‘System for sinners’
The insight of democratic capitalist Michael Novak
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“Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.”
Over 50 years as a journalist, I’ve scribbled lots of forgettable quotes in my reporter’s notebook. But these 15 words were nothing if they weren’t both electric and memorable. They just kept leaping off the page.
All this was at the core of a 1983 interview I had with Michael Novak, who died Feb. 17 at his home in Washington at the age of 83.
I was nervous. Novak was a noted scholar and an intellectual. I’d better get things right—not just the words and the quotes, but especially the ideas and the concepts. I was young, and had just become the interim editor of The Presbyterian Journal, a magazine founded 40 years earlier by L. Nelson Bell, father-in-law to Billy Graham. The Journal was pretty good at covering “in-house” issues. But when I learned that Novak, a Roman Catholic, would be speaking at a nearby Southern Baptist college, I thought, “Here’s a chance to be part of a broader conversation.” I asked for credentials at a press conference to precede Novak’s lecture—and turned out to be the only reporter there.
These were big ideas, I thought. I strained to listen to Novak’s soft voice and scrawled as fast as I could. No, these were huge ideas.
Sometimes that evening, Novak sounded like an evangelical. He quoted liberally from John Calvin and Martin Luther. But then, he regularly went so much further. Again and again, he relied on Scripture itself to make his point. The evening had been funded by a handful of Baptist laymen who were eager to promote the cause of free enterprise. But ever so patiently, Novak kept explaining how “pure free enterprise” never takes adequate account of man’s sinful nature. He even dared to use the term “original sin” without suggesting it was an outdated concept.
Both that evening and through the years since, Novak has always preferred the term “democratic capitalism,” arguing repeatedly that a purely capitalistic system, with no restraints, is almost certain—because of the sinfulness of humans—to produce unacceptably ugly results.
Novak called on Christians to offer ‘a theology of creativity rather than a theology of liberation.’
At the same time, Novak was known as an optimist who was much more interested in how the wealth of the world is first created than in painful discussions about how that wealth should be fairly distributed. He referred often to the works of Adam Smith two centuries ago. “What distinguishes Smith from contemporary inquirers,” said Novak in his lecture that evening, “is not so much that he favored one system over another as it is that he went after solutions instead of analyzing problems. It’s not hard to find dozens of people who study the causes of poverty. Big deal! So what? When they find the causes of poverty, who wants it?” Instead, Novak said, we ought to imitate Smith, who studied the causes of wealth. “That is the only real way to help the poor,” Novak insisted.
Then, unforgettably for this young reporter, Novak explained how he wanted to take a cue from Adam Smith, calling on Christians to offer “a theology of creativity rather than a theology of liberation.” He suggested that way too many church leaders have bought into the idea that there is a set amount of wealth in the world that cannot be increased and must therefore be fairly distributed. “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.”
For me, it was a staggering and magnificent concept. I drove home, but couldn’t rest until I wrote the longest piece I’d ever composed. It was also, in fact, the easiest interview I’d ever assembled. “It makes such good sense,” I kept thinking to myself.
Two weeks later, I got a brief but gracious note from Michael Novak. “Thank you,” he wrote, “for representing my thoughts so accurately and fairly. Sometimes I’m pretty complex and explaining me can be hard.” So now, I’ve got a string of 20 more words I can deeply treasure.
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