Michael Novak's Ethics of Buccaneer Capitalism (The Catholic Right, Thirty-nine in a Series).
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Sep 30, 2007 at 06:55:49 PM EST
When I launched this series on the Catholic Right last year, I quoted Jesuit priest Wilfred Parsons who in 1936 explained the causes of anti-clericism in pre-civil war Spain.  It bears repeating in light of the rise of contemporary neoconservative Catholicism:

'The great tragedy of Spain was that in the nineteenth century the working masses apostatized from the Church, as Pope Plus X once remarked.  And, it is well to remember, it was poverty, destitution and injustice which made them apostatize. They got to hate the Church because they hated the friends of the Church, who exploited them and whom the Church did nothing to rebuke or correct.  The words of Pope Leo XIII 45 years ago went unheeded and his great encyclical Rerum Novarum was neglected.

The lesson of all this for us is that we should meet the evil of Communism not merely by denouncing it, and not at all by stigmatizing as communistic all fundamental reforms.  We must attack the main causes of Communism.  Among these are poverty, insecurity and inequitable distribution of wealth and income.  Failure to remove these evils will do more to strengthen Communism than all the propaganda and all the "boring-in" methods of the organized Communist movement.'

Today, prominent among the defenders of buccaneer capitalism that exploits the poorest people of God, and yet still enjoy status as "friends of the Church," stands Michael Novak, who may help catalyze the very apostasy Rev. Parsons warned of. If, as Pope John Paul II declared, that the Church has a "preferential option for the poor," one would be hard to find it expressed in the works of Michael Novak.

As I recently observed that when it comes to describing economic pluralism, Michael Novak is a master of omission. Nevertheless, anyone who comes to Michael Novak's books on Catholic economic ethics without knowing the author's background and current neoconservtivism may be misled.  Novak pays lip service to such concepts as labor laws -- but when the rubber meets the road he excuses the sins of the rich and powerful at the expense of the common man.

In reading both of Michael Novak's premier on books on capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism I was struck by Novak's tortured logic on the Catholic concept of Social Justice. For the Catholic neocon, such ethics should not be incorporated into government action, but should be virtually a private affair of the individual. To that end, he continuously expounds a great deal upon how laissez-faire capitalism supposedly ensures liberty for all.

Perhaps Novak's most glaring omission is that he makes virtually no mention of the great Catholic economic theorist Monsignor John A. Ryan nor his ghost-writing of the The Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction of 1919.  Ryan himself is relegated to the footnotes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and is not mentioned at all in 1993's The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Instead (and in all places, the chapter on Social Justice), Novak gushes over libertarian economist F.A. Hayek.

Indeed, Novak embraces Hayek's view of a very limited economic role for government (like Hayek, Novak describes himself as a Whig on economic matters.). Its only concern, he believes, should be the rule of law, while letting a "free market" correct itself when recessions and depressions occur. As I noted about the Austrian-born economist in an earlier post:

...he [Hayek] did advocate a laissez-faire approach to business, equating it with freedom and liberty. "The planning against which all our criticism is directed," he wrote, " is solely the planning against competition.") In this, the Austrian-born economist feared that New Dealism in America as well as the mixed center-Left economy advocated by Britain's Labour Party would fall short of a promised "utopia" which in turn would cause unrest and a ultimately a slide into strongman tyranny.

Novak's embrace of Hayek gives cover to those who invoke the free market to justify bad, even unconscionable behavior. Contrary to Novak's fear of collectivism or centralized state power, the real issue is arbitrary power --whether it is derived from the state or power economic interests. Arbitrary economic power can and often does cause hardship, denying the middle, working and poor classes their own sense of economic security in the form of meaningful employment, a job a home. It can also be closely linked to political persecution and governmental authoritatianism, as disproportionate economic power comes to distort politics and government. Again, as I noted earlier:

Hayek failed to recognize that the lack of an activist government creates a power void. Liberals have always understood that the federal government of the people needed enough muscle in order to deal with the excesses of centralized economic power of trusts, monopolies and polluters. In fact, a government built upon liberal democratic principles is the greatest deterrent to the centralized power of a plutocracy.

And this is why Monsignor Ryan's role and legacy in American Catholicism matters. He was someone who grew up during the age of Robber barons and of a labor movement still with little or no real bargaining power. Ryan was not a peripheral figure in American history. Ryan was not only one of the central theorists on economics for the Catholic Bishops, but arguably, he was one of the central theorists of liberal economics of his time. Simply put, Novak's avoidance of Ryan is mind-boggling. It is historical revisionism as serious as the ga-ga Christian nationalism of David Barton. Unable to square the facts of history with his ideology, he changes it to justify his desired political and economic outcomes.

Born of Irish immigrants in 1869 Minnesota, John A. Ryan was a champion of civil liberties and economic justice. Starting in 1900 and until his death in 1945 he wrote about the very liberal concept of the just distribution of profit in relation to contribution, merit and special talents (this will be discussed in greater detail in a future chapter). The aforementioned Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction, February 1919 called for a living wage as well as retirement insurance - a forerunner of what in 1935 was to become Social Security. And unlike Novak -- who treats anything to do with socialism as if it were the plague -- Ryan and the Bishops for whom he wrote for in 1919, were not afraid of crediting Fabian socialists when they developed a good economic idea that could be used to make capitalism fair and more meritorious.

This omission leads Novak to another startling conclusion:  On page 247 of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Novak claims that third-way Catholic economics was never truly tried. However, there were many socialist concepts at heart of the New Deal. It was very much the essence of Monsignor Ryan's economics. Third-way thinking, with its emphasis on contribution being reciprocal to receipt was one of the justifications for progressive taxation. And more importantly, because it was part and parcel of the New Deal its ideals were instrumental in creating the modern middle class.

Why does Novak omit Monsignor Ryan from what he puts forth as a serious discussion on Catholic ethics and capitalism? I cannot answer that question because Novak doesn't say and I am not clairvoyant. I can, however, say one thing with certitude: if he had actually addressed Ryan's Social Justice legacy, Novak would have laid bare his own fallacious and often mendacious arguments.

But what does Novak think of progressive taxation and the role of a corresponding contribution to the common good? Well, this little screed from 2003 should give you a good idea:

From President Jefferson to President Theodore Roosevelt there was no income tax in America, and it never entered into the heads of the Democratic or any other party that a limited government should confiscate money from some Americans on the pretext of giving it to others. Nor that in so doing government should pry relentlessly into every item of income. (Where are today's civil libertarians on this massive invasion of privacy? What reasons could possibly justify this massive governmental intrusion into the most basic liberties?)

Perhaps if I equated progressive taxation with "confiscation" I too would want to avoid a serious discussion of Monsignor Ryan's economic theories. Besides, Novak is historically inaccurate: During the American Civil War our government instituted an income tax system as a means to finance the costs of the conflict. Obviously, the idea of an income tax "entered into the head" of Abraham Lincoln.

But perhaps Novak's greatest omission is a discussion of what leads many to socialism: laissez-faire, buccaneer-style capitalism. When "the sinners" who engage in capitalism do so without any sense of responsibility towards others, without any sense of receipt based upon corresponding contribution, that is when socialism becomes a viable option to more and more people. What Novak doesn't seem to get (or more probably does not want to get) is what Monsignor Ryan and other social justice Catholics have long understood: economic equity cannot be had on a purely voluntary basis, government needs some muscle to prevent bad behavior in the pursuit of wealth.

Herbert Hoover-by anyone's measure, no Socialist-once quipped during his ill-fated presidency, "The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they're too damn greedy."  Even a surface reading of Michael Novak's economic prescriptions quickly reveal that he gives the thirty-first president's keen observation the short shrift.

American Catholicism doesn't need any more Novaks channeling Hayek and politically aligning with the religious right.  Instead, it needs someone who puts the average worker-a far more important player in wealth creation than most stock holders-first. We need another Monsignor John A. Ryan.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :


Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight




Display:
If you want to get a taste of Novak's so-called "Catholic" ethics would take us, here and here are two good examples.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 30, 2007 at 07:08:42 PM EST

If you can stand to read them, sometimes the Detroit News will publish articles by a Catholic priest defending laissez-faire economics, Father Robert Sirico. Sirico completely abandons the examples that Father Ryan and the recently deceased labor priest Msgr. George Higgins gave to support labor and working people. Sirico's latest article as published in the News was a diatribe against the minimum wage.

If you want to see where all of this might lead our country, check out the interview with Chris Hedges in this week's National Catholic Reporter. Hedges believes that if we don't do something to restore the middle class and alleviate the problems of low-wage workers, we may well see a dominionist takeover of our country like Germany in 1933. I know that you've read American Fascists (which I too read and have) and Hedges clearly calls the alarm here.

Basically Novak and Sirico, like the Christian Right in general, have abandoned any belief in social justice or the social contract. They don't seem to realize that capitalism is amoral, and requires intervention to restore fairness and justice. In addition, the people who laud the free-market system as somehow a creation of nature forget that as with many things, the market is a human construct.

Kathy

by khughes1963 on Sun Sep 30, 2007 at 08:30:42 PM EST

I'm thinking about doing a future post about Sirico. He is another economic hyper-libertarian who just doesn't get it.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 01, 2007 at 07:09:53 AM EST
Parent


rather than follow their ideology.

Laissez-faire capitalism and the market economy is shown to increase poverty and misery for the majority of people where it's introduced, and improve the lives of only the richest few.   It is also solidly tied with ecological problems around the world.

 For instance, there have been a lot of outcries about the destruction of habitat in Africa.

What they don't tell you is that in areas where the original "subsistence" form of agriculture is practiced, they don't have near the ecological problems compared to areas where the market economy has been introduced.

The areas compared have equal population densities and are similar in almost everything except one follows the market economy.  (This is also a regular pattern.)

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Oct 01, 2007 at 09:54:59 PM EST

Novak is a master of omission.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 03:24:37 PM EST
Parent


It is sad to see that Dominionist theonomic ideas and economic tyranny supplanting the humanist ideas of Ryan and others. Such ideas are sorely needed in this Age of Capital and religious extremism (Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hindu) combining with the kind of species exterminating weapons in their collective hands. Especially in the failing republic of the USA. We are in great danger. The Libertarian lassiz faire kind of economics concentrate wealth in just a few hands, islands surrounded by the flattened world of the the hand-to-mouth existence they give most everyone else. It has been promoted here in the USA and has been striking in its ability to destroy the middle and lower middle classes here. Also keeping others in other countries from going beyond being wage slaves in gulag conditions. "Greed is good" is one of their creeds. A nasty one for those on the receiving end of such. Without humanism, i.e. empathy for others then it becomes a psychopath's world of get mine and damn those who do not do the same thing. Not a world I wish to see continue in its present state.

by Nightgaunt on Mon Aug 25, 2008 at 05:40:10 PM EST


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