A "Vaguely Moral" Essay


The American Vision: An Essay on the Future of Democratic Capitalism, by Michael Novak, Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978, 60pp., $2.75 (paper).

According to Michael Novak, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a prominent neoconservative social theorist, the capitalist system lacks an integrated defense. "There is no single book one would willingly place in the hands of a serious inquirer and say: 'Here is our full moral, political, and economic vision.'" Novak's essay is an attempt to fill this gap—not with a theoretical discussion, which would be just so much "ideology," but by comparing the actual experiences of people living within "capitalist" and "socialist" systems. Since people do not live in theories but in real, concrete systems, Novak proposes "to think concretely" about "democratic capitalism."

"Democratic capitalism," according to Novak, is three systems in one—economic, political, and cultural. Its strengths are: its wealth-conferring character, its efficiency, its promotion of democracy, and the development of certain habits of mind: systematic skepticism and a basic trust in experience; a primary concern for how a theory works in practice, regardless of its dictates; and a spirit of trying to reach agreement on issues without first having solved all the differences.

There are, however, vices in "democratic capitalism," too. An exclusive concern for the empirical and pragmatic can leave the spirit undernourished, hungering for ideals; and the very ability of the system to satisfy wants so efficiently can reduce the capacity of people to defer gratification and make the long-range commitments necessary for the very maintenance of the system.

These weaknesses, not to mention the "vaguely immoral character" of a system based on self-interest, make "democratic capitalism" an easy target for socialism, which emphasizes issues on which "democratic capitalism" seems weakest. Socialism's appeal is basically moral; it emphasizes brotherhood, a moral vision describing what man could be within a new social order, and an integrated worldview.

Novak responds that the impact of "democratic capitalism" upon culture is a most neglected theme. If we do pay attention to the "texture of our daily lives" within this system, we find that the ideals of fraternity, equality, and liberty fare quite well. Americans cooperate, believe in teamwork, join organizations, value congeniality, and love tasks. Egotism and self-absorption do not characterize our daily activities within the system.

Moreover, the system is dynamic. Those at the economic top and bottom of society circulate. Even though the system does not guarantee success, there is opportunity for all. Admittedly, there is luck as well as skill involved in where one comes out economically, but such "luck" is a real, even if unappreciated, part of life.

Finally, "democratic capitalism" offers liberty. It does not guarantee how liberty will be used, but it nonetheless guarantees liberty. This is a fact that merits no small emphasis.

With such an assessment, it would seem that "democratic capitalism" could not help but prevail. Yet since World War II there has arisen within the system a social class whose aims are inimical to its basic features. This "adversarial class" is made up of intellectuals adept in the use of the media. Spawned by the very success of the system, this group has goals summarized by Novak as simply: "What's bad for business is good for the country and vice-versa."

Novak suggests that, in order to meet this challenge, the defenders of "democratic capitalism" take the offensive, showing the adversarial class to have interests and ambitions of its own. The adversarial class is statist: it seeks power to control people's lives. The adversarial class is aristocratic: it is really distant from the people and maintains itself only through service to the bureaucracy. The adversarial class is expensive: its proposals create regulation that increase the cost of almost hectic and complex.

Defenders of "democratic capitalism" should make their case through advertising that clearly states the advantages of the product; through education that calls for a careful, nonpropagandist, examination of free enterprise; and through a "war of ideas" that seeks to make the nature of the adversarial class (and the advantages of "democratic capitalism") clear to the reporters who cover social and political news. Novak calls for every corporation to have four or five scholars in residence to accomplish this and related tasks.

Though certainly meritorious in many respects, Novak's book does not even come close to providing the moral vision of "democratic capitalism." It seems, in fact, that Novak forgets that this was the stated aim of his essay. He never explores the basis for moral judgments, the exact nature of capitalism, and, most importantly, the intimate relation between freedom and virtue. Moreover, Novak seems to accept uncritically a view of morality that does not recognize the achievement of individual happiness as the aim of morality, which certainly seems a prerequisite for any adequate moral defense of capitalism.

An intelligent, sincere member of the adversarial class would not be staggered by any of Novak's punches. The disagreement is precisely between fundamental moral viewpoints, and it is here that the issue must be resolved.

Doug Rasmussen teaches philosophy at Our Lady of the Lakes College, San Antonio.