Michael Novak’s Moral Compass

Published by Mark Michalski on September 4, 2014 in Real Clear Religion

 

 

When Michael Novak was writing The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, I was fortunate to have worked as his assistant. I still remember very vividly, when Michael would emphasize the need to think clearly. He liked to put a twist on Jacques Maritain’s famous dictum: “you must distinguish in order to discern.”

 

Michael’s magnum opus was published in 1982 and quickly became a bestseller, and quite distinguished.

 

When he worked for political candidates, Michael coined some great phrases, or sound bites, such as: “enlightened self-interest” and “New Frontier.” Working on an ethos of a modern, democratic capitalism, he has not only refined the concept, but he recognized the critical role of the entrepreneur, the concepts of risk and reward, ethics and trust (he claimed: “bad people would make bad capitalists”).

 

He introduced first the positive notion of “enlightened self-interest, in contrast to that of Adam Smith’s sheer or brute “self-interest.” Also, reading all of Pope John Paul II’s ideas contributed immensely to the final shape of his grand book. Novak always sought diversity of views and opinions. During his three decade-long tenure at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he started monthly discussions on current socio-economic, cultural, and philosophical issues. He invited leading experts in their field. He liked to have an agora — or a market place — for new ideas that brought about great debates. These discussions provided fertile ground for his creative writing.

 

His most recent book, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative is more than an honest memoir — it is a story of transformation. Michael journeyed from a radical left-wing socialist in the 1960s to an architect of neoconservative movement of the 1980s. Some might compare his biography to Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for its insights and spiritual values. In his vivid and splendid narrative, Novak takes hold of a turbulent economic and spiritual era in the United States in which Novak explores the complex events of the 20th century — forging into the new third millennium. “At eighty, I look back over the events I have witnessed,” Novak writes, “and I revisit the lessons I learned the hard way. Events and facts forced me to change my mind about ideas with which my education imbued me.”

 

With great honesty, humor, and humility Michael Novak shares his fascinating stories of a long and active life. Novak’s passion, gentle joy and zest for life is impressive. His biography proclaims that we all could and should discover in this life something deeper and divine, something wonderful, even in daily, ordinary events — only after we become fully engaged in it.

 

Michael Novak has been a theologian, philanthropist, and activist throughout his long life. But, ultimately, he has remained a great writer, teacher, theologian, and philosopher. Through his experiences, his humble beginnings and sensitive, poetic soul, he describes and explains the socio-economic, political and cultural marvels of our contemporary world. He taught at America’s best universities (Harvard, Stanford), worked for some of the most respected politicians (Kennedys, Reagan) and became close friends with the most charismatic leaders (Thatcher, John Paul II). He represented the country at Geneva and Bern peace negotiations with the Soviet Union, working on his guiding passions — fighting poverty and advocating for human rights — through writing on virtues of market economy and enlightened democratic capitalism. In his eloquent and enthusiastic memoir, one cannot help but see a man of powerful mind, moral courage, and strong convictions well worth adopting and emulating for a good life.

 

“My dream was to write about the philosophy, the theology of American culture — and not because it was American, but because there was something different here and unique,” Novak writes. “It belonged to the whole human race, but we were pioneering it.”

 

Michael Novak entered academic life after 12 years of preparing for the priesthood. He left the seminary just months before his scheduled ordination. He moved to the more radical political left while teaching at Stanford University, where he was voted “the most influential professor.” He came to Robert Kennedy’s attention during his 1968 run for the presidency, and worked on Kennedy’s campaign. “I loved working for the Kennedys, even though I didn’t appreciate at the time the Kennedys’ personal life. No one said anything in those days.”

 

He left Stanford for a new Experimental College of the State University of New York on Long Island. It was there, among “some real whacko students and some real whacko faculty” that his political right turn began. “I was radical, but they were destructive,” he explained. “I supported very strongly the War on Poverty,” he said, “and then it just went belly up. Crime went up 600 percent. Marriages fell apart at unprecedented rates. Marriages didn’t even form. And I thought, ‘This is crazy I can’t keep supporting that.’ So I became more conservative.”

 

Through intense debates, experience and study, he came to adopt conservative economics. After studying the “Austrian School” of economics (Friedrich von Hayek, J.A. Schumpeter, and C. Menger), he perceived that a free-growth economy benefited not only the entrepreneurs, but the general population. In the 1970s and ’80s, he became a strong supply-sider and Ronald Reagan supporter. “It just seemed to me that the ‘preferential option for the poor’ was just a disguised way of saying more government funds to give to the poor and keep them dependent. Keep them like on a plantation. Keep them like Animal Farm.”

 

Changing slowly from left to right, Novak points out how he came to see the essential truths of life — fighting poverty, advocating for human rights — as better served by an enlightened capitalism and by democratic politics than any alternative social order, especially a heavy hand of the state-run enterprise. His conversion cost him some friends, who remained on the Left.

 

Novak: “I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter’s economic policies to Reaganomics. Entrepreneurship not only expanded dramatically, it boomed. Reagan’s incentive tax with business friendly regulatory regime gave rise to numerous small businesses, with employment soaring. The favorable climate suddenly propelled both creative innovations with the emergence of new, high technologies.” Novak’s influence and recognition rose as well. So much so that, although his impressive writing continued, and he took yet on another career, that of a diplomat, an ambassador, negotiating with Russians on behalf of President Reagan, and later also for President Clinton.

 

Writing as if to a very close friend, Michael Novak shows how Providence placed him in the middle of many crucial events of his time: a month in wartime Vietnam, the student riots of the 1960s, the Reagan revolution, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, and the struggles for human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also spent fascinating times, with inspiring leaders like Sargent Shriver, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, Jack Kemp, Václav Havel, President Reagan, Lady Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, who helped shape — and reshape — his political views.

 

Yet through it all, as Novak’s sharply etched memoir shows, his focus on helping the poor and defending universal human rights remained constant. He gradually came to see building small businesses and free democracies as the only realistic way to build free societies. Without economic growth from the bottom up, democracies are not stable. Without protections for liberties of conscience and economic creativity, democracies will fail. Free societies need three liberties in one: economic liberty, political liberty, and liberty of spirit.

 

“The only way the poor will be lifted out of poverty is if they can start businesses that bring economic growth to the bottom,” Novak argues. But culture, he writes, is more important than either politics or even economics. Culture, more than the hot-button issues of the day, is what touches every heart and stirs every soul. Especially in its moral and ethical dimensions, culture is what animates the decisions of many people. After all, is not the Creed but a profound cultural statement?

 

Novak invites readers to see life as it is and can only be seen after years of contemplation, reflection, and long cumulative experience. He invites us to examine life, to see the world anew, and share his delight in aging, with the wonders of growing in wisdom and accepting life’s good and bad moments.

 

He concludes the book by describing the role he played in helping clarify certain points in the Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus. “When it comes to life the critical thing,” G.K. Chesterton said, “is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Michael’s story of his fascinating journey of life — epitomizes this Chestertonian attitude of gratitude and wonderment.

 

Perhaps this is why Michael Novak’s writing is so wonderful. Throughout this warm, witty memoir, he comes across as the happy human being, a magnanimous man interested in truth. Searching for the best in people, acknowledging it without regard to political affiliation — and he teaches us do the same.

 

Michael Novak’s journey from left to right can help us find our own moral compass in an increasingly complex, global world.

 

 

Mark M. Michalski, PhD lectures on international marketing at the Catholic University of America and management and business ethics at the University of Maryland University College.

 

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