Editor’s note: This essay appeared in Capitalism and the Common Good According Michael Novak: A Law and Liberty Symposium on First Things
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.
Novak’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that capitalism is not merely an efficient tool for allocating goods and services, and not only a means for making some people rich; it provides a creative platform for genuine human flourishing of a sort that rises above mere getting and spending. It has been the instrument par excellencethrough which millions upon millions of people have been able to escape the debilitating tyranny of poverty for the first time.
Until Novak came along, capitalism’s contributions to the enhancement of human dignity had seldom if ever received praise from moral theologians. To the contrary, most theological commentary focused on capitalism’s vices, chiefly the emancipation of greed and exploitation of the poor by the rich. That such vices exist cannot be denied (and Novak didn’t deny it), but Marxist and sentimental Christian accounts to the contrary, they tell only a partial and ultimately misleading tale.
Novak also understood what it was that made the virtues of capitalism feasible: the rule of law, the security of private property, and the establishment of limited constitutional government. Nor would these beneficial economic and legal effects be achievable, he pointed out repeatedly, without a social order that encouraged charity and moderation among its citizens. In short, free markets, liberal democracy, and a virtuous citizenry are inextricably intertwined, and if you wish to preserve such a political and social order none of the three elements can be safely disregarded.
With the Cold War’s end, the rough consensus so eloquently articulated by Novak has split all ends up. Even some of his former friends and allies have now parted company with his thesis. Conspicuous among them is R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, the journal founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus that on multiple fronts expanded upon and fortified Novak’s arguments about polity and economy. Reno acknowledges the extraordinary successes of capitalism and its interrelated institutions as described by Novak, but believes Spirit is essentially a solution to a problem that, like the Cold War era, is no longer central to our current social malaise. “It is time,” he says, “to set aside the notion that the problems we face in the West can be solved by stiffer doses of economic freedom.”
In fact, Reno adds, the very market freedom Novak did so much to encourage has now turned back upon itself and threatens “the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture.” The effects of economic globalism and rapid technological innovation tend to destroy manufacturing jobs and the sense of political community once generated by localized means of production. These same economic forces, moreover, tend to beget a new entrepreneurial class, one increasingly detached from nation and locale and, to protect their bottom line, increasingly wedded to ersatz theories of social justice and “diversity.” To make matters worse, Reno suggests, the new economy neither remembers nor relies upon the old moral virtues and in their stead embraces an ethos of autonomous individualism. –All of which is a far cry from the attributes of the free society that attracted Novak’s sympathetic understanding and praise.
Reno’s argument will attract supporters if only because he is a thoughtful man and First Things is an important journal. Indeed, the journal’s readers will see the critique of Novak as part of a larger editorial plan to reassess the ravages of postmodernism, an agenda markedly different from that once powerfully advanced by Novak and Neuhaus.
About all this, two immediate thoughts.
First, there is very little in Reno’s critique that would be unfamiliar to Novak. He understood perfectly well that a certain species of liberalism—let us call it unalloyed Lockeanism—cannot, unassisted, secure the foundations of a good society. Part of his mission, not only in Spirit but in other works as well, was to orient us toward a higher and better understanding of liberalism. This higher and better understanding, he believed, is rooted ultimately in Christian political thought and more accurately reflects the principles of the American regime rightly understood. By contrast, there are those who believe that the American proposition is essentially Hobbes and Locke all the way down and for that reason doomed to failure. This an old debate, and Reno’s essay and magazine will keep it going.
Second, it is not at all clear what Reno would have us do. The global economy is here to stay, as are the mind-bending creations of modern technology. It is well and good to note the vices of globalism and radical technological innovation, but any such critique should also note the considerable benefits produced by the same forces that appear to Reno to be almost entirely disruptive—not least in vastly lower prices for many consumer goods that are vital to the lives of the poor and downtrodden, and in life-saving medical innovations. This, too, is an old debate that finds earlier counterparts in the first decades of the industrial revolution.
As thoughtful people of good will argue about the causes and cures of our contemporary discomfit, the works of Michael Novak will remain as useful as they ever were. They are anything but a period piece of the Cold War.