Michael Novak and America’s Moral Ecology

“Americans are good at going to meetings, and that’s a tremendous skill to have,” said Michael Novak in a 2009 lecture at The Heritage Foundation.

Leave it to Michael Novak to ennoble the bane of professionals’ existence. Americans “figure out what they need to do and organize themselves to do it,” he explained. “It’s essential for democracy.”

Where others see nothing more than process,  Novak’s genius was to discern the animating spirit of our American order.

Novak did so most famously in his 1982 book “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism”, showing how a mutually reinforcing three-part system sustains the American experiment: a market economy, democratic polity, and Judeo-Christian moral-cultural system. As a conceptual framework, it was tremendously influential.

Novak died early Friday morning at the age of 83. He leaves an enormous body of work and a legacy of influence emphasizing the cultural prerequisites for political and economic freedom.

In his last public appearance at The Heritage Foundation in July 2016, Novak echoed the themes from “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalismpublished around 35 years earlier. The occasion was the launch of our 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, for which we were honored to have Novak write the introduction.

Novak’s lecture that day focused on the urgency of tending to our moral ecology, characterizing the Index as the best current measure of it. (That, too, was vintage Michael: always celebrating and cheering on those at work cultivating the moral ecology.)

The moral character of our economy is critical to its sustainability, he argued. As he wrote in the introduction to the Index:

[A]n economy without beauty, love, human rights, respect for one another, civic friendship, and strong families (the tutors of moral habits) is not likely to be loved, to be worthy of human persons, or to survive very long. Those who focus almost exclusively on markets or even enterprise do not wholly capture the American system as it has functioned ever since the beginning. …

Economic opportunity in our nation relies fundamentally on cultural conditions that foster personal creativity, responsibility, freedom, the love for community through association and mutual cooperation, the aim of bettering the condition of every person on Earth, the cultivation of the rule of law, respect for the natural rights of others, the preference of persuasion by reason rather than by coercion, a powerful sense of the sinful drag on human souls and the need for checks against it.

Americans’ propensity for association, mutual cooperation, and community fascinated Novak: “The great story of America is not the individual. The great stories of America are building communities.”

This appreciation for the individual in community led him to challenge prevailing notions of social justice, a subject he engaged in his 2009 Heritage lecture. Social justice, he explained, is a habit and a virtue, the capacity for the basic skills of civil society:

Social justice is really the capacity to organize with others to accomplish ends that benefit the whole community. If people are to live free of state control, they must possess this new virtue of cooperation and association. This is one of the great skills of Americans and, ultimately, the best defense against statism.

Novak has equipped us for an enduring defense of freedom by urging us to tend to the spirit, not just the structures, of our American order. Conservative economic and social principles are indivisible, and his example reminds us that every generation’s task is to continually cultivate this understanding.

That task will be well served by returning again and again to Michael Novak’s work, still so relevant to our challenges and uncertainties.

 

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