Michael Novak, R.I.P.
By Robert Bradley | February 20, 2017, 5:00 EST
Michael Novak died on February 17. He was an intellectual giant – the finest writer on public policy, faith, and social issues in decades. It is hard to believe that he is no longer with us, but his thought and his books will affect America for years to come.
Of his dozens of books, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is his greatest legacy. It is in some ways the best book on capitalism since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In this magisterial work, Novak describes the moral case for capitalism in the most compelling manner. No, it is not the importance of greed, or the profit motive, as many would have you believe. Novak wrote that despite its many imperfections, capitalism has been shown, by centuries of empirical data, to better help the poor escape poverty than any other system. He also argued convincingly that capitalism appears to be a necessary condition for the success of democracy.
Written in the early days of President Ronald Reagan’s first term, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was extremely influential within the Catholic community at a critical time, especially as “liberation theology” appeared to be gaining ground in Latin America. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a Democrat with liberal tendencies — wrote, “Michael Novak changed history in 1982 with the publication of this book.” Many believe that the book influenced Pope John Paul II in his perceptions of capitalism. It was published underground in Poland in 1984, and the book became the intellectual foundation for the move from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, Michael Novak is perhaps better known in intellectual circles in former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe than in the corridors of power on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
I was privileged to know Michael Novak, and I considered him a friend and intellectual mentor. I first met him in 1996. Several things fascinated me about Michael Novak’s intellectual journey. One was the sheer breadth of his knowledge. He was a polymath. His more than three dozen books dealt with issues of faith, public policy, capitalism, social issues, business, and even sports. Another was the clarity of his writing. In my view, his was the best pen in the conservative movement during the last decades of the 20th century.
He started out as a 1960s liberal, protesting the Vietnam war and believing that social justice was primarily to be sought in the modern state and delivered by government programs. He was a member of the Democratic Party well into the 1990s, although he voted for Reagan and other Republicans. Over time, he became convinced that social justice, the creation of wealth and the eradication of poverty, and the liberation of the human spirit were to be accomplished primarily through private endeavor and voluntary association – not through the state and government programs.
As a young man, he prepared himself for the priesthood. In the mid-1950s he graduated summa cum laude from nearby Stonehill College in Easton, and upon graduation he went to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1956. Well into his preparation for the priesthood, he decided that he could serve God better outside the priesthood, so he came home to study philosophy at Harvard. He was subsequently hired by Stanford, where he was the university’s first Catholic theologian. During the course of his 83 years, he was a philosopher, a theologian, a professor, an author, and a U.S. ambassador appointed by President Reagan. In 1978, he joined the American Enterprise Institute as a Resident Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy, a position which he maintained until his death.
One would think that a man of such towering intellect and amazing achievements might not tolerate fools gladly. In fact, he was a man of great humility. Born of working-class, Slovakian-American parents in the steel country of Pennsylvania, he never lost touch with his roots. He revered America as a land of opportunity where the poor could climb the ladder of success. He wrote frequently about Andrew Carnegie, the famous 19th century businessman, who also grew up in an immigrant family in western Pennsylvania. Novak was kind and gentle in spirit. He always thought the best of his intellectual opponents.
In 1996, he wrote a short book called Business as a Calling. It is a treasure. I have bought dozens of copies and given them out to students and friends alike. At our wealth management firm, we have a robust internship program. Over the past fifteen years, more than 120 students from colleges and universities have interned with our firm. Each is required to read Business as a Calling and take a quiz on it. It is a distillation of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism tailored for the business community. In it, Novak lays out the moral case for capitalism and how it is a necessary precondition for democracy. But he also makes it clear that both capitalism and democracy depend upon a moral and cultural system of virtue and integrity embodied in the Judeo-Christian worldview.
For the increasing number of Americans who are intolerant of this worldview, they need to look abroad and count the number of truly democratic capitalist countries which have emerged from another moral/cultural worldview. They are difficult to find. May Michael Novak’s influence grow here and abroad so that the poor can continue to emerge from poverty and live in democratic societies.
Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm.