Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Michael Novak, as Warm Up for Tackling Caritas in Veritate Little by Little

Michael Novak strongly defends liberalism as a system within the confines of American law and culture. Like Murray, I take him to be articulating something that he thinks has always been a part of American culture or public philosophy but must now be further explained. His argument is that liberal capitalism in the American experiment, through which it first acquires the name of “democratic capitalism,” is the ideal economic system for a free polity. He argues, following as he claims Centesimus Annus, for a tripartite system. However, first I would like to restate Novak’s thesis, since it succinctly gives his reader a sense of the optimism which he has toward an American democratic free economy. He typically argues: 
Thus the insight most lacking in traditionalists is that intelligent and practical persons, acting freely and on behalf of their own practical wisdom, can in their free exchanges generate a spontaneous order, a form of catallaxy superior in its reasonableness to any order that might be planned, directed, or enforced from above.
This is his thesis, which, however, he continually modifies with his tripartite society. 
Novak quotes John Paul II in order to explain what he means by a tripartite society that he envisages the United States to be: “Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” Here we see the three forces that must interact in a free society: the market, civil society, and the state. Each of these three branches – the market, civil or cultural society, and the state – must balance one another out in order to have a truly free way of life. By outlining this tripartite society, Novak means to free himself from so-called “primitive capitalism” which was truly a war of all against all within the market. Therefore, he is not, as John Paul II also was not, an advocate of a lassaiz faire free economy, but rather of a free economy within a strong system of checks and balances. He himself admits: “At various times in American history, both the political system and the moral-cultural system have seriously intervened, positively and negatively, in the economic system. Each of the three systems has modified the others.”  

What then must these checks and balances look like? Murray argued that American law had as its primary precursor British Common Law which in turn has its moral roots in medieval natural law theory. If this is true, then the American system of government was founded by a group of men who were reasonable and virtuous and who expected that those who would live within the system they established would also have the same prerequisites. Novak argues the same. Over and over he states: “A free economy cannot function unless its participants have mastered certain moral virtues. Important ethical assumptions are built into the free economy.” A free economy must be “embedded in powerful democratic and moral-religious traditions.” It must contain the twofold presupposition of the entire western tradition: the understanding of the human vocation to bring the earthly city in line with the heavenly city, and the vision that even the lowliest person is precious in God’s eyes.

Novak presents a beautiful vision of a human society. His tripartite society of checks and balances borrowed from John Paul II is admirable. Its grounding in the American proposition is debatable, and this is not an argument that he takes up here. What are more important are his presuppositions about such a society. I am not claiming that the best economic system would be one created from above as the traditionalists would claim. Rather, his presupposition stated in the first quote above concerning “practical persons, acting freely and on behalf of their own practical wisdom” seems dubious. He claims in regard to the Polish workers movement that “the birth of a capitalist system requires a moral revolution.” This was certainly not true in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution, nor was it true of most forms of primitive capitalism which Marx took aim at. He must then mean capitalism as he understands in within his tripartite society.  

But if this is the case, then capitalism itself is not a “moral revolution.” Rather, it must take place within a moral revolution and must be constantly informed by such a revolution. And this is difficult once a free economy is in place. Free economies tend to exert a powerful influence upon the moral status of a nation, an influence that governments cannot be expected to counteract entirely. Often governments themselves become heavenly influenced by values of the economy. Therefore, this influence is left up to a moral culture. Yet this moral culture, far from simply being in line with the same principles of capitalism, must actually regularly resist the influences of a free economy. This is so because the market and the production of goods tend according to the nature of human beings to be selfishly driven and egotistically motivated. The market is neutral in itself. Novak is right about that. Yet it tends to feed off of the humans who make it up, and humans, as a good anthropology knows, more often than not follow their concupiscence. Therefore, a “neutral market” will almost inevitably go in the direction of alienation and exploitation. This is simply human nature in relation to money, the “root of all evil.” Murray himself observed that “the native tendency of an industrial economy is towards oligarchic organization and towards independence of all political, not to say popular, control.” For the most part, a moral and religious society must spend most of its time acting against the tendencies of a free market rather than acting as its cheerleader, which is what Novak seems to be doing primarily. If it does not do so, the market will not only not remain value-neutral, but it will begin it assert its own negative values acquired through human weakness upon the moral culture of a nation. I think this is simply being realistic. While the tripartite system is nice to look at, the economy tends to exert the majority of influence. They all touch each other, but not equally. And so the other two must push back in order to maintain a society in proper check.  

This leads me to my second criticism of Novak, concerning his treatment of “creative subjectivity.” Novak sees creative subjectivity as the virtue par excellence for a capitalistic society. Yet he must be careful here on two fronts. First, in The Acting Person, as in every other place where he writes on creative subjectivity, Wojtyla places equal emphasis on the notion of community. In the case of persons, subjectivity is always intersubjectivity. Therefore, all creativity must remain within the bounds of an understanding of community, which is an equal good for the human person. As the person leaves his family and moves into the market, he must now form community, whereas before it was given to him. And the market must not be at odds to the formation of genuine community. Capitalism by its nature tends to rupture families and communities, even while it gathers together groups of individuals to work toward a common goal. One need only look at working families these days and all the travel that both mother and father must often do, or, conversely, at the actual “communities” that have formed with their center around sprawling suburban strip malls. When it comes to community, capitalism can be more of an enemy than an ally.

I post this now, because Benedict in Caritas in Veritate brings up again the tripartite system of Centesimus Annus. However, he tweaks it in some rather important ways that I will discuss tomorrow. What role must the state and the family have on the market? Benedict takes this up in a particularly unique way, using fairly new terms in the Catholic social debate: vocation, discernment, gratuitousness and gift to highlight his new emphasis.  Benedict goes beyond the free exchanges of practically wise men that Novak envisions.  He inserts the new term of gratuity.  More later.  

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