Michael Novak: The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

On February 17, 2017 Michael Novak, champion of capitalism, died at the age of 83. Arguably Novak had a more significant impact than any other scholar of his generation who wrote on political economy from a distinctive Christian perspective. I picked up my copy of his 1982 classic: The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (still a best seller at Amazon). I skimmed  through the book reading some of the passages I highlighted the first time I read the book in the late 1980s. I would like to share with you passages from the introduction.

Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life– lengthened the lifespan, made the elimination of poverty and famine thinkable, enlarged the range of human choice–as has democratic capitalism. p. 13

What do I mean by “democratic capitalism”? I mean three systems in one: a predominately market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. p. 14

… [T]he natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy. For economic liberties without political liberties are inherently unstable. Citizens economically free soon demand political freedoms. … [T]he state which does not recognize limits to its power in the economic sphere inevitably destroys liberties in the political sphere. … Liberty also requires social mobility. p. 15

Both [democracy and a market based economy] also require a special moral-cultural base. Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work. p. 16

Discussing the development of the market economy in the 19th century, Novak says:

The churches did not understand the new economics. Officially and through the theologians, they often regarded the new “spirit of capitalism” as materialistic, secular and dangerous to religion, as in many respects– being in and all the world– it was. They often protested the rising spirit of individualism. They seldom grasped the new forms of cooperation indispensable to the new economics. … They tried to douse the new fire. p. 17

An even deeper tragedy lay and the failure of the church to understand the moral-cultural roots of the new economics. p. 18

Judaism and Christianity are distinctive among the world religions because they understand salvation as a vocation in history. It is the religious task of Jews and Christians to change the world as well as to purify their own souls; to build up the kingdom of God in their own hearts and through the work of their hands. … Both see the religious task as working in and through the institutions of this world. It is the vocation of the laypersons, in particular, to fire the iron of politics, economics, and culture to Jahweh’s vision. p. 18

Writers like Montesquieu, Smith, and Madison … wished to construct a pluralistic system open to persons of all faith and visions. p. 19

By no means is the political economy of the United States to be identified with the kingdom of God, which transcends any historical political economy. It is not the “City of God.” p. 21

In the subsequent 300+ pages Michael Novak makes his case for the conclusions presented in the introduction. While much has changed in the 35 years since The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism’s publication, much remains the same. Many of Novak’s arguments are wedded to the specific historical situation in the late 20th Century, but his logic and conclusions are timeless.

6 thoughts on “Michael Novak: The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism”

  1. Dr. Wheeler,
    This is a great reminder of the importance of those who go before us. Recalling Lord Keynes’ remark in the General Theory that we are all the slaves of some defunct economist, our readers should understand the power of his book. It was a reading of this book that caused Pope John Paul II to lean much more heavily in the direction of Democratic Capitalism than previous popes; this was part of the intellectual argument which helped the Catholic Church take a strong stand against the Soviet Empire, ultimately bringing down that wicked regime. The power of ideas is always the power to change the world. Michael Novak had the good ideas–the world is now poorer in the loss of Mr. Novak. May God even raise up some of our Berean readers to fight for the ideas that Mr. Novak championed; we certainly need more like him!

  2. Every now and then, I find it refreshing to take look back at some of the great conservative thinkers who have come before, so that I may glean from their expansive base of knowledge and wisdom. Novak was certainly one of the greatest, and it is a shame to see him leave us. His intellectual sagacity was laudable in every respect, and his writing was sublime. He will be missed.

  3. Good article that pulls some fascinating quotes from a great scholar of political economy. I like the common theme among his writings concerning the moral foundation, rooted in Christianity, that should permeate our economic thinking. Our identity in Christ should mean that we build our thinking upon Him.

  4. Really interesting article. I love the Christian perspective and Biblical worldview of the quotes you shared. It’s so important to realize the wisdom that people leave behind and be able to learn and apply it to our time now.

  5. I’m surprised he focuses on the Christians in regard to the market economy. I feel like most authors would leave out the believers when it comes to economics.

  6. In my Sunday school class we are currently talking about “Christ in Culture.” One Sunday we specifically talked about how Christians are to view government. This article brought me to reflect on the passages we read and how God has established all types of governments. It is fascinating to look back at history and see how his plan for government has evolved. Specifically, I think of the quote that talks about how no other time in history has a government and economic system been able to help so many people. I think of how meeting people’s physical needs can help them be receptive to the Gospel.

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