The Poverty of Michael Novak
As mentioned yesterday, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute has produced a short discourse on the Pope’s not-yet released encyclical on social justice over at First Things. Novak’s article is to the encyclical what condoms are to intercourse: Novak is trying, and trying desperately, to frustrate Pope Benedict’s intention in issuing an encyclical on social justice.
Pope Benedict is, of course, a pastor. By training he is also a theologian. An encyclical is a means by which the Pope teaches Catholic truth, which truth is intimately and intrinsically tied to the revelation of Jesus Christ. In other words, the truth Pope Benedict will proclaim is a theological truth. Yet, not once does Novak mention theology and the only reference he makes to a theologian is to a statement of Pope John Paul II’s that has no particular theological content. Novak, for example, writes, "Will all those good Catholic leftists who announce their own enthusiastic preference for the poor actually help to liberate the poor, even by a little? Will their anticapitalist policies help alleviate poverty? The historical record offers very little evidence for that contention." The verb "liberate" is the key to that quote and Novak means something different from liberation from what St. Paul meant. Freedom from government regulation is not the same thing as the freedom of the children of God. The question, the theological question, about capitalism is not whether it alleviates material poverty. We can stipulate that fact, although many in Latin America are right to wonder what happened to the promises of prosperity from the NAFTA crowd. But, the theological question is this. Do not the very means by which capitalism increases material wealth entail an impoverishment of the spiritual wealth of the people who engage in it?
Novak assures us that this is not the case, that capitalism is not all about greed but is romantic, it involves noble sentiments of the human heart like the yearning for innovation and human creativity. "In actual capitalist practice, the love of creativity, invention, and groundbreaking enterprise are far more powerful than motives of greed," he writes.
How does Novak know this? I checked his biography and it appears he has never once been an entrepreneur. I can assure him from my years as the manager of a small business that I never once was asked by the owners if I was focused sufficiently on being creative. They asked about the bottom line. And, if you wanted to motivate the waiters, bonus money was the ticket, not appeals to their "love of creativity." Perhaps Novak spoke with the donors at the AEI. I am quite sure that this interpretation of the source of their wealth suits their self-image nicely. Who wouldn’t rather appear as a groundbreaking, creative sort rather than a greedy money-grubber. Flattery may not get you everything, but it has gotten the AEI a lot of donors.
As for his comments about the source of our current economic troubles, and how and why greed was not the problem, etc., well, read them yourselves. His take on the current economic crisis is precious.
Why does anyone listen to Novak? His essays are a shill for rich people, nothing more and nothing less. He once compared the modern business corporation to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, a comparison so bizarre and outrageous I laugh every time I read it. Now, he has marked out his turf vis-à-vis Pope Benedict, putting his own ideological frame on the Pope’s encyclical before even reading it and without realizing that the ideological framing of Church teaching is one of the problem the Church faces, not one of the solutions. Mr. Novak and his neo-con friends can try as they might to wiggle greed into a virtue, to dress up capitalism in the garb of human creativity and it may well be the best form of organizing an economy known to the annals of history. But, from a Catholic perspective, we must insist on the priority of faith and its claims over the claims of economics, no matter what they think over at the AEI.