Michael Novak's Portrait of Democratic Capitalism

By Younkins, Edward W. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Michael Novak's Portrait of Democratic Capitalism

Younkins, Edward W., Journal of Markets & Morality


Michael Novak, the preeminent Roman Catholic social theorist of our time, is the prolific author of numerous monographs, articles, and reviews, and has written over twenty-five influential books in philosophy, theology, political economy, and culture. He holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he also serves as Director of Social and Political Studies. He has lectured all over the world and has taught at Harvard, Stanford, Syracuse, and Notre Dame. During 1981 and 1982 he served as Chief of the United States delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva as a Reagan appointee with the rank of Ambassador. His writings have appeared in more than a dozen languages. In 1994, he received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his service in defense of freedom and for his incredibly influential work in Christian social teaching on economics.

He once studied for the priesthood and for years was an espoused democratic socialist. Novak at one time believed in socialism because its ostensible ethical system seemed so superior. The son of Eastern European immigrants, he once thought that the communitarian religious ethic of his heritage was being attacked by the individualistic ethic of commerce. However, he was persuaded through observation of human affairs and intense reflection that he was mistaken. He now fervently believes that capitalism is superior to socialism both in practice and in theory and that Judeo-Christian virtues not only survive but flourish under democratic capitalism. Novak can now be considered a neo-conservative intellectual who passionately believes in the free market and a free society.

According to Novak, religious and cultural life is fundamental--not just complementary--to all aspects of our lives. Religion and culture affect everything in people's lives, including their politics and economics. Throughout his many writings, Novak has urged his readers to embrace a tripartite system of democratic capitalism, including a market economy, a democratic polity, and a moral-cultural system that would nourish the values and virtues on which free societies depend.

When the papal encyclical, Centesimus Annus, appeared in 1991, it was evident that Novak's writings had been favorably received by Pope John Paul II. In Centesimus Annus, the Pope views the free market as the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs, explains the moral foundations of the market economy, and repudiates the idea of a third way between capitalism and socialism.

Novak's achievement lies in his construction of a theory of democratic capitalism based on clear thinking about the world. He has identified and analyzed the underlying ideas that make our system of democratic capitalism meaningful. Although virtually all of his writings contribute to the portrait he has painted of democratic capitalism, six books in particular have made his case especially well. These are The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, (1) Free Persons and the Common Good, (2) This Hemisphere of Liberty, (3) The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (4) Business As a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, (5) and The Fire of Invention: Civil Society and the Future of the Corporation. (6) The central purposes of this paper are: (1) to introduce readers to Michael Novak's explanation of democratic capitalism by briefly summarizing and discussing the major ideas included in each of these works; (2) to serve as an invitation for individuals to read these provocative works for themselves; and (3) to provide a background for individuals who wish to study Michael Novak's ideas in greater depth.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

This well-documented, thoughtful, and scholarly work is a classic in the field of political and economic philosophy.

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