By Steve Forbes
Originally published on March 28, 2017 on Forbes
Michael Novak, who died recently at age 83 from colon cancer, was a philosopher and theologian of the first rank. His writings on capitalism, democracy and religion had an enormous influence in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, they provided critical intellectual underpinnings that led to the demise of Soviet communism. Ideas are the lenses through which people view the world, whether they realize it or not, and the eyeglasses Novak supplied were essential to the great flowering of democracy and free-market commerce in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Novak counseled Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the morality of free markets. Margaret Thatcher repeatedly and generously acknowledged the impact Novak had on how she came to view the moral basis of capitalism. Novak's books were smuggled into communist-controlled countries.
Alas, because of egregious policy errors by free-world leaders and economists in recent years, especially regarding monetary policy, capitalism is under a cloud, free trade is branded an enemy of the people and world stability is unraveling in unnerving and dangerous ways. As we saw in the 1930s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1970s, economic stagnation that seems inexplicable and impervious to the ministrations of democratically elected leaders will beget increasingly ugly consequences.
During his young years, Novak aspired to be a priest and attended a special high school at Notre Dame to prepare for it. He later abandoned that quest (one of his brothers did enter the priesthood) and, after receiving a master's degree in the history and philosophy of religion from Harvard, pursued a life of study and political activism. He started out as a man of the left--he worked for George McGovern during his disastrous 1972 campaign against incumbent president Richard Nixon--and then rapidly gravitated rightward as he became convinced that "the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time."
More impressively, Novak began to see commerce in a new light, having formerly regarded "business [as] merely buying and selling, mere hucksterism, after all." Instead, "such hope as we have for alleviating poverty, and for removing oppressive tyranny--perhaps our last, best hope--lies in this much despised system. Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely."
Novak had no rose-colored view of the system. "I would not want it to be thought that any system is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Capitalism isn't. Democracy isn't." Despite commerce's lowly, pedestrian status, he recognized that free markets enhanced humanity by encouraging, with our hardly being aware of it, interacting and working with each other in ways that produced prosperity and the opportunity for the previously oppressed to, as Lincoln put it, improve their lot in life. It gave people the chance to develop their particular talents. It encouraged a creativity that would enhance the lives of everyone. It had people looking to the future rather than to just the narrow here and now. Its end products are the opposite of greed, selfishness and miserliness--misers do not found the Microsofts, Wal-Marts and Apples of the world.
Our Founders, Novak perceptively noted, based the new American Republic on free-market commerce because such a system attacked a sin even more deadly than hate: envy. "Hatred ... is at least visible and universally recognized as evil. Envy seldom operates under its own name; it chooses a lovelier name to hide behind, and it works like a deadly invisible gas. In previous republics, it has set class against class, sections of cities against other sections."
By contrast, in a commercial society, "when persons see that their material conditions are actually improving from year to year ... they stop comparing themselves with their neighbors."
Novak's observations led to his classic work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a dazzling and nuanced work that made the moral case for a system that even most of its practitioners had never considered a calling or particularly exalted. Critics, particularly those on the left, were aghast at the audacity of Novak's tying morality to commerce.