This year the Novak family will celebrate together on the 12th day of Christmas rather than on main first day, and we will do so in the City of St. Anthony in Texas at the home of Rich and Lucy, Emily and Stephen. We send warm wishes to friends and family spread all over the world.
The pictured village is Brutovce [Bru-tov'- seh] in Slovakia where Michael’s mother’s family – the Sakmars – are from. The mountains in view are the Tatra Mountains on the border of Poland, along the last of the Swiss Alps dwindling off toward the East.
The exhortation looks very different read through the lens of Argentine experience.
Published by Michael Novak in National Review on December 7, 2013
Reading the new exhortation by Pope Francis after the wildly misleading presentations of it by the Guardian and Reuters (both from the left side of the U.K. press), and reading it with an American ear for language, I was at first amazed at how partisan and empirically unfounded were five or six of its sentences.
But reading the exhortation in full in its English translation, and reading it through the eyes of a professor-bishop-pope who grew up in Argentina, I began to have more sympathy for the phrases used by Pope Francis.
For one thing, I have closely studied the early writings of Pope John Paul II, which grew out of long experience of an oppressive Communist regime that pretended to be wholly devoted to “equality,” yet enforced total control over polity, economy, and culture by a thorough and cruel state. From 1940 (under the Nazi/Soviet occupation) until 1978 (when he moved to the Vatican), Karol Wojtyla had virtually no experience of a capitalist economy and a democratic/republican polity. To come to understand the concepts behind that sort of political economy, he had to listen closely and learn a quite different vocabulary.
The early experiences of these two popes were very different. So, having spent not a little time lecturing in Argentina and in Chile since the late 1970s, I read the entire exhortation with an ear for echoes of daily economic and political life in Argentina.
In my visits to Argentina, I observed a far sharper divide between the upper middle class and the poor than any I had experienced in America. In Argentina I saw very few paths by which the poor could rise out of poverty. In the U.S., many of those who are now rich or middle class had come to America (or their parents had) dirt poor, many of us not speaking English, with minimal schooling, and with mainly menial skills. But before us lay many paths upward. As Peru’s Hernando de Soto stresses, the U.S. had the rule of law and clear property rights, on which one could safely build over generations.
Virtually all my acquaintances while I was growing up had experienced early poverty. Our grandfathers were garment workers, steelworkers, store clerks, gardeners, handymen, blue-collar workers of all sorts, without social insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, or the like. But they labored and somehow were able to send their children to colleges and universities. Now their children are doctors, lawyers, professors, editors, and owners of small businesses all over the country.
In his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith compared the economic history of Latin America with that of North America. He noted that in Latin America there were still many institutions of feudal Europe — large landholders, plantations, plantation workers. In North America, only the southern United States was something like that.
Throughout Latin America, for almost two centuries at the time Smith wrote, many economic powers and permissions were doled out by government officials in far-off Spain or Portugal. In the Dominican Republic, for example, a farmer who wanted to build a small iron foundry had to wait months or years until a decision came back from Spain. Trading with pirates was easier. In the English-speaking colonies of North America, however, a farmer could just build his foundry without asking anybody. And even after the various Latin American countries achieved independence, habits of state direction were still entrenched, as if by immemorial habit.
Besides, experience in the Anglosphere had led to a distrust of monarchs and their courts, and later of barons and dukes and the aristocracy as a whole, since these people could not be counted on either to see or to serve the common good. By contrast, the opposite habit of mind had grown throughout the Latin world. There, officials of the state were regularly entrusted with minding the common good, despite a long record of official betrayals of duty, outbreaks of tyranny, and the use of economic resources to enrich successive leaders of the state. In Latin America, the pluralistic private sector was mistrusted, but not the state.
By contrast, in the U.S., under a government strictly limited by law, there grew up almost universal property ownership by individuals (except under the evil institution of slavery, America’s primal sin), a large swath of small enterprises, and a huge base of prospering small farms. Smith described the creation of wealth in North America as welling up from below, from the prosperity at the bottom, where frugal habits led to wise investments in railroads, canals, and other large business corporations.
Less than 70 years after Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a son of the frontier farm country of central Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, spoke eloquently about the evidences of global trade visible in homes across the prairie — tobacco, cotton, spices, whiskey, sugar, tea, glassware, silverware. He attributed this enprospering trade to the daring of American seamen (as Tocqueville also did).
Lincoln also wrote about the patent-and-copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed to inventors the right to the monetary fruit of their inventions. Lincoln thought this small clause one of the six greatest contributions to liberty in the history of the world. He thought it critical to liberating human beings everywhere from misery and tyranny.
That single clause — the only time the term “right” is used within the body of the Constitution — launched a wholly new economic model for the world, based not on land (as it had been for thousands of years) but on creative ideas, inventions, and discoveries, which greatly speeded up a cascade of new improvements and new products to enrich the lives of ordinary citizens. The more people these improvements helped, the higher the inventors’ royalties. By serving others, they reaped rewards. These rewards furthered the common good.
The Polish pope, John Paul II, recognized this huge social change in Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991), of which paragraph 32 opens: “In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is no less important than land: the possession of know-how, knowledge, and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.” The rest of this paragraph is concise in its penetration of the causes of wealth and the role of human persons and associations in the virtue of worldwide solidarity, of which globalization is the outward expression.
Pope John Paul II quickly recognized that today “the decisive factor [in production] is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.” (See the whole of paragraph 32 here.)
Then in paragraph 42, John Paul II defined his ideal capitalism, succinctly, as that economic system springing from creativity, under the rule of law, and “the core of which is ethical and religious.” In his first social encyclical ten years earlier, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), directly rejecting orthodox Marxist language about labor, the pope had already begun to project “creation theology” as a replacement for “liberation theology.” A bit later, he reached the concept of “human capital.” Step by step, he thought his way to his own vision of the economy best suited to the human person — not perfectly so, in this vale of tears, but better than any rival, Communist or traditional. John Paul II set it forth as “the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress.” (See the whole of paragraph 42 here.)
* * *
As the 20th century began, Argentina was ranked among the top 15 industrial nations, and more and more of its wealth was springing from modern inventions rather than farmland. Then a destructive form of political economy, just then spreading like a disease from Europe — a populist fascism with tight government control over the economy — dramatically slowed Argentina’s economic and political progress. Instability in the rule of law undermined economic creativity. Inflation blew to impossible heights. (I brought home from Argentina in the early 1980s a note for a million Argentine pesos that had declined in worth to two American pennies.)
Over three generations, very little of the nation’s natural wealth and opportunity for social advancement has overflowed into the upraised buckets of the poor. Upward mobility from the bottom up was (and is) infrequent. Today, the lot of Argentina’s poor is still static. The poor receive little personal instruction in turning to independent creativity and initiative, and few laws, lending institutions, and other practical arrangements support them in moving upward. Human energies are drained by dependency on state benefits. The visible result has been a largely static society, with little opportunity for the poor to rise out of poverty. A great inner humiliation comes over the poor as they see their lack of personal achievement and their dependency. If this is what Pope Francis was painfully visualizing as he wrote this exhortation, it is exactly what the eyes of many other observers have seen.
The single word “capitalism” has a number of very different meanings, based on very different experiences. In many Latin countries, today’s corporate leaders are often the grandsons of the great landholders of the past. Some of these are men of vision, invention, and personal initiative who have built their own firms. Yet as of now most Americans cannot name a single household item invented by a Latin American.
True, in several new fields, creativity and invention are growing in Latin America. The Brazilian Embraer jets (used in the fleets of many U.S. carriers), for example, are highly useful originals. But still the economic system of Argentina and other Latin American countries is very like a static traditional market system, not yet capitalist in invention and enterprise.
* * *
Anyone commenting on the economic themes of Evangelii Gaudium should note at the outset that the pope insists this document is not a full expression of his views on political economy but only an expression of his pastoral heart. In paragraph 51 Francis writes:
It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” . . . In this Exhortation I claim only to consider briefly, and from a pastoral perspective, certain factors which can restrain or weaken the impulse of missionary renewal in the Church, either because they threaten the life and dignity of God’s people or because they affect those who are directly involved in the Church’s institutions and in her work of evangelization.
But about six of his swipes are so highly partisan and biased that they seem outside this pope’s normal tranquillity and generosity of spirit. Exactly these partisan phrases were naturally leapt upon by media outlets such as Reuters and the Guardian. Among these are “trickle-down theories,” “invisible hand,” “idolatry of money,” “inequality,” and trust in the state “charged with vigilance for the common good.”
Why is it then, asks Mary Anastasia O’Grady, one of the shrewdest observers of Latin America today, “that most of today’s desperate poor are concentrated in places where the state has gained an outsize role in the economy specifically on just such grounds”? Ever since Max Weber, Catholic social thought has been blamed for much of the poverty in many Catholic nations. Pope Francis inadvertently adds evidence for Weber’s thesis.
Truly, we would do well to have an economic historian set each of these highly inflammable and partisan charges in context, to explain what each meant to the author who originated them, as opposed to the partisan usage of today’s media. Allow me here to focus on the flaws in only one of the pope’s too-hasty claims: his careless mention of “trickle-down theories.” Actually, the fault here seems to have been exacerbated by a poor translation, as seen in the stark differences between the Vatican’s official English version and the pope’s original Spanish. The Spanish:
En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del “derrame,” que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.
Now compare the unfortunate English version:
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.
Note first that “trickle-down” nowhere appears in the original Spanish, as it would have done if the pope had meant to invoke the battle-cry of the American Democrats against the American Republicans. Professional translators of Spanish say the correct translation of derrame is “spillover” or “overflow.” Instead, the English translation introduces both a sharply different meaning and a harsh new tone into this passage. Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan, namely, dramatic upward mobility. (See, for example, my article “The Rich, the Poor, & the Reagan Administration.”)
Those who emphasize capitalism’s successes in raising the poor out of poverty do not use that term. They see the defining classical movement of capitalist economies as upward for the poor: higher employment rates, higher wages, measurable outbursts of personal initiative and new enterprises, unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility among the poor, immigrants moving out of poverty in less than ten years, the working-class “proletariat” becoming solid members of the middle class who can afford to own their own homes and support the higher education of their children.
There is no empirical evidence, Evangelii Gaudium says, for trust in such economic outcomes. It is “instead a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” In Argentina and other static systems with no upward mobility, this comment might be understandable. In nations with generations of reliable upward mobility, it is not true at all.
The upward movement promoted by certain capitalist systems is the experience – not a “crude and naïve trust” — of a large majority of Americans. “Trickle-down” is not an apt description of what has happened here; rather, what has been experienced is wealth “welling up from below.” Exactly this is what continues to attract millions of immigrants into our economy.
In addition, the English translation of Evangelii Gaudium insists that there are people who believe that economic growth will inevitably produce greater justice and inclusiveness (equidad e inclusión sociál). But the Spanish text does not use a word that would be properly translated as “inevitably.” The more moderate (and accurate) expression used is por si mismo, or “by itself.” Unlike the English translation, the original Spanish gets it right: It takes a lot more than economic growth to make a system “equitable.” It takes the rule of law, the protection of natural rights, and the Jewish/Christian concern for the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned — in short, effective concern for all the vulnerable and needy.
Despite its glaring faults, especially in its entertainment sector — obscene and sexually explicit pop music, decadent images and themes in movies — the American system has been more “inclusive” of the poor than any other nation on earth.
* * *
Two things I especially value in Evangelii Gaudium. The whole of the cosmos, and the whole of human life, are upward-leaping flames from the inner life of the Creator, from caritas – that outward-moving, creative love that is God. As the erudite and brilliant Pope Benedict XVI showed in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, everything crucial to human life begins in God’s caritas. Think of this in your own life: Is not the love you have for your dear spouse, children, and close friends the most “divine” experience you know?
That is one reason why Catholic social thought begins in caritas. It is also why the poor are so close to the center of Christian concern — and Christian worship.
The second point I most value is the focus Evangelii Gaudium places on the main practical task of our generation: breaking the last round of chains of ancient poverty. In 1776, there were fewer than 1 billion people on earth. A vast majority of them were poor, and living under tyrannies. Just over two centuries later, there are more than 7 billion human beings. Rapid medical discoveries and inventions have helped to more than double the average lifespan, vastly reduce infant mortality, and provide relief for hundreds of diseases. Thanks to economic progress, six-sevenths of the greatly expanded human race have now broken free from poverty — over a billion people from 1950 to 1980, and another billion since 1980. There are another billion more still in chains. The Jewish, Christian, and humanist task is to break this remnant free.
Whatever one prays in worship on Sunday gets its truthfulness from what Christians actually do in their daily lives to help the poor. If one doesn’t come to the aid of the poor, one does not love God.
“No one has ever seen God,” St. John writes in his first Letter, “but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12). And Jesus instructed, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
An exhortation is not so much a teaching document laying out a careful argument — that is the task for an encyclical. Rather, it is more like a sermon, a somewhat informal occasion for the pope to set out his vision as a pastor, and to present it as an invitation to deeply felt piety and devotion. Pope Francis excels at such personal speech.
In the future, Francis will unfold his fuller arguments about the political economy that best helps the poor to move out of poverty. I can only imagine that consultations on the subject have already begun.
I hope the pope’s aides will begin with the experience-impelled conclusion, a bit reluctantly advanced, in the well-reasoned pathway of paragraph 42 of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:
Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
To this John Paul II answered, in effect, “Yes and no.” He went on:
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.
Although economic growth falls far short of being the only goal of free societies, its blessings in terms of education, medical improvements, the prospering of freedom of conscience, and the private financing of civic life and multiple philanthropies are not inessential to the common good.
Further, it is not market systems alone that produce upward mobility, economic progress for all, and wide economic opportunity. Argentina has always had a market economy. So, too, have almost all the peoples in human history. Jerusalem in the biblical period cherished private property (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”), and it lived by a vital market (as the commercial interface of three continents). But for the 1,800 years after Christ, none of the world’s markets — nor the aggregate thereof — produced much economic development. The world’s economies remained relatively static, as they faced a merciless cycle of “fat” years followed by “lean” ones. Before the rise of capitalism, traditional market systems experienced famines and massive outbreaks of deadly diseases in nearly every generation.
Pope John Paul II came to see this historical reality. His insights are still in the treasury of Catholic social teaching, and naturally they will come to the attention of Pope Francis, who devotes a whole section of Evangelii Gaudium to the theme “Reality is more powerful than ideas.”
* * *
Finally, I would like to offer a bet: More human beings by far will move out of poverty by the methods of democracy and capitalism than by any other means.
The empirical evidence from the swift upward thrust of the war-leveled economies of 1946–48 — those of Japan and Germany, but also those of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, which turned to democracy and one form or another of capitalism — is overwhelming. But so also is the evidence from most of us in the United States, whose grandparents were “the wretched refuse” of the earth, yet now in a short time their families are counted among the most affluent people of the world. How was that possible? Through what system was that done, and what are its imitable secrets?
Those who wish to be practical and successful in breaking the remaining chains of poverty in the world might learn from what has worked until now, right before our eyes.
— Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.
Throughout, Mr. Novak’s tone is conciliatory. He draws warm portraits of allies, but he’s also magnanimous toward political opponents. This marvelous political memoir deserves the widest possible readership.
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Writing From Left to Right’
Published by Brian C. Anderson in The Washington Times on December 4, 2013
Catholic theologian, social thinker, diplomat, political speechwriter, journalist, influencer of prime ministers and popes, author of dozens of important books — Michael Novak has lived an extraordinary public life. “Writing from Left to Right” is his entertaining and wise memoir of that engagement with his age, and of his movement across the political spectrum.
Born in 1933 to a working-class Slovak family in Johnstown, Pa., Mr. Novak describes two stories from his childhood that colored his later politics. The first is of listening with his father to a crackling radio broadcast in 1939, announcing Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. “Study all you can about the Nazis and the communists,” his father advised. “These will be the two movements that will shape the next forty years.” The second is of his Uncles Johnnie and Emil. Both worked at Bethlehem Steel and both offered a supply of gruff common sense. The adult Mr. Novak’s anti-totalitarianism and distrust of out-of-touch elites found a source in these early experiences.
“Writing from Left to Right” briefly chronicles Mr. Novak’s dozen years as a seminarian and his initial efforts, after leaving religious life, to become a writer, including publishing a first novel, “The Tiber Was Silver,” which sold 30,000 copies.
Another chapter tells of his graduate-student days at Harvard University, where a moving encounter with the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel gave him a lifelong interest in the human “person,” a being “able to reflect on her own past, approve of some parts of it, disapprove of others, and choose among various roads into the future.” The Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, relentlessly warning about the unintended consequences of human action, became a second enduring influence from this period.
The memoir really takes off when Mr. Novak enters the political arena. He wrote speeches for Democratic stars Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy, all of whom come off as decent and impressive men. A Stanford professor at the time, Mr. Novak received an invitation from Kennedy, then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, to fly to Los Angeles to be with him as the California primary returns came in — the very night the candidate was fatally shot.
Five years earlier, Mr. Novak had been in Rome, covering the unfolding of Vatican II, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That night, he and his wife Karen would dine with JFK friend John Cogley and “The Other America” author Michael Harrington, trying to make sense of the horror.
As these names attest, the Michael Novak of the ‘60s was on the left. Several things began to push him right. One was religious. Mr. Novak sympathized with Vatican II’s progressives, who wanted to renew the Catholic faith, which they felt had become too defensive and closed to new insights into the truth. Mr. Novak’s early book “The Open Church” embodied this vision.
Mr. Novak grew troubled as Vatican II began to be interpreted as calling for a complete transformation of the faith, along the lines laid down by secular elites. Such an agenda was distant from the “probing” traditionalism of Vatican II’s leading progressives, future popes Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, Mr. Novak believed, and, in his view, calamitously misguided.
By the early 1970s, those secular elites were rubbing Mr. Novak the wrong way in other ways, too, he recounts. “I had begun to notice the appearance of two lefts — one that included my whole family and what it represented, and the other a ‘new’ left, based on a suddenly emerging ‘constituency of conscience,’ no longer rooted among people who worked with their hands and backs.”
Wealthy, self-satisfied, partisans of a new, more “sensitive” and relativistic morality, the new leftists looked down on Mr. Novak’s “unmeltable ethnics” — the working-class, predominantly Catholic, and culturally conservative Americans of Eastern and Southern European descent who’d eventually become the Reagan Democrats. Mr. Novak rejected the new liberalism’s cultural and political views, though he still considered himself a man of the left.
Mr. Novak’s rightward drift was complete after he immersed himself in the study of political economy and came out a partisan of the free economy — albeit an economy molded by a morally serious culture and robust democratic political institutions. Joining a right-of-center think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, in 1978, where he would remain until his recent retirement (and where I worked for him for several years during the 1990s), Mr. Novak read and read Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville and a vast literature of other social thinkers.
The research culminated in one of his most audacious books, 1982’s “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” a powerful defense of democratic capitalist societies based on the very real goods they provided, including the rule of law, respect for the person and widespread prosperity. Margaret Thatcher and Poland’s Solidarity leaders, among many others, would draw inspiration from it.
“Writing from Left to Right” covers lots more: Mr. Novak’s conflicted views on the Vietnam War; his late-‘60s run-in with left-wing campus lunacy at the experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury; his stints as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights; his tireless efforts during the 1980s and 1990s to build a consensus for welfare reform and to find new approaches to help the poor; and his profound respect for Pope John Paul II, whose encyclical on the free society, “Centesimus Annus,” he clearly influenced.
Throughout, Mr. Novak’s tone is conciliatory. He draws warm portraits of allies, but he’s also magnanimous toward political opponents. This marvelous political memoir deserves the widest possible readership.
Brian C. Anderson is editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and author of “Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2007) and “South Park Conservatives” (Regnery, 2005).
I wish I could enter a plea to the Holy Father that the next time he gathers with advisers to wade into the moral domain of political economy, he might also call 911 for Michael Novak. His counsel would be, at once, savvy and reverential.
Francis, the Writer Unbound Print
Published by Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing on Tuesday, 03 December 2013
We have recently marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a composition that some us can still summon from memory, and which we cannot speak again without being moved by it again.
The same week brought Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The Holy Father sounded the cymbals and trumpets of joy in the Gospel – he invoked Isaiah: “Shout aloud and sing for joy!” John Paul II had prepared the way; Benedict proclaimed the need to get on more seriously with a new evangelization; and it appears that Francis, with his passion for doing, is bringing that project to a new plane of movement and urgency.
But the Holy Father welcomes candid engagement, and so I am sure he would not take offense if we notice that, in his extended exhortation, running over 200 pages, he did not exactly show the same powers of compression that Lincoln showed at Gettysburg. Nor, regrettably, the same clarity of teaching. Of course, he sought to cover a wider range of subjects. And along the way he had some ringing lines, as on moral relativism, including the relativism to which even pastoral workers may be prone as they recede from casting moral judgments.
But the melancholy point is that Francis showed his powers of compression mainly on those matters at the core of the “culture war” that has been tearing apart our politics and our lives. Robert George was grateful to see the pope sound the case again for orthodoxy on marriage, but in a papal document composed of 286 numbered paragraphs, “marriage” was given no more than one paragraph. And it was a paragraph notably holding back from explaining the moral argument that has not been sounded in the courts, or heard more than rarely in the pulpits.
On abortion, the pope aptly warned that the “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.” For one cannot treat flippantly the standing of this “human person” in the womb without diminishing in the same way the standing, and rights, of any other human person.
But then the Holy Father quickly turns to note that:
it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?
Nothing the Pope says here offers permission for aborting the child in these circumstances. But given what he has famously said about holding back from casting judgments, will we be surprised if people read his silence here as offering a tacit forgiveness in advance for the abortions that would dissolve the problem?
Francis surely knows that these cases have caused the most strain in explaining the position of the Church. This is the place where teaching is needed. He might have called back his earlier words and said, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” But he chose to remain silent on the matter, even after he had raised the question.
We have been told this year that the pope’s positions are far more “nuanced” than they appear in the interviews, relayed through reporters. But here he wrote in his own name at length, where he had ample room to be as nuanced as the subject required. What he produced was a hefty document, regrettably wanting in nuance on these matters of marriage and abortion.
In some quarters, what has also caused the real gnashing of teeth in response to Evangelii Gaudium has been the sections on economics. And yet the pope was careful to note that “the option for the poor” is “primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, or philosophical one.” His case for the poor is for truly engaging with them, for they are anchored in the world with things to tell us. They may be closer, he thought, to “the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”
And yet he swept past his own cautions as he inveighed against the “autonomy of markets” and the “invisible hand” – as though the grand exponents of a free economy had ever detached the “market” from the moral restraints of the law. The law would ever be in place to mark off the limits to what a decent people could demand and supply in the market.
Francis celebrates the capacity of the gospels to make all things new. But what he sees now with a fresh charm, is the romance of pursuing a “better distribution of income,” shorn of its moral fallacies, and the mischief it licenses. He runs the risk then of bringing back the apostles of liberation theology with their gospel of redistribution. That is not the Second Coming for which we have been waiting.
A decent society will tax itself to protect the destitute and disabled from perishing. That is quite different from claiming to know what the “rightful income” should be of a doctor, a ballplayer, or a plumber.
I wish I could enter a plea to the Holy Father that the next time he gathers with advisers to wade into the moral domain of political economy, he might also call 911 for Michael Novak. His counsel would be, at once, savvy and reverential.
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download
Michael Novak was asked by National Review Online to shares his favorite Thanksgiving memories as part of an online symposium: "Turkey and Memories, Sharing our Gratitude."
Published by National Review Online on November 27, 2013
After the age of about three, I guess, I have so many good memories of Thanksgiving: the time of the year, and the wind-whipped, leafless hills of western Pennsylvania; the brisk smell of burnt leaves (in those marvelous days when we could still burn leaves in our back yards); the dull sound of a football in very cold air; mud on one’s shoes from playing in the biggest back yard in the neighborhood; rolling over with the ball in the last piles of oak leaves.
Then, coming in hungry to the unrivaled aroma of long-hour slowly roasting, often-basted turkey with my mother’s specially spiced stuffing, and the scent of the baked sweet potatoes and all the other vegetables being turned on one at a time; the mashing of the milky, buttery, carefully peeled (often enough by me) red-skinned potatoes; the pumpkin pie. And we never had tart-sweet cranberries except at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Not least, the attempt to be mindful of all the reasons why people of our country should be more grateful than any other to a good providence that blessed our beginnings – and also to the good people whose virtue and valor won our independence, and who conceived of the structure of the extraordinary civic life we enjoy. As a family with relatively recent immigrants (my grandparents, who in the early days shared these meals with us), we had better reasons than most for gratefully recognizing these blessings. Such blessings are by no means universally enjoyed. Indeed, in many places, barely.
At first it seems odd to have memories most vividly of meals. Yet what would human life be without community, and how does our poor human race better celebrate our close communities than by communal banquets. Food is the great communion of our species: food and the rituals of preparing it and eating it.
One nation, under God, giving thanks together.
I have always thought that the drawback in atheism is not having the one point of union to thank. All the more reason to welcome our atheist friends and family members at the table and give them a hug.
— Michael Novak is author of Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.
Published by Mark Tooley in The American Spectator November 2013 issue
MICHAEL NOVAK IS one of the great public theologians of the last half-century, and his new memoir, Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative, illustrates why. Born in 1933 to a Slovak family in flood-famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Novak witnessed the last century’s great political disasters. His earliest such memory is of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
As an Eastern European and a Catholic, Novak viscerally felt the totalitarian horrors that brutalized his ancestral land. And he would deeply identify with, and come to know, his fellow Slav, Pope John Paul II. Novak ideologically pivoted right when the mainstream Left lost interest in robustly defending democratic order. In the 1980s he pioneered a spiritual defense of democratic capitalism that morally explained the resurgent success of America and Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, both of whom credited Novak’s insights.
In earlier years Novak worked for Robert Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Sargent Shriver, and he writes fondly of them all. He also briefly served Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, about whom he’s less appreciative. At first he felt drawn to the priesthood, but, after much anxiety, he realized his calling was to be a philosopher and writer. As a Harvard student, Novak was deeply influenced by Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, whose focus on irony, realism, and unintended consequences further equipped Novak against Utopianism.
“There were always wars in human history—new ones, generation after generation—because wars spring from the human heart itself,” Novak writes, citing St. Augustine. “Peace never lasts.” He eventually turned against “progressivism” because it “overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work.”
After his rightward turn, Novak recalls that former colleagues and friends shunned him as a heretic to the Left’s faith in unstoppable progress. He writes that these wayward friends like to cite his more appealing early work, such as his favorable coverage of Vatican II in his book The Open Church, in which he dissected the “nonhistorical orthodoxy” of those who understood the Church “in the idiom of the sixteenth and the highly defensive subsequent centuries.” But he states that their opponents, then called progressives, were the true “probing traditionalists”—future Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI among them, he sardonically notes. The Catholic Church humbly moves “along a sinewy path in the jungle, where patches of light only occasionally break through the darkness.”
His first conservative impulse came from religion, as Vatican II was reinterpreted to align with the secular “thinking of the age” instead of the actual texts and the “counter-cultural voice of ancient truths.” Novak was horrified by the assassination of America’s first Catholic president, and then two months later, his brother, a priest in Bangladesh, was beheaded during Muslim riots against Hindus. (See “The Day My Brother Was Murdered,” TAS, December 2008-January 2009.)
Vietnam momentarily derailed Novak’s conservative shift, as he demonstrated against the war while teaching at Stanford. He was especially horrified by a disingenuous speech there by Vice President Hubert Humphrey that provoked student riots. He also toured Vietnam as a reporter. The later horrors of communist conquest in Indochina persuaded Novak his thinking had not been “steady,” and he noticed the Left’s “double standards” toward communist brutality.
In 1968, Novak praised Robert Kennedy in a Methodist student magazine as “The Secular Saint,” which led Kennedy to seek him out, although Novak was already supporting McCarthy’s presidential bid. He declined Kennedy’s invitation to join him primary election night in Los Angeles, when Robert was assassinated.
Increasingly repelled by campus radicalism, Novak agreed to work for Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a fellow Catholic intellectual, in 1970 on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. He again helped in Shriver’s 1972 vice-presidential campaign, noticing the radicalization of the Democratic Party. That year his obituary for Reinhold Niebuhr in Commentary waxed nostalgic for political realism.
Novak’s 1972 book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics foreshadowed the surge of Reagan Democrats and emphasized social issues like defense of the family. The New York Times Book Review trashed it for spreading hate. Its theme of ethnic patriotic traditionalism contrasted with the new fad of multiculturalism that relied on the “logic of relativism” and denied national cohesion. Even as the New Left captured the Democratic Party, Novak worked loyally for George McGovern, an unpretentious Midwesterner with whom he retained lifelong friendship. It was among his last liberal exertions.
BY 1976, NOVAK was ready to come out as a free marketeer in a Washington Post op-ed headlined “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” He wrote: “Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion.… Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.” But his new views left him intellectually homeless, without a base.
Novak met but declined to support a still-obscure Jimmy Carter, whose views on international relations were evasive. He feared that the personalizing of policy, fueled by Carter’s Baptist faith, would inhibit the shrewd detachment necessary for a president. Novak had helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority for a forceful U.S. foreign and military policy, as championed by Scoop Jackson, whom Novak supported for the White House instead. In 1977 he joined the American Enterprise Institute as resident theologian.
At a 1980 poolside party for hawkish Democrats, Senator Daniel Moynihan asked how many were considering voting for Reagan. Every hand reluctantly went up, including presumably Novak’s. He served Reagan as ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. “I loved the Reagan presidency,” he recalls. Reagan gave him direct instructions for his UN post: “Condone no human rights abuses.”
Margaret Thatcher excitedly greeted Novak in a D.C. reception line, exclaiming she relished his work, and later invited him to 10 Downing Street. His most important book of that era, perhaps ever, was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which made the moral case for markets, and which underground movements in Eastern Europe translated and read in secret.
Novak has kind words for Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, with the exception of Clinton’s abortion zealotry, and he especially salutes Bush II’s commitment to universal human rights. He hopes democracy will yet sprout in the Arab world ,while admitting the prospect is long-term. He warns against the collapse of political conversation, imploding birth rates, the redefinition of marriage, and aggressively intolerant secularism. He inveighs against government debts, which he sees as stealing from our kids and grandkids. “I am glad that I am in my eightieth year and will not live to see the suffering, and perhaps bitterness, of these grandchildren. How they will despise us!”
The memoir concludes with Novak’s inventory of his deep admiration for Pope John Paul II. In particular, he explains the conflict he felt in the run-up to the Iraq war, which Novak thought necessary and the pope attempted to avert. He worried about losing John Paul’s friendship, but he found solace in the Catechism’s teaching on just war. In the last paragraph, Novak describes attending John Paul’s funeral with President Bush:
At one point a sudden breeze turned the pages of the open book of the Gospel highly visible on the central lectern. Then, as the varnished wood casket was slowly being lifted to be carried into St. Peter’s, the breeze nudged the clouds away from the sun, and for the first time that day a beam of sunlight fell directly upon the casket and the pallbearers.…I am not saying an act of God occurred; natural causes could explain it. But these signs expressed what we felt when we shouted into the great roar of the throng, “Santo Subito! Saint Soon! Declare him saint soon!”
Novak dedicates his book to his late wife, Karen, an accomplished artist who famously served Dove bars at a dinner for Clare Booth Luce. And he ruefully laments that he outlived her.
Conservatism’s support for free markets always threatens to implode into sterile materialism. Novak has, across decades, helped to construct a spiritual framework for a winsome capitalism premised on liberty and human creativity, sustained by biblical tradition. His old friends on the Left resented him for it. But all who cherish freedom and authentic human progress should be grateful.
About the Author Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. You can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.
Words of Gratitude By Brad Miner Monday, 26 August 2013
I watched and heard history as I was coming of age, which was when Michael Novak was making history – a great coming-of-age story in its own way, that’s all in his elegant and entertaining new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. (It will be released a week from tomorrow and may be pre-ordered here.)
I heard the news of JFK’s assassination over a scratchy school intercom and watched Ruby shoot Oswald on a black-and-white TV. A friend called my dorm to tell me Dr. King had been gunned down and – just two months later – heard on my transistor radio the news of Bobby Kennedy’s death.
And there was that war we all watched on the nightly news, like we were picnickers at Bull Run.
But Mr. Novak’s life directly intersected with all this. He was covering Vatican II on November 22, 1963 and shared a mournful dinner with his beloved wife, Karen, and with John Cogley – writer of JFK’s famous “Houston Speech” – and socialist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America.
Michael Novak was then a man of the Left.
Among the stories he tells of the Sixties is calling his friend Eugene McCarthy to say he’d decided to support Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Mr. Novak was at Stanford University when Bobby called just before the California primary to ask him to fly to L.A. to be with the clan as returns came in. Novak declined; we all recall what happened that night.
Later he worked with Sargent Shriver to elect Democrats to Congress. Between campaign stops, the two shared many long conversations about Catholic authors and theology. Novak admired Shriver’s basic, Catholic decency.
George McGovern and Jimmy Carter sought his counsel, because Michael Novak was still a man of the left in the Seventies.
But then came Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II.
Michael, who is our colleague, a founder of The Catholic Thing, writes: “I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter’s economic policies to Reaganomics.” Entrepreneurship boomed, Reagan’s “creative tax and regulatory regime” gave rise to small businesses, and employment soared. The favorable climate suddenly propelled the emergence of new technologies.
Michael’s visibility rose too, so much so that, although his prodigious writing continued, he took on a new career as a diplomat – for Reagan and for Bill Clinton.
Today our brief era of prosperity and peace has come to an end, marked symbolically, if not actually, by 9-11. “Shovel-ready” economic recovery plans and ditch-digging foreign policy remind us that if the hole keeps getting deeper, stop digging. As Michael sagely writes, the trouble with statists is that they keep digging “until the state runs out of other people’s money.”
The genesis of any political transformation is difficult to pinpoint exactly, but when Michael published The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in 1972, and when both political parties took note of its arguments, something happened that, frankly, wounded him. His “liberal” comrades shunned him:
I had never before understood how secular excommunication works – how effectively one can be banished from the innocent banter of old circles of trust, how even old friends change the flow of conversation as one approaches, signaling with a certain chill that one’s presence is no longer desired.
It’s good, he notes, that he was still young: “One needs the toughness later.”
In Unmeltable Ethnics, Michael, an “ethnic” himself (Slovak-American), had helped redefine, directly or indirectly, the political strategies of candidates from McGovern to Nixon by insisting that no single “homo Americanus” exists. But E Pluribus Unum is – must be – very real. How sad then for him to witness the downward spiral of multiculturalism, which “borrows the logic of relativism in order to assault the tradition of the Unum.”
Undercutting its pretense of relativism, multiculturalism is aggressively hostile to certain cultures, chiefly our own, with our Jewish and Christian vision of the one and the many, the different people of the one Creator held to the same transcendent standards.
Culture, he writes, is more important than either politics or economics. Culture, more than the hot-button issues of the day, is what touches hearts and moves souls. And, especially in its moral and religious dimensions, culture is what animates the decisions of real people. What is the Creed but a profound cultural statement?
Creedal beliefs are what drove three people he came to know: Reagan, Thatcher, and Wojtyla – all of whom he portrays with remarkable insight: his and others’ – as in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s statement to him that Ronald Reagan was “the most secure man in the presence of a woman that she had ever met.”
Margaret Thatcher congratulated him on his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. “You are doing,” she said warmly, “the most important work in the world.” The great Irving Kristol, already acquainted with Thatcher, stood nearby and theatrically cleared his throat. “You too, Irving,” she quipped.
A few years later, at 10 Downing Street, she would show him a dog-eared copy of the book, marked up with her notes.
John Paul II once told George Weigel: “Novak says he is Slovak, but he is actually Polish.” (Long story.)
Meeting the pope on one occasion, Michael brought Karen, a superb sculptor, who presented the Holy Father with a bronze crucifix. John Paul studied the figure of our Lord, His back arched. The Novaks were amazed to hear the pope say: “Exactly at the point of death” – exactly the artist’s intention.
Michael concludes the book by describing the role he played in helping clarify certain points in the pope’s great encyclical, Centesimus Annus.
“When it comes to life the critical thing,” G.K. Chesterton said, “is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Michael Novak – scholar, diplomat, economist, sports fan, philosopher, Democrat, conservative, theologian, writer, husband, and father – has never taken anything for granted, for which his readers are most grateful.
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices.
Published in National Review Online on September 24, 2013.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from Mr. Novak’s remarks at this year’s Forum 2000 conference in Prague, September 15–18. Forum 2000 was founded in 1997 by Czech President Václav Havel, Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel to consider the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Its focus is on democracy, human rights, tolerance, and the formation of civil societies.
For all its faults and limitations, “democratic capitalism” has one very attractive feature: It embraces many different kinds of capitalism and many different kinds of democracy. It is obvious that France is not the United States (Tocqueville recognized that in 1835). Sweden is not Italy. The United Kingdom is not South Korea. Japan is not Singapore. And so on.
When I wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982, there were many fewer political economies than there are today that could be described as democratic in their political part and capitalist in their economic part. Consider the “Asian Tigers” plus the Philippines and Bangladesh in Asia, several Latin American nations (led by Chile), several of the nations formerly under Soviet control in Eastern Europe, and the many others that have emerged since the early 1980s as capitalist, but not democratic.
Meanwhile, two principles help to define the meaning of “democratic capitalism.”
(1) The first is a principle formulated by the great sociologist Peter Berger in The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions about Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty (1986). Empirical observation clearly showed that capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the success of democracy. Berger recognized many examples of new capitalist economies that were beginning to raise up their poor, but that could not yet be called democracies. Chile under Pinochet was one such. The Philippines, Singapore, Spain, and several significant others on two or three different continents also became capitalist before becoming democratic. Nearly a dozen nations turned capitalist, especially India and China, to pull themselves out of the worst forms of poverty. But the polity of some of these was by no means democratic. The pattern seemed to be: Capitalism first, then after a time democracy.
(2) Further consideration yielded the following modifier: In the long run, democracy is a necessary condition for the success of capitalism. Two observations led to this modification. First, under dictatorships, economic decisions have often been reached without taking account of vital constituencies such as small businesses, sectors of manufacturing deeply affected by tariffs, and companies and technologies that depend on vital links to overseas partners. The economy from then on limped. Second, even successful capitalist nations such as Singapore have been plagued by problems of succession. There was no clear institutional path for securing legitimacy among the people, with its accompanying social stability. Among investors and future partners, institutional uncertainty often hurts nations badly.
THE CHINA MODEL Some observers have asked whether China’s political economy now serves as a better model for certain aspiring nations than democratic capitalism. As it is put, that question is an empirical one, to be settled by observable evidence.
As a matter of principle, however, the Chinese leadership is betting on the possibility of sustaining economic liberty without political liberties. It is currently willing to risk its future without the checks and balances built into a republican form of democracy. I judge that this project will not be successful. Once there are a sufficient number of successful entrepreneurs, they will see that in important respects they are smarter and larger in mental horizon than the party commissars. They will resent the errors made by apparatchiks. They will demand their own representation in national decisions — that is, representative government with its checks and balances. I may be wrong about this. Empirical experience will be decisive.
Yet, notwithstanding what happens in China, the sad fact is that almost everywhere in the world today, systems properly called capitalist and democratic are facing grave difficulties. Here the crucial principle to emphasize is that the concept of democratic capitalism is threefold. Democratic capitalism is a system of political economy constituted by three relatively independent systems: the free economy, the free polity (under limited government and the rule of law), and a free system of moral and cultural institutions. The third system includes scientific and artistic institutions, plus even more basic institutions such as families and churches. And it includes all the free associations and organizations of civil society. These are the very institutions that inculcate the public virtues necessary for an inventive and creative economy, and also for a virtuous, vigilant, properly checked, and limited polity.
In this respect, the history of the last hundred years seems to have been played out in three acts. The first act settled the question whether democracy or dictatorship better protects the human rights of individuals and peoples.
The second act settled the question of whether socialism or capitalism works better for the liberation of the poor from poverty. Once they turned from their separate versions of socialism (Fabian socialism and Communist socialism), India and China between them brought more than a half-billion people out of poverty in just 20 years.
The third act, in which we are now engaged, must answer this question: Which are the most favorable moral and cultural practices for the preservation of all three systems, the economic, the political, and the moral and cultural? Which institutions are successful in inculcating the virtues necessary to the survival and prospering of free societies? The fundamental question, then, is the moral question: What is the most practical moral ecology for the survival and prospering of free societies?
THE MODEL TO FOLLOW Is democratic capitalism still a model to follow? More than half the nations of the world are still trying, but the task is very demanding morally.
For instance, more than a hundred nations of the world have discovered by experience during the past 60 years that a dynamic economy is better for the poor — for hundreds of millions of the poor, as in China and India — than either of the alternatives. Those alternatives are traditional agrarian economies and socialist economies. And at the dynamic center of the best economy for the poor are habits of the heart and mind and, to give them steady support, new institutions.
The particular habits of the dynamic economy are enterprise, invention, discovery, intelligent organization, and hard intellectual (and physical) work. The institutions that nourish such virtues include: the rule of law, private corporations (especially small ones, which create most of the jobs in the economy), open and competitive markets, rights of association, rights to an inexpensive and easy incorporation in law of new businesses, respect for private property, including patent and copyright laws to protect original ideas and compositions, and tax codes favorable to good habits that bear practical fruits.
These crucial points explain the reason why the dynamic economy that raises up the poor is called capitalism. Why? Because that word derives from the Latin caput (head), the seat of ideas and invention and discovery. Capitalism is the mind-centered system. It assists economic creativity at every turn. Under agrarian systems, wealth is counted by capita – heads of cattle, horses, sheep, goats. Under capitalist systems, it is counted by the royalties accruing from ownership in ideas, discoveries, inventions.
Notably, for example, capitalism depends on laws recognizing patents and copyrights for new inventions and works of the mind. These laws make works of the creative mind more valuable than land. Thus does the agrarian society pass into the capitalist society.
In sum, markets do not make capitalism. Private property does not make capitalism. Both of these features are as old as biblical times. They mark the traditional economy, the economy of stasis, in which the vast majority of the people are poor and have little or no way to better their condition. These are societies in which the poor have for centuries had little upward mobility.
Just as “capitalism” signifies the economic part of democratic capitalism, the word “democratic” signifies the political part. But that word “democratic” is easy to misuse. Often people mean by it “one man, one vote, one time” or, more mildly, unchecked “majority rule.” But that has often paved a highway to tyranny. As Tocqueville warned, a majority is easily seduced into a “new soft tyranny,” the tyranny of being taken care of by their masters, even if that means surrendering personal responsibility, initiative, and drive. Moreover, opponents can reason with an individual tyrant, but hardly ever with a mob.
There is a wiser meaning of “democracy,” which insists on a division of powers, interests, and factions; on the rule of law; on checks and balances; on other republican institutions such as voluntary associations and civil society; and on republican virtues that generate an alert and active citizenry. Such citizens use their own initiative to improve the common good in the areas nearest to them. This form of democracy is the opposite of a tyranny of the majority.
Within it, no one is allowed unchecked power. A system of divisions and separations is installed throughout the polity. Central power is further checked by habits of mutual restraint, peaceable negotiations, a spirit of compromise.
That last word, “compromise,” has two senses. In one sense, it means giving up on moral principle, each side taking what it can get away with. But that is a slightly disguised “rule by the strongest.” In the other sense, compromise means that each side holds fast to the moral principle it is pursuing. However, both parties agree on two guidelines for action. First, steady incremental progress is made by both sides toward a common goal. Second, neither side gets everything it wanted; each side gets some progress toward its own goal.
All sides retain respect for the others, and for the differences between them. All sides agree that, in practical decisions, the course of the future is unknown to any party. All sides also agree that the full consequences of actions are never foreseeable, with the result that each side is likely to be partly right, partly wrong. Genuine compromise means constantly renewed mutual respect, for the sake of incremental forward movement by all.
In a genuinely democratic polity, each of the parties must argue strenuously for its point of view, try to learn a little from the others, try hard to discern the point at which each side has won something, reach a compromise that each side can live with — and then put all harsh passions aside for the day, and go out and have a cup of coffee together. That’s a good day’s work!
* * *
What I have been trying to bring out in these brief remarks on the economy and the polity of democratic capitalism is the constitution of its third and most important part: its moral culture. For neither capitalism nor democracy can succeed without specific new virtues (virtues not often called upon in previous eras) and new sorts of institutions to support them. Thus, the moral-cultural system of democratic capitalism is more important, more fundamental, and deeper than its political system and its economic system.
Without certain virtues in the people, neither a capitalist economy nor a free polity will long endure. A free economy, for example, needs creativity, invention, self-sacrifice, and disciplined work. A free polity needs self-restraint. The first meaning of “self-government” is self-control — unless citizens can well govern their own lives individually, they cannot govern themselves as a polity. A free polity cannot long function unless there is intense cooperation among various parties. It must foster reasoned compromise, as against narrow-minded insistence on “my way or nothing.”
What is crucial about capitalism is the virtues that it inculcates and demands. What is crucial about democracy is the virtues that it inculcates and demands.
Briefly put, the third act in the history of democratic capitalism is the moral question: Granted that a people has gained economic liberty from poverty and political liberty from tyranny, what is the moral ecology necessary for its survival as a free people, its future improvement, and its prospering? A corrupt, lazy, dishonest, and decadent society cannot preserve human liberty. It will breed a nation of serfs and slaves, who do not want to carry the responsibilities of free persons, but want only to have others take care of their needs.
Rigorous reflection shows, therefore, that democratic capitalism is an exceedingly difficult model to live up to. Its costs in moral effort and moral training are formidable. That all nations fail at these preconditions in some respects is to be expected — free societies are made from poor clay such as us. But they must cultivate sufficient virtue among their people to survive and move ahead.
AN INVENTORY OF WORKING MODELS As to the question of how many different models for economic transition there now are in the world, note that compared with the years 1900, 1948, and 1980, we have today a far vaster field of empirical examples to consider. In 1900 there were not yet six democracies in the world. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by only 48 nations.
By 1990, the worldwide icepack that had held together the socialist nations was dissolving into dozens of new “transitional societies.” Now the Middle East is alive with issues of human life and liberty. It is indeed a good time to take a new inventory, and I wholly support that idea. Experience is surely the most reliable teacher.
So far, we have learned that the first Guiding Star of these transitions is to face the truth, and not to accept lies. The second Guiding Star is to lift the poor out of poverty, so that they might exercise the mighty talents implanted within them. The third Guiding Star is to use institutions of liberty to live worthily of our human dignity, to live nobly.
What a disgrace it would be if we gained our precious political and economic liberty through the blood, sacrifice, and agonizing pain of so many millions in the 20th century, only to live as on an Animal Farm — and to allow so many millions of others to languish under tyranny and torture.
To cultivate a worthy form of moral ecology — that is the challenge we leave to the next generation. That is the challenge Vaclav Havel bequeathed all generations.
— Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. He was a founding participant of Forum 2000 in 1997 and is still active on its leadership boards.