ingenuity than statist systems.

Since Novak’s death last year, a new wave of thinking has arisen. Though it varies in its diagnoses and prescriptions, it is broadly skeptical of democracy and capitalism, which it sees as rooted in erroneous principles of a self-defeating liberalism that leads to social chaos and moral relativism.

On this account, the problem we face is not too little freedom, but too much. Ours is an age that requires consolidation, not liberation. Thinkers like Novak might have been right to favor liberal institutions over communist ones, but they neglected serious thought about the common good and the institutions that hold our society together.

The critique mounted by First Things editor R.R. Reno—about which Law and Liberty held a symposium in October—is representative. According to Reno, “there’s little in [Novak’s] analysis” in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism “that helps to identify the consolidating dynamics that give focus and common purpose to the ‘open’ system of democratic capitalism.”

Reno goes on to say:

More significantly, the ideal of a spontaneous, self-organizing social order works against formulations of the common good, for questions of the common good—what it is and how to promote it—shift attention away from individual freedom and initiative toward shared ends that entail obligations. In the end, and in spite of all his qualifications, the miracle of market coordination of supply and demand, and its dynamic openness to new initiatives, emerges as Michael’s dominant image of the flourishing society. The free market gives us a glimpse of the ideal society, one that features order without authority and purposeful freedom without the need for agreement about the common good beyond a procedural rule of law.

The common good was not a subject that Novak ignored, whether in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, or in the work he wrote seven years later, to mark the 40th anniversary of Jacques Martian’s The Person and the Common Good (1947). Drawing on distinctions from Maritain and Yves Simon, Novak’s 1989 book Free Persons and the Common Good sought to determine how we can conceive of the common good in a pluralistic society.

What binds together free human beings who disagree about the highest goods of human life? Novak’s answer was a rethinking of the common good not as a concrete vision for society imposed from the top down, but as an institutional framework, a concrete achievement, and a benchmark for social progress. His vision of the common good was inspired by his study of the market, but required more than just procedural agreement about positive law.

Learning from Aristotle and Maritain

The idea of the common good emerges in Aristotle, who defines it as “the fulfillment toward which human society tends.” The common good pertains to social flourishing, but Aristotle recognized that social flourishing arises from and depends on the flourishing of society’s individual members. Ancient and medieval political theory commonly envisioned the common good as the ends toward which the state directed human society. The final end of the human soul is union with God, for example. Therefore, not only should the state be occupied with the temporal welfare of its subjects, but it should help them attain that ultimate happiness by encouraging the religious beliefs and practices that lead to it and discouraging those that hinder it.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1983), in a series of lectures given at the outbreak of World War II, sought to reconcile the classical understanding of the common good with the contemporary understanding of human freedom. How can sociey’s members have in mind,  and work toward, the common good when we no longer believe that we can choose the highest goods on others’ behalf? Maritain argued that while human beings are ordered toward God as their transcendent, ultimate end, human freedom has equally transcendent value. Because human beings have a spiritual existence through the use of their intellect and free will, Maritain writes, “the metaphysical tradition of the West defines the person in terms of independence, as a reality which, subsisting spiritually, constitutes a universe unto itself, a relatively independent whole within the great whole of the universe, facing the transcendent whole which is God.”

If this is true, then human beings are not merely parts of a greater whole. The common good of society is not the good of the whole society in the way that bees only exist—and can therefore be sacrificed—for the good of the hive; nor is it simply the aggregation of all of the private goods of the individuals who live in it. “On the contrary,” Maritain writes, “the person, as person, requires to be treated as a whole in society,” even though he is also a part of the larger, social whole.

Maritain concludes, therefore, that the common good is the communion of a multitude of persons in good living—a corporate whole of flourishing individual wholes. This union is common to society and to its individual parts, “into which it flows back and which, in turn, must benefit from it. Unless it would vitiate itself, it implies and requires recognition of the fundamental rights of persons and those of the domestic society in which the persons are more primitively engaged than in the political society.” Throughout the essay, Maritain returns to the image of the common good standing above individual members of society but flowing back upon them. The common good is superior to the private goods of individuals “only if it benefits the individual persons, is redistributed to them and respects their dignity.”

This is most evidently the case with the goods that pertain to our life in society. However, since the human soul has transcendent ends and transcends society, Maritain adds that “the common good by its essence must favor [a person’s] progress toward the absolute goods which transcend political society.” The common good flows back and lifts up—or at least permits upward progress.

A Market System Can Avoid Anarchy and Relativism

Novak believed, along with Maritain, that respecting personal liberty requires an understanding of the common good that is not simple or bound to a particular social state of affairs. The common good need not be a vision that a ruler or party aims at, intends, or imposes. In addition to absorbing the thought of the French philosopher, Novak studied how markets operate. On the strength of both, he argued that the common good could be something achieved through the free participation of all citizens. This is especially true, by his lights, in a democracy—where each human being is responsible for forming his own conception of the good, both private and common.

It is important to note Novak’s recognition that such a vision of the common good could result in anarchy or relativism. But he believed it need not, if we see the common good in three ways.

First, the common good is “a liberating and cooperative social order or framework of institutions designed to liberate free persons.” This framework is the common ground on which the members of a pluralistic society agree, the philosophical concepts “that honor human capacities for reflection and choice, and interdependence of human beings.”

Second, the common good is the concrete achievement of that theoretical social order, the living out of these ideas. It is not pre-planned but attained through the decisions of individual actors.

Third, the common good is a benchmark, “a concrete practical imagining toward the next possible concrete state of affairs that is achievable.”

Therefore, for Novak, the way to attain the common good is not to place at the head of the society experts or noble rulers who can engineer it. Rather, the common good is the instantiation of the moral foundations of a pluralistic society by citizens acting in and through the institutions that embody those foundations. The common good comes about through virtuous and prudent decisions, even when these are made without the direct intention of higher social goods. In fact, in Novak’s mind, the genius of this conception of the common good is that it can be attained without the direct intention of those whom it benefits—which is good for those of us who do not always directly think about the common good every time we make a decision.

Losing Sight of Liberty

What might Novak make of his contemporary critics?

True enough, he is inspired by the self-generating order of the market, as Reno notes. His first conception of the common good is those underlying beliefs that lead to the flourishing of human societies, but he does not flesh out what those beliefs need to be. Critics might see his view of the common good as too dependent on individualistic liberalism.

What Novak said about the American Founders would counter this. They “were social thinkers, not mere individualists,” he wrote in Free Persons and the Common Good. “Whatever may be the case in the British liberal tradition, among Americans the basic unit of analysis is the community, which secures the rights of individuals and within which the individual comes to full self-fulfillment.” The Founders recognized that a “‘purely individualistic conception of the common life’ runs contrary to the principle of self-government, and would be fatal to the republic” they were launching. James Madison, for example, tried to create structures whereby the vicious enemies of the common good could end up strengthening it; he never said that there was no such thing as virtue or the common good.

However, Novak would join his critics in lamenting the further erosion of the moral consensus underlying the common good in America. In Free Persons and the Common Good, he observed that early liberals rebelled against the excessive restraint of freedom. They were right to do so. But today’s “relativism, decadence, hedonism, [and] nihilism” are even greater foes of true freedom. Mature liberalism “must now concentrate its fire upon an illegitimate absence of all restraints within the souls of free men and women. The absence of internal restraints is barbarian, not civilized. An internally disordered liberty is not liberty at all, but nihilism.”

Novak’s theory of the common good helps us guard against three temptations as we try to combat this nihilism. The first is to forget that our conception of the common good must respect liberty. The highest goods in life must be freely chosen, not legislated. He also makes it clear that the common good is primarily a matter of action and choice, not a high theory. Intellectual genealogies cannot substitute for practical institutions. Third, the common good requires a robust moral foundation, without which we cannot know or will the good. We can be tempted to tip the balance between social institutions and individual freedoms, but Novak reminds us that both are necessary for a society that seeks the common good.