The Carter Years and the Bankruptcy of Bad Economic Ideas

Unknown-2The Carter years profoundly convinced Michael Novak of the bankruptcy of his previous economic ideas. While Novak explains Carter’s personal love for Jesus Christ as genuine, and easily misunderstood, he rightly separates the good heart of the man from some of his very bad ideas about what makes for a free and prosperous society. During the Carter years Novak’s own views were taking new shape. He was writing more about economics and making new friends globally. When Ronald Reagan was elected the president in November of 1980 he asked Michael Novak, lifelong Democrat, to become his ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. After a time in Geneva Novak returned home but then was sent back again in 1982. This work had an immense impact on Novak’s view of the world.

Novak’s new friends, which he cultivated in the late 1970s, began to gravitate to his home for meals and thus came into his personal life as confidants. These friends included Fr. Robert Sirico, Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Mort Kondracke, Ben Wattenberg, Irving Kristol, George Weigel, Henry Hyde and Norman Podhoretz, to name only a few who might be known to many of my readers. He says of those particular years, “I loved the Reagan presidency. You could feel the whole aircraft carrier executing a broad turn on the ocean, moving the nation in a badly needed direction” (197). Novak embraced the idea of “Reagan Democrats,” a term that had attracted many Catholics like himself. At the end of his chapter on the Reagan presidency Novak “sums up” what he had learned just before and during the Reagan years.

He says that what he discovered is that economics is actually counterintuitive. It seems logical that the best common good should come from the top down, just as common ownership of property would produce a higher common good than embracing private ownership. But real experience, since the time of Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas, reveals: “that social ownership in practice reduces personal incentives and personal responsibility and induces a common lassitude” (199). The best way to do the most good for all is to “build into the system many incentives for personal industry, invention, and extra hard work” (200).

In the 1980’s Novak tells of four main inquiries that drove him. These sum up very well his story regarding culture and how it deeply mattered to the well-being of people and governments. These four are:

1. How to rethink capitalism in a moral and religious landscape.

2. What are the root concepts of human rights and how are they best protected? This would be done not by “parchment barriers” (James Madison) but rather by strong associations in free societies.

3. How can reliable information be used to defeat communism? This came about as he worked with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

4. How can the chains of poverty be broken throughout the world?

Toward the end of the Reagan years Michael Horowitz suggested that Novak lead a committee to see what worked, and did not work, in the famous War on Poverty. Some twenty experts were assembled and this work began. The goal was to create a nonpartisan report. This story makes for some of the most important reading in Novak’s entire story. In a time when we are so bitterly divided a report was ultimately issued. The irony is that the conclusions were not adopted until the Bill Clinton era, a fact which prompts Novak to give Clinton more praise than many modern conservatives would who deeply despise him. (This is why Clinton is often seen as a “moderate” Democrat by political students and pundits.)

124_2013_bknovack8201_s640x821The final two chapters of Michael Novak’s compelling memoir, Writing from Left to Right, deal with two topics that should interest Christians: “How to Engage in Honest Argument” and “The Pope Who Called Me (Novak) Friend.” In the second Novak shares some personal insights into the mind and heart of Pope John Paul II. Most of what he shares here is quite similar to the experience of many other witnesses to the life and legacy of one of the most influential popes in church history.

The next to last chapter – “Community Springs Only From Honest Argument” – may be the finest chapter in the entire book. I will devote one final blog (tomorrow) to this chapter. I believe it is so insightful and important for our society in general, and the church in particular, that his ideas are worthy of our more careful consideration in this intensely polarized time.

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