On Michael Novak’s Democratic Capitalism
ANALYZING THE MORAL DEFENSE OF FREE-MARKET CAPITALISM — PART III
In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak sets out his case for the economic-political ethos he calls democratic capitalism. Though published a decade ago, it remains his central theoretical work.
Novak is none too shy about its importance. While he has been a critic of Catholic social teaching, he claims that there are parallels between Spirit and Pope John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA) and hints that in CA the Pope showed that he has learned from Spirit, noting that Spirit was translated into Polish and adding that, “I know the Pope got a copy….” Novak also claims that CA “has brought economic liberty…into Catholic social teaching, just as Vatican II brought religious liberty,” leaving one with the impression that Novak may see himself as the John Courtney Murray of our era. Needless to say, many authoritative commentators read CA — not to mention its lineage — quite differently. For example, La Civilta Cattolica, the Rome-based Jesuit magazine whose editorials are reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication and often reflect Vatican thinking, said in an editorial on CA that the point is “correcting” capitalism and “in a certain sense, surpassing it.” The editorial praised democratic-socialist movements that “have obtained notable success” in producing “substantial changes in capitalism,” pointing in particular to Scandinavian and German social democracy.
In Spirit Novak argues for democratic capitalism’s superiority on political, economic, moral, and theological grounds. Curiously, in theory he repudiates unrestrained free markets, arguing that the political system and cultural moral system operate to check and balance the economy. But he sees most state intervention as unproductive and a threat to economic and political liberty. So in practice he puts the burden of proof on the critics of unrestrained markets. For Novak capitalism is to be applauded and praised. Its failures and abuses are the result of human sinfulness; government efforts to curb this sinfulness lead to tyranny.
One of Novak’s primary theological concepts is co-creation. As he puts it:
Creation left to itself is incomplete, and humans are called to be co-creators with God, bringing forth the potentialities the Creator has hidden. Creation is full of secrets waiting to be discovered, riddles which human intelligence is expected by the Creator to unlock. The world did not spring from the hand of God as wealthy as humans might make it.
Correspondingly, humans are to be “inventive, prudent, farseeing, hardworking — in order to realize by their obedience to God’s call the building up and perfecting of God’s kingdom on earth.”
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