The current issue of First Things captures the paradox of contemporary capitalism. In “The Power Elite,” Patrick Deneen describes how the fight over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was won by corporate activism and interests. This is so, he argues, because
Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties.
Corporations use their power to effect the changes they want, which all too frequently benefit elites at the expense of working-class Americans, socially and economically.
A few pages later in the same issue, Michael Novak describes free markets as engines of creativity, solidarity, and poverty reduction. “Free markets are dynamic and creative,” he explains, “because they are open to the dynamism and creativity intrinsic to our humanity.” Competition among corporations leads to better products, available to more people. Aiding entrepreneurship and making it easier to enter the market are essential for allowing the “bottom billion” to improve their lot. Novak argues, as he has for thirty years, that the best solution for poverty is still democratic capitalism: “a system of natural liberty, incorporating both political liberty and economic liberty” and founded on a prior “moral and cultural system, constituted by civic institutions and well-ordered personal habits.” Today, however, that system is changing fast, endangering the families and social organizations that help society flourish.
In Deneen’s mind, capitalism undermines society. In Novak’s, the right kind of capitalism is an important component of a free society, but by no means the only one. Those who seek to maintain the benefits of free markets without undermining the moral foundation on which society rests should review the basics of Michael Novak’s work. An American and Catholic Life: Essays Dedicated to Michael Novak is a good place to start. The essays in this recent festschrift capture the important moments of Novak’s life and touch on many of the themes of his work, which ranges from philosophy to sports to religion and the American founders. Novak’s most significant intellectual contributions examine the way in which theology shows us what makes a society free and virtuous. In particular, they offer insight into three main topics: economics, civil society, and charity.
Catholicism and Capitalism
Novak’s economic positions are some of his most controversial, perhaps because they touch on an unfortunate division within American Catholicism. It’s common to argue that both sides of this divide pick and choose what teachings to accept: progressive Catholics dissent from the teachings about sexuality and the human person, while conservative Catholics dissent from teachings about the economy. In this vein, some criticize Michael Novak as a shill for capitalism, accusing him of distorting Catholic social teaching to baptize big business.
But this argument betrays a deep ignorance of Novak’s writing. At the heart of his thought on economics lies one question: What gets people out of poverty? Or, in a more academic articulation, what economic systems are most conducive to allowing people to exercise their human dignity, realize their God-given capacities, and provide for themselves and their families? When many people think of capitalism, they imagine factory owners exploiting workers. Novak sees a woman with a micro-loan who can now start a business to support her family, or a community of immigrants who have arrived in America—like Novak’s own Slovak ancestors—who through hard work in their local community can build better lives for themselves and those around them.
What leads to the flourishing of such communities? A planned economy restricted by regulation, or a more open economy that permits failure and rewards success? Novak’s conclusion, developed at great length in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works, is that free economies are best equipped to do so. Novak’s vision inspired those working for liberation from communism, in particular. It explained why the ideology of their government ran contrary to human nature and proposed what a more humane social structure might be.
But that was thirty years ago. What of today? Certainly, we must remember that business can be a real calling; offering good products to customers and providing jobs for workers in a manner consonant with Christian principles are important tasks. But where Novak argued against forms of socialism, we must argue against corrosive forms of capitalism. In particular, we must fight the crony capitalism that ties those who police the market closely to its most powerful actors. A free market helps small businesses and micro-loans, but also allows for large and exploitative corporations. We should help the former and limit the latter. Advocating a free economy does not mean being mindlessly pro-business or anti-regulation. Rather, it means returning to core truths about the nature of the human spirit and the dignity of work and thinking about how these can best be promoted for the least among us.
As part of that, Samuel Gregg reminds us, we must remember Novak’s admonition that a free economy and constitutional democracy require “a culture that underscored the reality of moral truth and that held up, as the founders did, virtue and human flourishing as the goal of freedom.” Liberty allows economic actors to exercise and cultivate virtue.
Family and Civil Society
For Novak, economic liberty is not an absolute goal, but an important component in a society that allows its members to grow and flourish. As Samuel Gregg puts it, Novak argues that a free and virtuous society has “three legs: a free economy, a virtuous citizenry, and a political system grounded in accountability and responsibility.” By that standard, Gregg points out, the US is not looking good:
We have not so much a free economy as we have managerial, in some cases crony, capitalism; we have a citizenry that largely does not see or want to know about the happiness found in freely choosing to live in the truth; and we have a political system in which accountability and responsibility are increasingly voided and avoided.
Where are we to look for a solution? One possibility is to focus on large-scale solutions: government programs implemented at a distance to bring about greater material welfare. Historically, the results of those efforts have been a great lesson in unintended consequences. Instead of raising the American underclass out of its plight, they further entrenched it there. Figures such as Novak recognize that this was because poverty is not only about material wealth but about moral and social wealth. Communities don’t just need economic assistance. They need to cultivate values that will allow them to flourish. Any economic assistance that hurts the cultivation and transmission of such values will do much more harm than good.
This leads Novak and other figures to focus on civil society or the “mediating structures” that exist between the person and the state. These include churches, businesses, charities, unions or guilds, and non-profits such as the Boy Scouts. But the mediating structure in which values are first cultivated and transmitted is the family. Brian Anderson captures the core of Novak’s argument:
As Novak argues, it is in the families and communities of civil society that the moral life takes form and people learn about duties and personal responsibility, not just rights and self-interest and entitlement. . . . it is primarily in the family that we become self-governing—self-policing—citizens.
In other words, the family is the fundamental unit of society. It must be protected and strengthened by other parts of society so that it can help individuals and society as a whole to flourish.
Civil society has an enormous potential to build networks of growth from the ground up. It does not exist to serve the state; on the contrary, Novak argues, the state exists to serve it. Furthermore, the family is not only a place where moral capital is accrued, but also where financial capital begins. Many get their first jobs from parents, uncles and aunts, and members of their churches. Those who are serious about helping the poor need to take account of the moral ecology required for human flourishing and the structures that maintain it.
Divine, Cosmic, and Personal Charity
One other theme stands out in An American and Catholic Life: charity. In her essay, Elizabeth Shaw describes charity as not only the “pure and perfectly gratuitous love of God” but also, in Novak’s words, our “partial, fitful, hesitant, and imperfect” participation in that love.
The application of charity to the social order is what Novak calls the caritopolis, the civilization of love. A civilization of love recognizes that material things, the state, civil society, and the free market can be good in their own rights, but not absolute goods. Rather, they should be ordered to help members of society attain their highest good: union with God, who is love itself and the source of all that exists.
The caritopolis is not sentimental but realistic, especially about the failings of the human beings who comprise it. As Shaw puts it, “the Civilization of Love takes the best, most proactive approach to the fallen human condition, and indeed it exists precisely to confront and correct these shortcomings.” It also recognizes that human beings are social creatures. Respect for the dignity of the human person and the indispensability of human solidarity help form the foundation of a just and loving society.
Although the characteristics of caritopolis are universal, each society will manifest them in its own ways. Novak emphasizes “the right of societies to maintain their own unique character, the integrity of their own culture, and the historical source of their own spiritual unity.” This right must be balanced by a “cultural humility,” which recognizes that no culture possesses the truth completely but all stand under the judgment of truth. That in turn requires an understanding that the truth exists, that it can be attained, and that it can make demands on those who find it.
Where We Go from Here
In a sense, Novak and his vision of the caritopolis won their first big argument. Liberal democracy and the free economy triumphed in the Cold War. But the ground for the debates in which Novak engaged has shifted. We now wonder how to maintain a free economy, robust civil society, and the subjectivity of society in the face of the consumerism and cronyism that plague global capitalism. Samuel Gregg and others have sought to address these questions by building on Novak’s arguments. But Patrick Deneen, David Schindler, and others have argued that there are deeper problems with Novak’s thought, in particular his argument that the liberal philosophy undergirding the American founding can be reconciled with Catholicism.
In the afterward to An American and Catholic Life, Novak offers a rejoinder to these critics. He argues that certain liberal institutions are among the goods of the American founding, including “trial by jury; religious freedom; the separation of governmental powers; the division as well as the interdependence of the three great systems of a free society, the political system, the economic system, and the moral-cultural system; freedom of the press . . . .” But, he continues, “liberalism as a philosophy is unable to account for these institutions, is peculiarly vulnerable to relativism and authoritarianism, and is chiefly responsible for undermining the liberal institutions that we cherish.” Schindler and Deneen join many secular liberals when they think that liberal philosophy can explain the American founding. Instead, Novak thinks that “our philosophy lags behind our living.” Instead of condemning America to its root, we should conserve its best institutions by joining them to the non-liberal theological and philosophical principles by which we have lived.
However, our philosophy is conquering our living. The task now facing those who follow Novak is how to conserve and ground the goods of democratic capitalism in the face of undemocratic corporations, political parties, and slanderous internet commentators. The solution is not to blame free markets tout court. Rather, we should fight what undermines the moral ecology required for free societies, and free markets.
This will not be easy work. But the example of Novak’s life and the tenor in which he has engaged so many controversies provide another important lesson. Novak treats his intellectual opponents with a rare—and regularly unreciprocated—amount of charity, respect, and good humor. Throughout his debates in the public square, Michael Novak has lived out the charity, breadth of knowledge, and openness rooted in the truth that he preaches. We should do no less.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.