Michael Novak 1933-2017

If you don’t know the work of Michael Novak, let me recommend his writings to you, especially his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism which had a big influence on me. This is a memoriam titled The Soul of Democratic Capitalism which begins:

Michael Novak died February 17, at the age of 83, after a battle with cancer. It’s hard to imagine the Catholic Church—or the world—without him.

Novak is perhaps best known for his comprehensive examinations of the practical realities and ideals of “democratic capitalism,” first advanced in his 1982 masterpiece The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and developed in a series of subsequent books, including The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993), Business as a Calling (1996), and, most recently, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (2015), co-authored with Paul Adams.

Novak’s writings on democratic capitalism fought socialism not just on the level of economic efficiency, but on moral terrain, too. Socialists have long attacked market-based economies for their inequalities and consumerist frenzies, but, as Novak argued, their arguments invariably compared luminous socialist ideals with the often prosaic realities of capitalist societies. Had socialists looked instead at the socialist world as it actually existed, they would have found truncheon-enforced political conformity, economic ruin, and spiritual decay.

Requiem in pacem.

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4 Responses to Michael Novak 1933-2017

  1. Rafe Champion

    On Free Persons and the Public Good.
    From the review.

    His account of the American experience as an adventure of classical (non socialist) liberalism is more convincing. He identifies several valuable moral traditions which were called forth by democratic capitalist institutions in the early American colonies. These include civic responsibility, personal economic enterprise, creativity and a special kind of communitarian living. He also offers a cogent rejoinder to the critics who accuse capitalism of lacking moral or spiritual depth. He explains that statements on the ‘spiritual deficiency’ of democratic capitalism spring from a “horrific” category mistake. Democratic capitalism is not a church, a philosophy or a way of life, instead it promises three liberations; from tyranny and torture; from the oppression of conscience, information and ideas; and from poverty. The resulting social order provides space “within which the soul may make its own choices, and within which spiritual leaders and spiritual associations may do their own necessary and creative work”. He suggests that Democratic capitalism has done rather well on the score of promoting spiritual and cultural life, in contrast with Fascism and Communism which aspired to cater for higher human needs.

    The most significant achievement of the book is to explain how the common good can be served by the blend of individualism and free-market institutionalism (under the rule of law) that is advocated by von Mises and Hayek. Both these writers and other classical liberals dismiss the notion that there is anything identifiable as the common (collectivist) good. But the kind of ‘common good’ that Novak identifies is not of the collectivist variety, instead it is a framework of institutions and traditions which maximises the chance for all individuals to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This particular kind of common good is promoted by the extended order of morals and markets, provided that the markets and other vital parts of the system of law and government are working properly. Here the notion of the rule of law is crucial because it defines an essential function for strong (but limited) government.

  2. C.L.

    I was an avid reader of Novak in the 90s. The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was especially influential. The overarching goal of his endeavours was to demolish the phony connectedness of compassion and socialism – now, sadly, being promoted by a communist pope. Fr Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute (and Mont Pelerin Society) has worked towards this same goal, with the same skill and tenacity.

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