The capitalist who knew capitalism was only a third of what we need
By Tim Montgomerie
- Michael Novak recognised that capitalism alone didn't nurture a good society
- Both Thatcher and Pope John Paul II were inspired by Novak
- It's up to us to fight Michael Novak's battles now
We live in a world where politicians and campaigners define themselves as pro-market or pro-state. Academics, meanwhile, are increasingly specialists in narrow and very specific corners of their subject area. And nearly all of public debate is materialist – with huge attention given to our status as employees, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, welfare recipients, public sector workers or litigants.
There’s very little focus on our relational existence and how our role as parents, neighbours, volunteers, churchgoers or trade unionists might be protected, or even enhanced. The invisibility of these ties of blood, locality, faith and cause – all of which bind to socially important effects – is illustrated by the lack of any serious attempts to even measure changes and inequalities in social capital.
In this artificially divided, heavily materialist and mismeasured world, Michael Novak was a watcher and describer of the wood rather than the trees. While he believed that capitalism was superior to other forms of economic organisation, because of the ways in which it rewarded human creativity, he argued that the free enterprise system provided roughly only a third of what produced fair, strong and morally content societies.
He was a capitalist who understood the importance of the courts, of anti-monopoly policies, of the state guaranteeing a safety net for the poor and vulnerable, of a free press, of strong family networks and of people-sized institutions that were human enough to treat individuals as individuals rather than as accounting units.
For Margaret Thatcher, he “provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life’”. And this American Catholic of Slovak heritage is also credited with moving John Paul II towards the more sympathetic account of free enterprise contained in the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus – published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when some were talking giddily of capitalism’s “end of history” triumph.
Such complacency would not have appealed to Novak. In part, this was because of his awareness that most economists and most advocates of capitalism were not just ill-equipped to explain why Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” led to moral as well as material enrichment – they didn’t even see much of a need to do so.
Novak’s 1982 work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, from which his high status in Downing Street, the Vatican and many other centres of power flowed, stood very much in the mould of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments. At least as interested in moral argument as practical economic workings, Spirit placed the capitalist system within a political and cultural context and made the case that trouble inevitably resulted when market, democratic, legal and social structures were either too strong or too weak.
Professor Novak, a deeply committed Catholic, met his Maker two weeks ago, aged 83. Scandalously few column inches remembering the man and his works have been buried underneath a Milo of Yiannopoulosity – all only serving to confirm the continuing Trumpification of US conservatism and, equally as concerning, the descent of many once proud news organisations into ratings-chasing branches of the entertainment industry.
Novak would have been disappointed, but not surprised, at Milo-isation – and itsCoulter-isation overture. The possibility that movements as well as nations and individuals can either mend their ways or completely lose the plot within the space of just one generation was central to this Catholic professor’s theology.
Simultaneously, he recognised the almost boundless creativity in human beings, made as we are in the image of God, but also knew that, as descendants of Adam and Eve, we are all equally capable of eating forbidden fruits with disastrous consequences.
This realistic view of both human potential and frailty meant he was never a one-eyed zealot for laissez-faire, state intervention or any other simplistic one-club, one-bullet or one-ideology approach to public debates.
He might not have been the compelling moral advocate for “democratic capitalism” that he became if he hadn’t – as “a good Christian” – begun on the Left. In his own words, “business was merely buying and selling, mere hucksterism, after all”.
As the seduction of the Left’s heart-on-sleeve morality began to meet the reality of poor practical results, however, especially in the Communist-run nation of his parents’ birth, his view of commerce evolved too.
It increasingly resembled the understanding articulated so eloquently by Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone. The Lord Chancellor for Mrs Thatcher’s first two terms declared that “the great advances which have been made in human happiness have been just as much due to the spinning jenny, the internal combustion engine, and the generation of steam as to the moral sublimity of a Shaftesbury, a Florence Nightingale, an Elizabeth Fry, or a Mother Teresa”.
And this takes us to what, in a completely inadequate acknowledgement of the nearly 40 books that he either wrote or edited, are three great lessons from Michael Novak’s works.
One was aimed at the Communists of his day – and could be aimed at the crony capitalists and corporatists of our own. This was that human ingenuity is what makes capitalism most special.
The second was the importance of reaching out to those, like his young self, who saw capitalism as morally deficient.
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