Capitalism and Community


Free Persons and the Common Good, by Michael Novak, Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 233 pages, $17.95

Ever since his conversion in the 1970s from socialist to capitalist convictions, Michael Novak has been trying to persuade other Christians and especially fellow Roman Catholics to follow his lead. His latest contribution to this project attempts to remove a major obstacle: the belief that capitalism is excessively individualistic.

The moral critics of capitalism typically argue that the system abandons the public interest, the common good, and the welfare of the community to self-interest, private goods, and the wealth of individuals. They cannot approve of a social system that seems to reduce the common good to a mere unintended by-product of selfish individualism. Novak tries to show in his latest book that classical liberalism, the system of social thought in which capitalism is embedded, contains a realistic and defensible conception of the common good to go along with its respect for individual rights and personal freedom.

That isn't quite how Novak himself describes the book. He presents it as an attempt to interweave or marry two traditions: classical liberalism and the concept of the common good as developed largely by Catholic thinkers. But the latter tradition emerges looking rather vague, incoherent, and even inconsistent.

Novak is not necessarily to blame. Catholic thinkers have apparently been making little use in recent years of the concept of the common good. And when they have used it, writes Novak, they have frequently disagreed about the meaning of the term or made significant mistakes in discussing it. So Novak must refurbish the concept of the common good before he can blend it with the ideas of liberal thinkers. The task is a daunting one. The reader learns that "the common good has frequently been invoked as a justification for almost any and every internal ordering of society" and that the concept is "not simple" or "univocal" but rather "very rich and subtle" and therefore to "be used with care." The appendix even includes "a map of the usages of 'common good'" that Novak adapts for his own purposes "at the risk," he anxiously admits, "of taxing the reader beyond endurance."

The reader's endurance will not be strengthened by the growing suspicion that Catholic and other Christian thinkers working in this tradition have in fact made no contributions of genuine importance to the development of liberal democracy. Though Lord Acton considered Aquinas to be "the first Whig," his followers have by and large not followed up on those elements of his political thought that appealed to Lord Acton. What can we really expect to learn about freedom from a tradition that, as Novak admits, "did not arrive formally at the full recognition of the socially effective principle of religious liberty until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65)"?

Novak writes: "What in recent centuries we have come to call 'human rights' have in Jewish and Christian vision a short, direct justification"; but he goes on to admit that "the political relevance of these conceptions took centuries of bloodshed and effort to emerge" and that "this struggle was often best advanced by nonbelievers, often in the teeth of opposition from Christian princes and prelates." He adds: "The lines of history twist and turn, even when the lines of intellectual implication are straight." The quantity of twisting and turning displayed in the history of Christendom might prompt a skeptic to suspect that the lines of intellectual implication are largely imaginary.

Novak credits Jacques Maritain (to whom the book is dedicated) with the observation that "the long centuries of Jewish and Christian teaching about the dignity of the human person, working like yeast in the dumb dough of history, sought completion in institutions worthy of that dignity." Later on he asserts that "the modern market system itself arises from impulses of the Jewish and Christian inheritance of the West, which instructed our forefathers that the dignity of every human being is beyond price."

Can this be true? How many Christian theologians or bishops entertained anything but contempt for the notion of human dignity prior to the democratic revolution of modern times?

How much can be gained by interweaving liberalism with religious traditions that can be interpreted in so many uncertain or conflicting ways, that have so consistently endorsed the ruling ideas of the prevailing culture, and whose principal representatives have shown, at least until very recently, almost no understanding of the ideas undergirding either the U.S. Constitution or what Adam Smith called "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty"?

Novak's exposition of liberalism sometimes suffers from his eagerness to blend it with the tradition of the common good. For example, he makes a cogent case for the claim that the American founding was an enterprise of classical liberals. To redeem them from the charge of excessive individualism, he argues that their basic unit of analysis was not the individual but the community that secures the rights of individuals. This argument falls apart, however, when he supports it by reference to the Mayflower Compact and the writings of John Winthrop, with his emphasis on the formation of a Christian state. The founding fathers—Madison, Hamilton, and the others who came together to hammer out the U.S. Constitution—were no longer able to presume the unity of church and state that was Winthrop's basic presupposition.

Another example is Novak's use of L.T. Hobhouse to show that "the English liberals, more than is commonly believed, were also explicit about the claims of the common good, the social order, and the public interest." The problem is that Hobhouse's 1911 Liberalism represents a substantial movement away from the tenets of classical liberalism toward the very different political philosophy that has taken over the name in this century, especially in North America.

Chapter Three, on "Order Unplanned," is the section of the book that most directly confronts the religious critics of capitalism. Novak suggests that those who insist we must "attend to" or "intend" or "aim" at the common good may have trapped themselves in some obsolete conceptions of Aristotle. Subsequent Catholic thought, he contends, developed the idea that the common good is a social order in which everyone participates rather than an objective that is consciously and purposefully pursued by those who are "in charge" of the society. The arguments in F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and his Law, Legislation and Liberty are presented as a culmination of this development. Novak does find Hayek misleading at times, though, and calls for studies that would compare Hayek with Maritain and reinterpret Hayek's work in the light of Aristotle and Aquinas. Adam Smith is also invoked and "corrected," so that what Smith called the "interests" of the individual become the ethically less offensive "better judgment" of the individual.

To demonstrate liberalism's concern for the common good, Novak also makes extensive use of Ludwig von Mises's 1927 Liberalismus in its English translation by Ralph Raico, published in 1962 as The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth but now available with its former title restored as Liberalism in the Classical Tradition.

Novak characterizes his book as an "early foray" in which he has "been able to accomplish little more than to drive in stakes to mark where further work promises fruitfulness." Those of us Christians who deplore the arrogant ignorance so prominent in contemporary church pronouncements on economic questions wish him well. It takes persistence, skill, and courage to open up dialogue with the theological despisers of classical liberalism.

Paul Heyne is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Washington, Seattle.