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[ed] libertarianism” (159). He admits that he found great reasons in libertarian arguments to reject his strident socialism but not enough to compel him to embrace the total package. To make sure his position is properly stated I want to quote him: “A philosophy of free enterprise alone, then as now, struck me as too narrow” (159). Novak is thus not of the same opinion, about the government and economic policies, as many modern conservatives. Though he is no longer a socialist he is also firmly rooted in Catholic social thought, a critical point in the argument of this excellent book.
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.