August 16, 2012

Thirty Years of Michael Novak’s “Spirit of Democratic Capitalism”

Samuel Grigg of Acton Institute had an excellent homage yesterday in American Spectator to Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published 30 years ago this year. Formerly a Catholic philosopher of the Left, Novak crafted a moral and theological argument for free markets. He winsomely proclaimed that God given human creativity is best deployed through an ordered capitalism unfettered by unreasonable government restraints.

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Unmentioned by Grigg is that Novak helped found IRD only a year before in 1981 to challenge the Religious Left’s assumption that socialism was morally superior to freedom. Too many church elites then assumed that Marxism was a permanent reality that merited not only engagement but also at times replication. Novak’s buoyant, confident challenge to then reigning Religious Left assumptions was bracing. It also animated much of IRD’s vision, then and now.

I was first exposed to Novak and his new book a couple years later as a student at Georgetown University. I believe the book was part of the curriculum of a class by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had recently served in the Reagan Administration as a very high profile Ambassador to the UN. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism struck me as exciting, especially compared to pronouncements in my own denomination, which was busily supporting overseas Marxist insurgencies.

United Methodist elites were also enraged by Reagan’s policies at home. “Self interest has been sacralized by law and public policy,” decried Bishop James Armstrong in a typical histrionic exclamation in 1982. “We see public policy walking away from the needs of the hungry, the poor, the voiceless, the powerless.” Armstrong also served as president of the then still significant National Council of Churches and was involved in dialogue with early IRD leaders like Novak.

As Novak successfully argued, the poor are more empowered by freedom and opportunity than by permanent subservience through the Welfare State, much less by police state Marxism.

In the early 1990s I attended a National Review banquet where former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hailed Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and its influence. Novak was in the audience. A little later I was privileged to take a course with Novak through the Institute on World Politics. Some years later I heard Novak speak at Mount Vernon about his book Washington’s God. The Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association recalled hosting Margaret Thatcher for a weekend at her Colorado estate and summoning Novak at the last minute for a weekend of stimulating free market conversation.

Last year IRD was delighted that Novak was our first Diane Knippers Lecturer, honoring both him and our late revered president. IRD is privileged to have been co-founded by him and to have helped expand the influence of his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.


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