Author, theologian, and scholar discusses the morality of democratic capitalism
Members of the Fuller community and beyond gathered in Travis Auditorium on Thursday, April 15, to hear author and former U.S. ambassador Michael Novak deliver a lecture entitled “The Moral Foundation of Markets.” The talk, sponsored by the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller, focused on the interaction between faith, morals, work and society. Perhaps most widely known for his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak is a strong supporter of such a system and outlined its merits in the face of common misgivings.
“There’s been a long resistance to a capitalist economy by religious folk,” Novak observed, “But no other system so rapidly raises up the living condition of the poor.” In the past 100 years there is no “socialist or third world experiment” that has fared as well. For Novak, the fact that the poor are drawn to a capitalist economy is proof that they actually gain the most from it. In the case of immigrants, almost 100 percent of them came to America in poverty, and yet only 12 percent of Americans are considered poor, proving that those who flocked to the land of opportunity found themselves lifted into a better life by democratic capitalism. “We must measure capitalism by how well it raises up the poor—that’s what it was invented for,” he stated.
But Novak is aware of the arguments against democratic capitalism, especially those that identify it as an amoral or immoral system. He acknowledges the need of humans, as moral animals, for a moral economic system, but also believes the morality of capitalism has been understated by the arguments of Marx and Lenin. Looking to the history of capitalism to refute such accusations, Novak showed how it moved a society ruled by an aristocracy resorting to violence to obtain scarce commodities to one that focused on the source of wealth and obtaining it “not by war, but by wit.”
This “employment of human wit to develop goods and services,” otherwise known as enterprise, is what Novak describes as the distinctive, defining element of a capitalist economy. He went on to identify ten moral advantages to capitalism, derived from the works of Scottish philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith. Such advantages include the awakening of the poor from isolation and indolence, the mixing of social classes, encouragement of literacy, and stimulated upward mobility. Moreover, Novak stated that envy, which he calls “one of the most destructive social evils,” is diminished by a capitalist system. “It promotes self-discovery and the pursuit of personal happiness rather than a false life marked by envy of others,” he said.
Continuing to praise the moral attributes of capitalism, Novak said that it is a system built on an interest for the common good—one that “lights a fire in the spirit of invention” and is “designed to derive the best out of people.” In his concluding statements, he was quick to acknowledge that capitalism cannot be equated with the Kingdom of God and must be viewed as a poor and clumsy system, albeit better than its rivals. “Capitalism is not the paradise of humankind,” Novak said, “But it is a highly moral system, bringing out the best and checking the worst in us.”
A time for questions and answers followed the lecture.
The author of 28 books, Novak is most widely known for his work The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, as well as Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life and No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. He is currently the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy of the American Enterprise Institute and is a past recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. In addition to his scholarly work, he has served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.