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The Soul of Democratic Capitalism

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The Soul of Democratic Capitalism

Michael Novak, R.I.P. February 17, 2017
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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. 

Novak showed that democratic-capitalist societies did promise—and often instantiate—moral goods. Respect for the individual conscience, the rule of law, the ignition of creativity and entrepreneurialism, general prosperity—these were remarkable achievements by any historical standards. Novak’s social thought proved hugely influential, cited by Margaret Thatcher and Poland’s Solidarity activists, who read it in Samizdat editions. Many believe that Novak even helped Pope John Paul II change his mind about free markets.

As Novak acknowledged in his thoughtful 2013 political autobiography, Writing From Left to Right, it took him a while to see all this. He spent the 1960s and some of the 1970s as a radical leftist, opposed to the Vietnam War and sharply critical of mainstream American life. His move to the right was gradual, not a sudden conversion, based partly on his research in political economy and partly on his work on Democratic political campaigns, which brought him into contact with America in all its untamable variety. Left-wing opinions about the country began to seem abstract, far removed from the concerns of real citizens—especially the kind of hardscrabble folks he grew up around in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (today, they’d be called “deplorables”). By the late seventies, his political evolution was basically complete—indeed, leaving academia (he had taught at Harvard, Stanford, and the State University of New York), he moved to the American Enterprise Institute, helping over the course of three decades to make that conservative think tank a standard-bearer for right-of-center thought.  

Yet Novak also feared the intensifying nihilism of the modern world. He saw a bad freedom—liberty as an expression of will, unleashed and untrammeled by any natural or supernatural constraints—as “the dark underground river” of our time, threatening to sweep away the achievements of democratic capitalism and bring chaos. True freedom was ordered liberty, freedom as self-government, both personal and political. We were made in the image of God, Novak believed, but we were also fallen, capable of evils petty and profound, and so needed uplift. The free society couldn’t last without a strong moral culture, with bright standards of right and wrong. He was a fierce advocate for a rich tradition of thought—running from Thomas Aquinas to Pope John Paul II by way of Alexis de Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers—that saw freedom and virtue as necessarily entwined.

Another major theme of Novak’s social thought was the centrality of civil society. Our age saw the massive expansion of state power, which took horrifying form in the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, which crushed people and independent institutions like insects and set the world aflame. It took less deadly form in the swollen welfare state, which suffocated civil society and discouraged independence and autonomy. Novak was one of the original architects of welfare reform, seeing it as a way to free people from the trap of government dependency, while reinvigorating the sphere of social life outside the state, where citizens could pursue their varied interests and purposes.

This is just to scratch the surface of Novak’s intellectual contribution, which was immense, ranging across multiple disciplines and genres: novels and poetry; on-the-ground reporting about the Second Vatican Council; theological explorations of the “experience of nothingness” and the problem of atheism; studies on the Catholic faith, American ethnicity, labor history, philanthropy, American political institutions, sports, the religious beliefs of the Founders, and much more, all of it written with verve, immediacy, and a capacious liberality.

I had direct experience of this liberality, having worked with Novak as a researcher in the mid-1990s. My debt to him is hard to express. I had come to AEI for the summer to work on my Ph.D. dissertation, stuck in a typical graduate school funk. At the end of the summer, he asked me if I wanted to finish my doctorate while working for him at the institute. A big point in my favor: I had played ice hockey as a goalie, and so, he felt, “could handle lots of pressure.” I jumped at the opportunity, and it changed my life.

The pressure was certainly there. Novak worked tirelessly, and, accustomed to the sloth of academic life, I had to learn to keep up. Not only was he always writing; he was always engaged—working on public initiatives, writing occasional speeches for politicians, advising presidents (he was an ambassador for human rights under Ronald Reagan) and religious leaders alike, and publishing a monthly magazine, Crisis, on Catholicism and public life, where he put me to work as literary editor. It was a wonderful four years, a constant blur of exciting, world-shaping activity. I gave up the idea of becoming a professor and entered the think tank world for good.

Which isn’t to say that he couldn’t be a tough boss. One time, I arrived back at my Alexandria, Virginia, apartment on a Sunday night, to be greeted with a long message from him on my answering machine, which concluded: “Brian, I’ve reviewed the research work you gave me last week, and I just want to say, this is the first time you’ve completely failed.” That phrase—the “completely” implying so many earlier partial failures—became part of the day-to-day lingo of amused Dominican monks in Poland, with whom I shared the story and with whom we stayed every summer, while participating in an institute on the free society that Novak founded with George Weigel and the late Richard John Neuhaus.        

Novak was incredibly generous, treating me and my fiancé, and then wife, Amy, as family—we even lived in his basement for a while—bringing us to Baltimore Orioles baseball games (he drove from D.C. to Camden Yards like a madman), and letting us stay at his Delaware summer home. He served as a de facto thesis advisor, forcing me to finish my dissertation, which he read, chapter by chapter, offering pointed suggestions. Through Novak, I got to meet many other amazing people—not only his lovely wife Karen, who died a few years ago, and daughter Jana, with whom he coauthored two books, but also Neuhaus, Weigel, and Robbie George, giants all, and, unforgettably, Pope John Paul II himself, at Castel Gondolfo.

They don’t make them like Michael Novak anymore. May he rest in peace—and may his ideas and example live on.  

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