Michael Novak, author of the memoir Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Basic Books, 2013), writes eloquently of how he became disillusioned with the “new” versions of the old Keynesian liberalism of the 1970s. This economic view promoted government spending to excess in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The core belief was that this approach would solve the problems of the poor through a greater expression of compassion which would come about through direct governmental help. Nothing awakened him to the failure of this kind of thinking quite like the policies, and outcomes, of the Jimmy Carter era.
As I noted in my blog on Novak’s memoir last Wednesday (1/29) one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate his position, and thus his memoir, is that he openly explains why he “resist
He writes that in 1976 or 1977 he was ready to “come out of the closet” as a capitalist (159). He had been questioning the democratic socialistic thinkers he had followed for some time. These writers, such as the very influential Michael Harrington, were the rage in the 1960s. He notes that one could identify with socialist ideals within theological circles because it worked there in a way that it did not in other circles. (The reason seems to be that in certain theological circles compassion and idealism drove the social agenda!) When Novak came out with his own views of democratic socialism he had already journeyed down a difficult road where he and begun to ask friend after friend where the socialist ideal actually worked to the benefit of the people it claimed to actually help the most. How he finally deduced that capitalism made sense to him is quite intriguing.
He wrote in March of 1976:
That’s when I discovered that I believe in sin. I;m for capitalism. modified and made intelligent and public-spirited, because it makes a world free for sinners. It allows human beings to do pretty much what they will. Socialism is a system built on belief in human goodness, so it never works. Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing, scandalous success.
It’s presumptuous to believe that God is on any human’s side. But God did make human beings free. Free to tin. There is an innate tendency in socialism toward authoritarianism. Left to themselves all human beings won’t be good; most must be converted. Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace (160).
Novak made it clear, early in his economic conversion process, that “it is not necessary to hold that paradise has thereby, or will someday, be reached” (161). Socialism cannot hide behind the dream of a great future day when it has been tried so often and has failed every time. But I can hear the protests arising against this conclusion. Many will argue that “democratic” socialism has not been truly tried yet, at least not properly tried. The problem with this response, to my mind,is self-evident–“socialism is inherently authoritarian. Its emphasis upon democracy is inconsistent with it tries to plan and restrict” (161).
Early in his economic conversion Novak was asked to speak at Notre Dame. He argued, as I have and still do, that capitalism is “the least bad system” (161). I have never claimed that capitalism is biblical. I do not think that it is taught in the Bible. But many aspects of it, such a freedom and fairness, are biblical. Novak writes that when he said this at Notre Dame: “The audience fell silent” (161). Why? In a university capitalism is not praised because it is seen as selfishness, self-interest, greed and evil.
What Novak experienced was estrangement and loss. His pain was palpable. He says, “I had been taught that democracy is noble, but that the capitalist part of our system is inferior and would gradually be replaced by something more ideal” (162). I was taught the same by well-meaning idealistic evangelicals.
In the months that followed his open endorsement of capitalism, in the late 1970s, Michael Novak read everything he could, looking for ideas and groups of friends who would dialogue with him. I can identify profoundly with the human side of his account. When I began to teach missional-ecumenism, in my evangelical subculture, my base fled me in droves. I searched, read more deeply and widely, and prayed. I felt at a loss but I knew my mind was not confused about the basic truths that I had embraced. I discovered great ancient and early modern works that said what I needed to hear. I eventually found new friends. But the going was hard all the way. This was Novak’s experience in becoming a capitalist.
In Novak’s case he began to devour books about the American experiment. His favorite author was Alexis de Tocqueville and the well-known, but all too infrequently read, Democracy in America. He says he read this classic in three different translations.I so doing a great Catholic intellectual was on a journey. I thank God he pursued the path he did because I, and countless others with me, have been helped to see, and understand, what he saw. I wanted to be a socialist at some point in my early ministry because I felt it sounded more like the ideal of the kingdom of God. It just sounded more like Jesus than everything else I heard. But I did not realize that this “dream” would not work, in fact it would enslave people and destroy human freedom and flourishing. Michael Novak was a guide to me at a critical time in my life. But before he could be such a guide he had to think and live in a whole new way. This is why his courage also inspires me.
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Wow. I feel thoroughly conflicted. I both resonate with this and don’t resonate. First, you say at the end…
“I wanted to be a socialist at some point in my early ministry because I felt it sounded more like the ideal of the kingdom of God. It just sounded more like Jesus than everything else I heard. But I did not realize that this “dream” would not work, in fact it would enslave people and destroy human freedom and flourishing.”
I get accused of being a socialist here and there because I critique consumer capitalism, but in fact, I’ve never really seen any of the available options in any form as coming close to the kingdom. The kingdom breaks in on God’s initiative in the person of Christ in the incarnation through the Spirit manifested in the ecclesia created by the inbreaking of the kingdom. Democracy, socialism, or capitalism are at best parodies. But I think you would agree here, so this is a resonance. But also this from Novak…
“Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.”
I think this, and the larger block quote, is a dissonance for me. Not in that I think socialism is so great (not that much of any of the popular critics of socialism these days really know what it is, it is simply the ink blot for everything they think is messed up), but I’m not sure capitalism has an awareness of human sin, at least not a healthy awareness. I just don’t see it. In fact, human sin is one of the things that causes me to be equally dubious on democracy, socialism and capitalism. It seems to me all three make promises in their ideological visions that they are not able to deliver on due to their failure to produce communities of virtue sufficient to sustain them. Thus capitalism (esp the American consumer kind) seems just as prone to destroying human flourishing as the others.
There are other questions we should ask I think. What shall we do when, having focused our attention on the state being our servant rather than master, that the corporation has become our master rather than servant? And not only this, but that the very politicians we voted for to protect us from the state were in cahoots with corporate interest all along. What shall we do when the idolization of ‘freedom’ itself becomes our master rather than our servant? What shall we do when, having given priority to the free market, the market in turn becomes the god of the age, demanding not only our worship but sacrifices? What shall we do when, as a result, a ‘free’ market economy means that no one is really free?
Novak never intends to idolize freedom. He is a devout Catholic thinker. He does believe, as I do, that freedom is a gift and should be used and protected. The free market, like all freedom, is not absolute. When it is made into an absolute (a god) it goes bad. And controls are needed, as Novak makes clear. What he opposes is government restricting the energy and power of freedom to create jobs, expand business and benefit many people through over-restraint. Markets are not an end in themselves (or idols, at least for Christians they should not be) but means to a better end than the “dream” of socialism which inherently thinks we will follow our better angels buy allowing small groups of people in government, or a tyrant, to do what is best for the whole of us.
Its sounds to me then its more of a qualified capitalism. It would be good if the neo-cons where I come from would listen to that. But I still remain dubious on the ‘better end’ of capitalism overall … especially in todays American style consumer variety. You say here at the end of socialism, “…buy allowing small groups of people in government, or a tyrant, to do what is best for the whole of us.” It really seems to me that if you replace ‘govt’ with ‘corporations’ with ‘CEO’ or with ‘board’ you have the same thing feared of socialism produced by the ‘free’ market from people no one has voted for. At one time I may have been more given to the capitalist free market idea, but my time as hospital chaplain watching insurance companies do what they do, an insider to the insurance business telling me a lot of what goes on and just how much of a stranglehold they have on the US economy, and facing our own ringer with my family in this regard, changed my mind. And where I come from, any measures to protect against all this are called … wait for it … socialism. Of course, leeriness about the pitfalls of capitalism doesn’t equal support for socialism. I want to be clear of that. But if we’re going to go with some form of capitalism in the states, I think we have to ask: how are going to form communities of sufficient virtue (faith, hope, and love?) to keep the free market from running people over? Its here that I think, in the midst of ideological divisions, collectively most Americans haven’t a clue. I hope I’m wrong, but fear I’m not.
The biggest, most powerful corporations are usually those which are propped up by government in one form or other. Big govt and big business are not alternatives. Generally they are partners.
And big business, interestingly, invests heavily in BOTH political parties in order to keep Congress on its side. Just look at their giving to and what and who.
“Big govt and big business are not alternatives. Generally they are partners.” Agreed. This is far too often the very lamentable reality.
“And big business, interestingly, invests heavily in BOTH political parties in order to keep Congress on its side.” Agreed again. This is one thing I learned from my insurance insider friend – that they literally work ALL sides to game the system, regardless whose on the bottom. But, if I’m honest, the fact that big business has both parties in their hip pockets doesn’t do much to allay my fears of corporatism.
The point is that the bigger government is, the more abuse that big companies can engage in. That’s pretty much the opposite of capitalism, which in many respects (although I wouldn’t claim all) levels the playing field.
Great post, John. Thank you.
Again, capitalism alone is no panacea but I believe Tim gets the matter right. Let me add Russell, I am not saying capitalism = biblical teaching. I am prepared to say freedom is biblical and the more we repress human freedom the worse things tend to get. People can repress our freedom but so can governments, which is why socialism generally fails on a grand scale but might help in small ways.
Nope, not saying you or anyone else is saying its biblical teaching. Mainly speaking from my context growing up in Texas. And on Tim’s last point “that the bigger government is, the more abuse that big companies can engage in” just isn’t computing for me. Texas has some of the smallest govt (at least at the state level) and least business regulation, and some of the worst corruption behind the scenes. Gotta go though. Good convo.
Capitalism is the means by which business and therefore government grows. It’s how the rich get richer. Statistically speaking, economies with greater regulation grow faster than less regulated markets. This has been proven over and over in the developing world.
I heard Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, and David Burrell at an all day event at Nazarene Theological Seminary back in 2007. Novak came up during a panel discussion. I was more than disappointed in these men, especially in Hauerwas and Burrell. Vicious and hateful. I think it was Burrell who said he has refused to have anything to with him for decades, though once colleagues.
l’ve read Novak. I’ve found many things helpful. Some things too simplistic. But I can’t recall him being belligerent or hateful. You would have thought Novak had joined a satanic cult to listen to these guys. It was a moment that drove home to me how deeply broken the church is that theologians of this caliber couldn’t demonstrate more grace. Maybe Novak has a side I haven’t seen but I was disappointed in these men.
Online dictionary: “Capitalism is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” It would be helpful if we used some such normative definition when discussing the points Novak makes and I report in my blogs.
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If this is what capitalism is then I affirm it as the best human system, albeit flawed and subject to abuse by private owners who are unethical. This is why trade and ethics are regulated in such a political system. Freedom is not absolute. The problem with socialism is inherent in what it is: (Webster) “Socialism is a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.” This means, in every meaningful instance we know, that the people are not truly free to create, innovate, make profit, invest and reinvest. Does capitalism help the poor? Look at what markets have done in China and India, lifting undress of millions out of abject poverty. And in the case of China it is state managed no less. The more freedom the greater the opportunity for small business and family economic growth of real money to real people who make their own moral decisions about their money. When government decides we rely on what a collective decides, namely a few people who decide for the whole society. If socialism means groups band together to do what is best for them then it is not socialism in the normal sense of the term, it is a cooperative and I am very supportive of co-ops in many creative forms, especially with people of the same faith and ethics.
No time for a reply, so just a recommendation. This book expresses well my misgivings about capitalism. Good day all.
This is a fine book but also has a perspective, just as I do, that is likely valuable and flawed. If I only saw all my flaws I’d correct them all. Seriously. 🙂
Manufacturing and commercial monopolies owe their origin not to a tendency imminent in a capitalist economy but to governmental interventionist policy directed against free trade and laissez faire.
Ludwig von Mises
John… I really appreciate the fact that you clarify the definition of capitalism(and socialism) as a base line for this conversation… I have found that the many who wrestle with capitalism are actually reacting to “corporatism or crony-capitalism”…
Thanks John. The statement from von MIses is telling since he was a libertarian by all accounts. I hope those who disagree with you and me will read it, and your link, very carefully.