The Tao of Michael Novak

February 27, 2017

"My own field of inquiry is theology and philosophy. From the perspective of these fields, I would not want it to be thought that any system is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Capitalism isn't. Democracy isn't. The two combined are not. The best that can be said for them is that, in combination, capitalism, democracy and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities and conscience of ordinary citizens (all citizens) than any known alternative."
--Michael Novak, The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 1994
. . . . .
The best disciples are rarely born to faith. For, having been born into something, we oft take it for granted. Fail to dive deep. Study its intrinsic details. Never grow to truly love, live by, or obsess over it.
Such was the journey of Michael Novak. Not raised in his faith. But converted as a young man. Fully embracing what became a spiritual quest into the religion of Democratic capitalism.

Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, Novak was a early devotee to socialism. Believing that only an economic platform that provided for some of society by taken from all of society could square with his Catholic faith and philosophical underpinnings.
As a young man, however, he stumbled upon a flaw.
While socialism sounded good in theory, in practice it did not work. And non-elites were the biggest victims of its inadequacies. Novak realized that, unlike socialism, capitalism had little high-minded theory. Yet, in practice, it provided the goods. He concluded that, if ordinary folks did so much better under capitalism, then perhaps the caricatures -- all based on greed -- were wrong.
Perhaps free markets had their own virtues. Were defensible. Maybe even superior to other economic systems on moral grounds.
From this epiphany sprung his seminal book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
"Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin," he wrote. "Yet all other known systems on political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny -- perhaps our last, best hope -- lies in this much despised system."
Novak realized many of the political and religious leaders that espoused other economic systems possessed little-to-no economic education. And so their ideologies drove them into the arms of systems that sounded good. But always failed in practice. They focused on redistributing wealth with no regard as to how wealth is created. Which drew such ideologues, like moths to a light, towards any model that promised nirvana. Offered panaceas for poverty. But in reality? Lacked real-world application.
Novak saw kind-hearted capitalists as "the main hope" for the billions around the world still locked in poverty's throes.
More effectively than socialism, or Third-World economic models, capitalism could help the world's impoverished to break the bonds of poverty. Discover opportunity. Meaning. Initiative. And arise into the middle class. Or higher.
Unlike dictatorships, free economies are predicated upon a representational function. Meaning that, being comprised of a great many disparate parts, a legislative body or parliament serves to represent all people. Providing every individual facet of a representative democracy with an active voice to lobby on its behalf.
Most importantly, Novak recognized how the Founders understood the destructive force represented by envy. Even calling envy the most destructive social passion. More so than hatred. Because hatred is visible. Obvious. Identifiable. Envy, however, operates under many disguises. It chooses a more acceptable moniker. Then works like a poison gas. Setting class against class. Creed against creed. Parts of cities against one another. And family against family.
The Founders knew this from the beginning. Stood against it. And worked to protect the system from it. As in, "Divided we fall..." They sought to proactively neutralize the evils of envy.
Today? Many in our political class work to stoke its destructive flames. Hoping to pit us one against the other. As a means of dividing the electorate. A tool to get elected.
Wisely, the Founders realized that the republic could not be build upon religion. Nor the aristocracy. Or military. They recognized that, for representative democracy to work, it would have to be laid within a more humble and more typically despised class: those engaged in commerce. Business people. So the founders opted not for a religious or military republic, but a commercial one.
Because when a citizenry recognizes that its stead has improved month after month, year over year, it begins to focus upon future prospects. New goals and objectives. As opposed to focusing on their neighbors. Whose goals are likely different from their own.
The only republic in the history of the world in which every citizen always has the opportunity to improve his position. Not that its every easy. But its possible. This was the worthy ideal Novak spent an entire life fighting for.
Michael Novak was a philosopher, writer, analyst and freedom fighter. A staunch advocate for individual rights and liberties. He saw capitalism's warts. But knew they were better than socialism's tumors.
Socialism is to communism as capitalism is to democracy.
Neither side of the equation is perfect. But only one side is effective. Can work for all people. Regardless of race. Socioeconomic status. Nation of origin. Or religious creed. Only the triad of capitalism, democracy and plurality has ever provided real hope for a better life. And laid the groundwork for achieving it.
Michael Novak died last week. Leaving Lovers of Liberty with one less acolyte. And making the world slightly safer for the paramours of ignorance.

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