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Breaking new ground
on August 10, 2002
The American theologian Michael Novak converted from socialism to capitalism in the 1970s, somewhat against the trend of the times. It might be said that he got in early to beat the rush to the neoconservative right. He has written that his liberal humanist education, mostly in philosophy and theology, was anti-capitalist 'as was common'. At the age of 40 he recognized a need to question his presuppositions about political economy and especially economics. This led him to discover and eventually to celebrate democratic capitalist traditions and institutions, especially in their North American form. He is especially proud of the achievements of the founding fathers of the Constitution with their appreciation of the need to separate the powers of church and state, and to take precautions against the predatory activities of political factions.
In his capacity as a Catholic theologian he has been especially concerned to reply to the moral critics of capitalism who typically argue that the system abandons the public interest and the welfare of the community to self-interest and the pursuit of individual gain. In one of his other books, Free Persons and the Common Good, he attempted to retrieve from the Catholic literature a conception of the common good that is consistent with capitalism and the market order. Novak taook up this challenge with a tortuous excursion into the works of Catholic thinkers, among them Aquinas who Lord Acton described as 'the first Whig'.
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.
Novak supports the market liberal thrust for free trade and he also endorses the traditional, conservative notion of the rule of law against certain types of social engineers and judicial activists. However he does not object to the welfare state because he thinks that it is necessary in these days of fragmented communities and highly mobile people. Those who like their ideology strong and pure will deplore this lapse from grace but it shows Novak's willingness to get the best of both worlds, if this is at all possible. In the same way that he is determined to retrieve the best of Catholic theology he is prepared to take whatever he finds acceptable from the diverse strands of liberalism, ranging from the laissez-faire of von Mises and the deregulators to the left-liberalism of the American democrats. Novak challenges libertarians who have no time for religious traditions and he challenges religious conservatives who regard the liberal tradition as self-centred. This book maintains his reputation for breaking new ground and making connections between apparantly antagonistic modes of thought.