Free Persons and the Common Good


by Michael Novak

Madison Books, 244 pages, $17.95

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A number of commentators” among them David Hollenbach, John Langan, and myself”have argued that the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letters, and even the Pope’s recent encyclicals, represent in some important ways a rapprochement with liberal ideas and practices. As Catholic leaders have reflected on the reality of liberal societies worldwide in the light of Catholic social teaching, they have found themselves involved in a dialectical process. While they have relied on the Catholic tradition to correct certain liberal errors or excesses, they have at the same time learned that elements of Catholic social thought might themselves require reconsideration in light of liberal ideas and experience.

Jacques Maritain prefigured this rapprochement in 1946 with his influential book. The Person and the Common Good. The great proponent of “integral humanism” attempted in that work to bring together the gifts of liberalism and the strengths of the classic Catholic doctrine of the common good. Admiring this effort greatly, Michael Novak offers his new book as both homage to Maritain and an advancement of that same project. Novak elaborates and extends his affirmation of the American experiment in democratic capitalism by probing the liberal roots of that experiment.

Novak’s main thesis is that liberalism, especially in its American form, represents in both theory and practice a notion of the common good that deserves recognition and appreciation. This notion, if taken seriously by the Catholic tradition, will modify the classic conception of the common good for the better by liberating it from its premodern form, which has bent it in static, paternalistic, and statist directions.

The real heroes of the book are de Tocqueville and Madison, who conceptualized and helped construct the liberal theory and practice of the common good. They had many precursors and numerous followers, but they provide for Novak the main clues about liberalism’s notion of the common good.

In terms of its formal principle, the liberal common good is “order unplanned.” It is the result, not specified in advance, of the activities of free individuals cooperating with each other in economic, social, and cultural spheres. This liberal notion of the common good differs from the older one in that it does not assume that the social ordering of the common good must be the result of the conscious intentions, aims, and purposes of an organizing center, usually the state, and that that ordering must be uniform. Novak argues on the contrary that the common good of modern liberal societies is dynamic, open, pluralistic, and serendipitous, appropriate to free persons who reflect and choose in close interdependence with other human beings.

The substance of liberalism’s theory and practice of the common good has to do with institutions, habits, virtues, and limits. First, as liberalism liberated humans from oppressions of conscience, from tyranny and from poverty, it invented appropriate institutions:

In the moral and cultural order, religious liberty and the separation of church and state, the free press, rights and practices of free speech, and the independence of universities, the media and other private associations from the state; in the political order, limited and constitutional government, institutions of human rights, representative government based upon checks and balances, and free political parties; in the economic order, the relatively free market, patent laws and copyrights, labor unions, corporations of many sorts, partnerships and unincorporated businesses, ease of credit and business formation, the stock association and business company.

These institutions are regulated by general rules and laws designed to bring to all the benefits of cooperation and to protect institutions from arbitrary interventions. They aim at fair play.

Within this institutional and legal framework, two primary liberal habits are expressed”the habits of association and of “self- interest rightly understood.” With regard to the first habit, liberal societies, especially America, have been characterized by a vast system of private associations in which free persons voluntarily cooperate to pursue various causes. Humans have a natural inclination to secure the benefits of voluntary cooperation. Far from being the tradition of atomistic individualism, liberalism has nurtured the associational individual. The profusion of associations that issued from this associational individual has created an unplanned community of communities, an extensive system of ordered natural liberty.

The second habit of this new notion of the common good is the republican theme of “self-interest, rightly understood.” This phrase from de Tocqueville helpfully distinguishes self-interest from selfishness. Novak points out that self-interest rightly understood leads humans to attach their interests, neutral in themselves, to worthy and socially beneficial projects. “The principle of self-interest rightly understood teaches humans that they are social animals, that they have need of one another, and that their own self-development depends upon their becoming social beings . . . (It) attaches the interests of the self to the public interest.”

Without denying the need for the classical virtues in their citizenry, the new liberal societies fostered their own distinctive virtues that contributed to a revised notion of the common good. These republican virtues contrasted with those of the older aristocratic societies:

The free person in democratic societies requires moral skills beyond those of the citizens of the ancien regime: enterprise more than resignation; civic virtue more than familial piety; respect for law and law- making rather than submission to command; self-improvement and self-realization more than contentment with an assigned station; skills in practical compromise and loyal opposition rather than an unbending moral absolutism; and yet others less often brought to awareness.

Finally, the liberal notion of the common good admits that there are human goals and purposes that cannot be encompassed by a socially-defined common good. Liberal society insists on room” geographical, psychological, and spiritual”for the exercise of the human spirit in all its creative individuality. It resists the insistent tendencies of state and society to intrude on what is essentially private and intimate. The human good is not perfectly coincident with society’s common good. This limitation on society’s penchant for interference is paradoxically part of liberalism’s notion of the common good.

Novak has tried to make this a genuine work of conciliation. He attempts to bring together classical liberals (von Mises, von Hayek) with classical conservatives (Burke). He bows to all who cherish the idea of the common good. He attempts to take seriously the criticisms of the liberal tradition. But underlying the congeniality is a tenacious commitment to the thesis that liberal capitalist societies in the west not only do have a version of the common good at work in their practice, but that that version is superior to that practiced in “Catholic” countries shaped more by the classic Catholic tradition. He believes that much talk about the common good is distorted by romantic conceptions about what ought to be, and is oblivious to the reality of the common good in liberal societies in general and in the American experiment in particular. Thus there is a polemical thrust in the book, as evidenced for example by an extensive critique of Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart.

Free Persons and the Common Good is not as easy to read as it might be, partly because it is rather loosely organized. There are too many meandering excursions into eddies of thought only indirectly related to the author’s project. Furthermore, Novak is a bit too uncritical of liberal thought and practice. He does, it is true, point briefly to some of the dark emergences in American society”its hedonism and decadence and the betrayal by some of its citizens of “their own inner agencies of in- sight and choice.” But these are minor notes in his otherwise celebratory affirmation of the “marriage of two traditions” in America.

Nevertheless, this is one more significant contribution in Novak’s ongoing project to defend western liberal democracy in the face of facile dismissals by its critics. It advances discussion of a very important topic”how liberty and the common good can effectively be held together in a constructive way.

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and author of The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism.