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Reflecting On The Work Of Michael Novak: Charity, Civil Society, Free Markets

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Today’s issue of Public Discourse offers a reflection on the life and work of Michael Novak. It would not be an exaggeration to say Novak is a towering figure in the world of free market economics. Author Nathaniel Peters says that while Novak has had his critics, the question that lies at the heart of all Novak’s work is this: “How do we get people out of poverty?”

What economic systems are most conducive to allowing people to exercise their human dignity, realize their God-given capacities, and provide for themselves and their families? When many people think of capitalism, they imagine factory owners exploiting workers. Novak sees a woman with a micro-loan who can now start a business to support her family, or a community of immigrants who have arrived in America—like Novak’s own Slovak ancestors—who through hard work in their local community can build better lives for themselves and those around them.

What leads to the flourishing of such communities? A planned economy restricted by regulation, or a more open economy that permits failure and rewards success? Novak’s conclusion, developed at great length in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and other works, is that free economies are best equipped to do so. Novak’s vision inspired those working for liberation from communism, in particular. It explained why the ideology of their government ran contrary to human nature and proposed what a more humane social structure might be.

Peters acknowledges that this work of Novak’s is decades old; is his work still relevant? Here Peters reminds us, by way of Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg, that Novak’s work has an ageless underpinning.

A free market helps small businesses and micro-loans, but also allows for large and exploitative corporations. We should help the former and limit the latter. Advocating a free economy does not mean being mindlessly pro-business or anti-regulation. Rather, it means returning to core truths about the nature of the human spirit and the dignity of work and thinking about how these can best be promoted for the least among us.

As part of that, Samuel Gregg reminds us, we must remember Novak’s admonition that a free economy and constitutional democracy require “a culture that underscored the reality of moral truth and that held up, as the founders did, virtue and human flourishing as the goal of freedom.” Liberty allows economic actors to exercise and cultivate virtue.

In Novak’s thoughts, liberty is what allows humans to grow and flourish, both economically and spiritually. Again, Peters turns to Sam Gregg:

As Samuel Gregg puts it, Novak argues that a free and virtuous society has “three legs: a free economy, a virtuous citizenry, and a political system grounded in accountability and responsibility.” By that standard, Gregg points out, the US is not looking good:

We have not so much a free economy as we have managerial, in some cases crony, capitalism; we have a citizenry that largely does not see or want to know about the happiness found in freely choosing to live in the truth; and we have a political system in which accountability and responsibility are increasingly voided and avoided.

Yet, we do not live in a world of simply state and individual. What is the greatest component in a free society? Novak says it is the family. It is in the family that caritas is imbued, so that individuals know that the highest order is not the state, but love: love of God first and foremost, and then love of others.

Read “Catholicism, Capitalism, and Caritas: The Continuing Legacy of Michael Novak” at Public Discourse.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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