“It’s urgent, Tim.”
That’s what Michael Novak told me in our first meeting in late 2016, which turned out to be one of his last. The famous thinker, who passed away the following February, had just become the distinguished visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, which I had recently helped launch. Not content to just teach students, he wanted to create a forum where Catholic academics would explore the relationship between free enterprise and faith. He saw that many Catholics were turning on the American system when we should be strengthening its foundations.
This conversation came to mind this summer as I re-read Novak’s seminal work “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It’s a book of its time, written by a former liberal who observed the socialism of the ’60s and ’70s conflicting with human dignity and failing to promote prosperity and happiness. Novak criticized the failure of the Soviet Union and its clients, but forty years later, his wisdom is still needed in America, especially among the Catholics who have forgotten or never encountered it.
Novak wrote in his 1982 introduction that “no theologian … has yet assessed the theological significance of democratic capitalism.” He argued that while it is “neither Kingdom of God nor without sin … all other known systems of political economy are worse.” He ascribed the success of democratic capitalism, especially at alleviating poverty, to three pillars: an actual market economy, a government that upholds individual rights, and a culture that sustains morality. All three reflect the freedom and responsibility which God has given humanity.
But in 2022, none of these pillars are standing strong. The market economy is rapidly giving way to corporate welfare, state regulation, and woke progressive dominance. The government is using its vast and growing power to violate rights, from the freedom of speech to freedom of religion. As for the culture, hardly anyone would call it moral. The institutions that cultivate a virtuous people are struggling, while vice is celebrated and even encouraged.
Amid these challenges, an illiberal strain of Catholic thought has emerged. It goes by the name of “integralism,” and at its core is the rejection of democratic capitalism. Like Novak, and like all Catholics and people of virtually all faiths, its proponents believe strongly in promoting a moral culture. But unlike Novak, they argue that free enterprise and a limited government undermine virtue and should therefore be rolled back.
For the integralists, the market encourages crass materialism, not the creative application of God’s gifts to drive innovation and progress. As for the government, respecting individual liberty leaves too much room for individual license. The integralists appear to envision enlightened rulers (presumably themselves) guiding the masses toward true morality. It’s a religious vision with shades of socialism – the very socialism that Novak saw fail in the 20th Century, and that is failing billions of people in the 21st.
There is no question that the integralists identify the right problem. Private morality is plummeting, with extreme public consequences ranging from crime and violence to censorship and nihilism, most notably about human nature and biology. Few things are more important than restoring some semblance of individual virtue and eternal truth.
Yet undermining economic freedom and empowering the state are not the solution. It would curb the very liberty that enables people to develop virtue and pursue God, including through fulfilling work and the co-creation inherent in innovation. It would immiserate millions, subjecting them to the poverty that democratic capitalism has done so much to diminish. Even if integralism could somehow restore a moral or holy society, it would do so at a terrible human cost.
What is to be done? When Novak wrote “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” the foundations of the American system were relatively strong and broadly appreciated, even if socialism was all the rage among intellectuals. Forty years later, our system is faltering, and the old agreement is fragmenting. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that our foundation is still sound.
Novak called on Catholics and members of other religions to educate themselves about the crucial elements of the American system, then work hard to protect and promote them to future generations. We must simultaneously restrain government, unleash free enterprise, and inspire morality, recognizing that all three are essential to our own happiness and society’s prosperity. This task is much harder than it used to be. But as Michael Novak would surely agree, that only makes action all the more urgent.
Tim Busch is founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization, which is co-hosting the Principled Entrepreneurship conference in New York City from October 11-12.
Read the original article at Real Clear Religion here.
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