The Social Thought of Michael Novak: At Odds with the Principles of Catholic Social Thought

November 1988By John C. Cort

John C. Cort, the father of 10 children, is a Boston-area writer. He has worked as a reporter, editor, union organizer, and Peace Corps and antipoverty official.

Michael Novak is a remarkable phenomenon, and in many ways admirable. A man of prodigious energy, he has written or edited about 20 books of fiction and nonfiction on such varied subjects as theology, philosophy, history, labor, sports, eth­nics, politics, economics, and the Third World. Granted, he has of late enjoyed the services of the well-funded staff of the American Enterprise Insti­tute, a conservative think-tank, where he serves as a specialist in “philosophy, religion and public poli­cy.” Still, his production is impressive.

Trained at first for the priesthood, he has studied and read widely in other disciplines. Origi­nally a self-described “democratic socialist,” he lost his socialist convictions and moved to the right in the 1970s. In 1981 he was appointed by Presi­dent Reagan to head the U.S. delegation to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. In 1984 he served as vice-chairman of a Lay Commis­sion organized by William Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Nixon and Ford. This commission consisted substantially of corpo­rate executives. Novak was the principal author of its “Lay Letter on Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy,” which appeared a few days before the first draft of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on the same subject.

Michael Novak can fairly be described as a Christian apostle to the U.S. business community, and in many respects he has been a good influence on that community.

One of his more important books is The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Simon & Schuster, 1982). In a recent letter to the NOR (July-August) he accused this writer of “false witness,” notably about my use of the phrase “democratic capital­ism.” I had written: “anyone [meaning Novak] who describes capitalism in its essential structure and practice as ‘democratic’ has automatically earned a failing grade in economics, politics, logic, and common sense” (May NOR).

In his letter Novak tells us he uses the phrase to mean a capitalist economy in a democratic country, so perhaps I should have written: “Any­one who uses the phrase ‘democratic capitalism’ when he means ‘a capitalist economy in a demo­cratic country’ has automatically earned a failing grade in English.”

In the English language an adjective placed in front of a noun modifies, describes, and defines that noun. For example, if I speak of “the demo­cratic Mafia” when what I really mean is a Mafia existing in a democratic country, then I can fairly be charged with making a laughable attempt to mislead people into thinking that the structure and/or practice of the Mafia is democratic. Con­versely, if I speak of “a good man” to describe a man who lives in a good country, I am also guilty of a clumsy deception. Therefore, anyone who uses the phrase “democratic capitalism” is in fact, by the ancient canons of English usage, describing cap­italism in its essential structure and practice as democratic and is, furthermore, engaged in a gross deception (for details see my column in the May NOR), whether that deception is intentional or not. Why a man with the scholarly attainments of Mi­chael Novak cannot understand this is difficult to understand.

To maintain, as Novak does, that this usage is merely a “parallel to democratic socialism” is no defense because socialism (or “social democracy”), as defined by the Socialist International, is indeed democratic in both its political and economic as­pects.

This brings us to another cavil with Novak. In this book and an even more recent and significant book, Freedom with Justice: Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions (Harper & Row, 1984) nine times out of 10 — nay, more likely 99 times out of 100 — Novak uses the term “social­ism” when he really means communism. Why is this? Why, when he has a perfectly good, common word like “communism” to describe such regimes as those existing in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, et al., does he insist on using the word “socialism” when he surely must know that the Socialist Inter­national clearly stated in its 1951 Frankfurt Decla­ration that “communism falsely claims a share in the socialist tradition.…Without freedom there can be no socialism. Socialism can be achieved only through democracy”? Why does he do this? Per­haps he was not aware of the Frankfurt Declara­tion when he wrote the book, but even familiar dictionaries like Webster’s Collegiate (1948 edition) define socialism as based on “democratic manage­ment of the essential means of production and dis­tribution.”

In his letter Novak stated: “there is not a sin­gle theological or moral principle of Catholic social thought from which I dissent.” This is an interest­ing claim, and repeats almost verbatim his claim in a letter in the April 1983 NOR when he protested Stuart Gudowitz’s review of The Spirit of Demo­cratic Capitalism in the NOR and demanded evidence to the contrary. Gudowitz obliged with 11 quotations to support his contention that Novak is not “operating within the tradition of Catholic so­cial doctrine” and has “fundamental differences…of principle” with the Church (April 1983).

Let me pursue further the question of “theo­logical and moral principle.” The very first words in Novak’s “Lay Letter on Catholic Social Thought and the U.S. Economy” are from Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food…. As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” — and Novak, the obvious author, adds two pages later, “we make [this passage] the leit­motif of our reflections.”

This is surely a statement of theological and moral principle from Jesus Himself. It is the most compelling foundation for “the preferential option for the poor” which the popes and bishops, and Novak, have repeatedly endorsed. But what do we find in Novak’s books, in fact? Not a preferential option for the poor, but a preferential option for the capitalist.

Consider the contrast between the following two quotations, the first from Novak’s contribu­tion to Capitalism and Socialism: A Theological In­quiry (American Enterprise Institute, 1979) and the second from the latest encyclical of John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

[Novak]: “Capitalist thinkers discovered the dynamic energy to change the face of history not where it might be expect­ed in human grandeur, nobility and mor­al consciousness, but in human self-inter­est. In the pettiest and narrowest and meanest part of human behavior lies the source of creative energy — a magnifi­cent and, I think, absolutely Jewish and Christian insight. Where no one would choose to look the jewels are to be found. It is a rather humbling insight about human nature that we must accept human beings in their sinfulness rather than in their grandeur. At the heart of Christianity, according to Leon Bloy, lies the sinner. At the heart of capitalist cre­ativity lies self-interest” (pp. 117-118).

[John Paul II]: “We are thus invited to re­examine the concept of development. This, of course, is not limited to merely satisfying material necessities through an increase of goods, while ignoring the suf­ferings of the many and making the self­ishness of individuals and nations the principal motivation…. On the contrary, in a different world, ruled by concern for the common good of all humanity, or by concern for the “spiritual and hu­man development of all” instead of by the quest for individual profit, peace would be possible as the result of a ‘more perfect justice among people’” (No. 10). (The internal quotes are from Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio.)

This is, of course, only the most recent of many statements in which the popes express their low opinion of selfishness as the driving force behind an economy, and their conviction that such selfish­ness is incompatible with Catholic social thought. Another quote from Paul VI: “It is unfortunate…that a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress…” (Populorum Progressio, no. 26).

But let us return to the Novak quotation. One, Novak himself admits that the driving force at the heart of capitalist creativity is sinfulness and self­ishness in its pettiest, narrowest, and meanest form. And two, says Novak, this is precisely what makes capitalism like Christianity.

Trying to regain our balance, let us analyze this statement further. Actually, self-interest is by no means as wicked, or even sinful, as Novak claims. We have been instructed by Jesus to love others as we love ourselves. A certain amount of self-interest is not only legitimate but virtually obligatory. That is not what the popes, the Church, Jesus, and the Prophets have consistently condemned. What they have condemned is self-interest in its more petty, mean, and narrow forms, precisely the kind of self-interest that Novak wishes to justify.

Why is he moved to such reckless measures? He is so moved, I can only surmise, because this is the kind of self-interest that is enshrined and glori­fied in the bible of capitalism, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), in such classical passages as the following: “All systems of preference or of restraint, therefore, being taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.…By directing [his] industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he [the capitalist.1 intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention…. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

Mercantilism, the tendency of European govern­ments to impede economic activity with excessive regulation, was in truth a legitimate object of criti­cism in the 18th century. And the pursuit of self-interest does frequently benefit society as a whole. But these truisms did not then and do not now lead to the conclusion that “all systems of prefer­ence or restraint” should be stripped away and that the weak should be left only to the beneficent ef­fects of self-interest pursued vigorously by the strong. This, however, was the gospel preached by Adam Smith and believed ever since, not only by dominant elements of our beloved country but by many of the dominated as well. Of course, the pur­suit of self-interest today is not as raw and unregu­lated as it was in earlier decades, but it continues to be a popular gospel.

The capitalists of Smith’s day were, of course, ecstatic about Smith’s preachings. As Harold Laski noted: “To have their own longings elevated to the dignity of natural law was to provide them with a driving force that had never before been so powerful.…With Adam Smith the practical maxims of business enterprise achieved the status of a theol­ogy.”

The question is: to what extent has Michael Novak been converted to this theology? And how much does it resemble or differ from the theology of the Jewish prophets, Jesus, the Fathers and Doc­tors, the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church?

If there is a central figure, a hero, in his two major books on this subject, it is Adam Smith, whom he refers to and/or quotes well over 50 times, or somewhere between three and four times as of­ten as he refers to or quotes Jesus Christ. I would not make too much of this fact, but still I think it is interesting. He calls Smith “a Christian-Deist,” which is strange since Smith did not hesitate to ex­press his contempt for Christianity (see The Wealth of Nations, Dutton Edition, pp. 726, 745, 754). In fact, Smith had little use for moral principle of any kind when it came to economics.

The central theme of Adam Smith and of Mi­chael Novak is the almost absolute value and beau­ty of freedom for the capitalist, the entrepreneur, the person with the intelligence, energy, initiative and/or money to create jobs and produce useful or desirable products that people will buy. Carlyle called it “anarchy plus a constable.” Novak does not go that far, but there is no question that his first economic value is freedom. In the last para­graph of the Lay Commission’s letter, the word “Liberty” (capitalized) appears seven times. On page 209 of Freedom with Justice he writes that “the first principle” of social justice is freedom. Somehow my Catholic sensibility thought it might be more like justice as such. In fact, after reading and rereading this book I concluded that the title should have been printed: FREEDOM! with justice.

The whole book virtually, and The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism as well, is, first, an attempt to prove that there is no freedom in a socialist soci­ety, particularly no freedom for the capitalist. This job is made easy by identifying socialism regularly with communism, and by asserting that the coun­tries of Western Europe (about 10) that have voted for socialist governments have not been socialist but capitalist societies. The second preoccupation of the books is an extended argument with popes and bishops of the Catholic Church, amounting al­most to a kind of scolding, because they have not sufficiently appreciated the value of freedom for the capitalist, harp too much on some minimum of security and equality of opportunity for the poor, and are therefore falling further and further into the socialist trap.

The popes’ and bishops’ difference with No­vak, and his with them, is in the reality of their preferential option for the poor as against his pref­erential option for the capitalist.

I know that Novak will defend himself indig­nantly against this charge on the ground that his appeal for freedom for the capitalist includes a pref­erential option for the poor because only freedom for the capitalist can guarantee that the poor will ever be lifted out of poverty. He makes this claim in several passages that are startling for their self-assurance: (1) “The intention of the [capitalist] system qua system is to raise the material base of the life of every human being on earth” (Spirit, p. 129). (2) “I hold that the liberal [capitalist] soci­ety, among known and workable present and fu­ture societies, best serves Catholic social thought [and] best uplifts the poor…” (Freedom, p. 38). Note the confidence with which the author reads both the present and the future!

When the present pope, John Paul II, publish­ed Laborem Exercens in 1981, many knowledge­able students of Catholic social thought read it as the most anti-capitalist statement yet made by a Roman pontiff. Not so Novak. He hailed it as a welcome corrective to the “pro-socialist” state­ments of Paul VI and Pius XI and saw in it a justification for “capital as the material embodiment of human labor down the ages” and a long-delayed tribute to capitalist creativity in general. You can imagine his dismay and disappointment when John Paul issued Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and, be­yond any possibility of doubt, laid out the reasons why “the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marx­ist collectivism” (no. 21).

The Pope enlarged further: “This general analysis, which is religious in nature, can be supplemented by a number of particular considerations to demonstrate that among the actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God, the good of neighbor and the “structures” created by them, two are very typical: on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit and, on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of impos­ing one’s will upon others. In order to characterize better each one of these at­titudes, one could add the expression: “at any price.” In other words, we are faced with the absolutizing of human at­titudes with all its possible consequences. Since these attitudes can exist indepen­dently of each other, they can be sepa­rated; however, in today’s world both are indissolubly united, with one or the other predominating” (no. 37).

About now we must clarify certain different but related questions. One is the question of defini­tions and facts. Novak makes his own job easy by dividing the present world into only three different kinds of societies: (1) capitalist societies in demo­cratic countries; (2) capitalist societies in undemo­cratic countries; and (3) communist societies, which he wrongly refers to as “socialist” societies.

This, of course, involves claiming for capital­ism all the societies that have existed in Western Europe under socialist governments, societies that have for extended periods of time done a much better job for the poor than the United States, which is of course the quintessentially capitalist country that Novak is most interested in defending and extolling.

Some examples: These countries have not on­ly provided their poor and their working classes with national health insurance, which we do not, but also family allowances — i.e., a cash payment for every child — which we do not, and other social benefits that are superior to those we provide. Fur­thermore, by the most essential measure, the provi­sion of jobs, constantly emphasized by the popes as a basic human right, they have by any fair com­parison done better. During the years 1959 to 1976, before OPEC and our own depression creat­ed depressions abroad, the unemployment rate in the socialist countries of Sweden and West Germa­ny averaged 1.9 percent and 1.2 percent respective­ly, percentages we have only approached in war­time. During that time our jobless rate averaged 5.3 percent, about what it is now. Then as now more than 30 million U.S. citizens lived in poverty.

Novak’s tendency to defend the U.S. econo­my as the best in the world cannot even justify it­self by comparison with other capitalist countries under conservative governments. During that same 17-year period the unemployment rate in France averaged 2.5 percent and in Japan 1.4 percent. Sev­eral reasons: in both countries socialist and trade union movements are strong, unlike the U.S., and put pressure on their governments. Employers, par­ticularly in Japan, feel a stronger sense of responsi­bility to their employees and their communities and do not move their plants to South Korea or Taiwan with the abandon that U.S. employers do. Japanese auto executives are satisfied with salaries only six to eight times that of their assembly line employees. This contrasts with U.S. executives like Lee Iacocca, who in 1987 paid himself $18 million in salary and bonuses, or 618 times as much as those who make the cars. So Japanese cars sell cheaper and take jobs away from U.S. workers.

In short, there are not three systems of politi­cal economy. There are virtually as many different systems as there are countries, with some exhibit­ing more preferential options for the poor and some more preferential options for the capitalist. And it should be cause for shame and disgrace that a non-Christian country like Japan exhibits more concern for the poor than an allegedly Christian country like the U.S.

Novak apparently sees nothing wrong in such salary/bonuses as those of Lee Iacocca: “Democrat­ic capitalists, on the whole, think that an unlimited ceiling [on salaries] is of benefit to the entire soci­ety. They think societies in which it obtains may be morally better — more dynamic, freer, more generous, more colorful — than those in which it does not” (Spirit, p. 217). Frankly I will settle for a slightly less colorful society any day if it will mean the employment or the provision of food, clothing, or shelter for just one more of God’s chil­dren. And I believe the popes share that bias, and that is why they are so hard on the “all-consuming desire for profit,” which, according to Novak, “lies at the heart of capitalist creativity.”

Of course Novak covers himself by saying, “Scandal arises only if it can be shown that the fact of higher income for a minority injures others.” I did not realize that there were intelligent people like Michael Novak still around who, despite the lessons of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes, and elementary common sense, deny that excessive income for some inevitably leads to insuf­ficient income, loss of employment, or both for others.

What is even more troubling is that Novak does not seem to want to take any of that superflu­ous income from the Iacoccas in progressive in­come taxes so that it (and the opportunities that often go with it) might be distributed to the poor. At least he nowhere mentions this desire in these books, nor has he ever opposed, to my knowledge, the cutting of income taxes on the very rich from 90 percent under Roosevelt to 70 percent under Carter to 28 percent under Reagan.

And here we come to a crucial dissent of No­vak’s, implicit if not explicit, from a basic moral principle of Judeo-Christian, Catholic social teach­ing. That is the principle that superfluous wealth must be shared with the poor. This principle lies at the heart of the Old Testament and the New Testa­ment, and is explicitly spelled out in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors, notably Saints Basil, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. It is also spelled out in Paul VI’s Populorum Pro­gressio: “To quote St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.” That is, private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditioned right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need when others lack necessities (no. 23; emphasis added).

And this in turn leads us to the final Novak dissent, for it is in this dissent that his social thought frustrates and nullifies so many of his good intentions. It appears again and again in his writings. Some examples:

- “We emphatically reject the illusion of rationalist­ic planning by experts, by states…” (Lay Com­mission’s Letter, p. 78).

- “The social thought of Paul VI…does not see how necessary it is, if sustained and widespread economic progress is to occur, for economic deci­sions to be free of political domination” (Freedom, p. 142).

- In a column for National Review (April 5, 1985), Novak criticized the U.S. bishops’ first draft of their pastoral on the economy for its promotion of the concept of “economic democracy,” in these words: “The two concepts most important to the far Left are ‘economic democracy’ and ‘economic rights.’ By these concepts the Left means: the primacy of politics over economics…signifying that political decisions should command economic activities.” He chided the bishops for their “pro­miscuous use of the word ‘rights’ “ and described it as “an intellectual fault.”

- “Socialist societies solve [the problem of ‘harmo­ny between the economic system and the political system’] by subordinating economics to politics” (Spirit, p. 231).

- The most that Novak will concede to government is a kind of stand-off equality with the capitalists: “The ideal of democratic capitalism is that of two coordinate systems, in some respects independent of each other and in some respects interdependent, but neither subordinate to the other “(ibid., p. 201).

What do the sages and popes of the Catholic Church have to say about this “ideal of democratic capitalism”? Let us start with Thomas Aquinas: “For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously;…the oth­er, and secondary requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of mater­ial goods, such as are necessary to virtu­ous action.… Finally, it is necessary that there be, through the ruler’s sagac­ity, a sufficiency of those material goods which are indispensable to well-being” (Aquinas: Selected Political Writings, 1959, p. 81, chap. XV, De Regimine Principum).

This is from a treatise on the duty of princes. Lest there be any doubt that Thomas was opting for the moral obligation of governors to intervene in the economy, to insist on the superiority of the politi­cal over the economic, consider the words of Tommaso Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), one of the most celebrated authorities on St. Thomas: “Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor” (S. Thomae…Summa Theologica cum commentariis Thomae de Vio Cajetani, t. 6 [Rome, 1778], II-II, 118, 3, p. 188).

If those words don’t assume, demand, and re­quire as a moral obligation that political decisions should command economic activities, then words have no meaning. And the modern popes agree:

[Leo XIII]: “If therefore any injury has been done to or threatens either the common good or the interests of individ­ual groups, which injury cannot in any other way be repaired or prevented, it is necessary for public authority to inter­vene” (Rerum Novarum, no. 52).

[Pius XI]: “It is rightly contended that certain forms of property must be reserv­ed to the state, since they carry with them an opportunity of domination too great to be left to private individuals” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 125)

[John Paul II]: “The concept of indirect employer includes both persons and in­stitutions of various kinds…. [It] is ap­plicable to every society, and in the first place to the State…. In order to meet the danger of unemployment and to en­sure employment for all, the agents de­fined here as “indirect employer” must make provision for overall planning [em­phasis in original] with regard to the dif­ferent kinds of work by which not only the economic life but also the cultural life of a given society is shaped; they must also give attention to organizing that work in a correct and rational way. In the final analysis this overall concern weighs on the shoulders of the State…. [emphasis added] (Laborem Exercens, nos. 17-18).

Novak frequently complains that the popes do not follow up their moral imperatives with some suggestion as to the “institutions” by which those imperatives might be carried out. I disagree. Since Leo XIII, they have been suggesting such institu­tions as the trade union, the industry council (Pius XI), but above all, as John Paul II makes brilliantly clear, “the State.” This is the institution that must intervene to protect the poor from “the all-con­suming desire for profit” that he sees in such capi­talist economies as that of the U.S.

John Paul clearly regards this obligation as a moral principle, as did Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Paul VI. From this principle Novak just as clearly dis­sents. We have also tried to show that he dissents from the moral and, I think, theological principle — implied in Matthew 25 and the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves — that superflu­ous wealth must be shared with those who lack the necessities of life. Finally, though I am sure he will deny it hotly, a careful reading of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Freedom with Justice reveals that in the final analysis he really thinks, or perhaps better feels, that the Church’s preferential option for the poor must yield to a preferential op­tion for the capitalist.

None of this proves that Michael Novak, my old friend, is not a better Christian than this writer, or that he does not sincerely (albeit misguidedly) believe he is faithful to the principles of Catholic social thought.

DOSSIER: Economics & Catholic Social Teaching

DOSSIER: Neoconservativism

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