This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas
by michael novak
aei press, 153 pages, $18.95
We are nearly two years into the post-Cold War era—an era as yet without a name—and we have awakened to the sobering reality that democracy is easier to desire than it is to sustain. The painful experiences of nations as disparate as Czechoslovakia, Nicaragua, South Africa, and the Philippines attest to this fact. Each of these nations, as well as others, has rejected their past tyranny in favor of building a society based on the principles of liberty. In each case, the pattern of democracy they have chosen reflects some variation of a now-existent Western liberal democratic form.
That this is the case should be gratifying to the Western liberal democracies who, for half a century, stood firm against the manifold onslaughts of those who sought to snuff out the flame of liberty. Indeed, in the world-historical struggle for the hearts and minds of humanity, the good guys won: the democratic idea triumphed. But history isn't over yet. For although this moment in time has witnessed the triumph of the democratic idea, the realization of liberty—that is, the building of working, stable institutions of liberty—is proving a formidable endeavor.
It is to this problem of translating the idea of democracy into a functioning reality that Michael Novak turns his attention in his most recent book, This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas. The title is something of a misnomer, since the author's argument only occasionally nods in specific reference to the political economy of Latin America. To be sure, the argument that Novak makes is relevant to the Americas south of the Rio Grande, but it is equally relevant to the experiences of all other nations, including those in Eastern Europe, presently engaged in the task of building institutions of liberty.
To those acquainted with Michael Novak's considerable contribution to the development of a theory of democratic capitalism, much of this book will be familiar. Here, for example, Novak reformulates his arguments about the necessary relationship between democracy and capitalism (and vice versa), as well as his location of the cause of the wealth of nations in the creative, inventive, and entrepreneurial spirit of the human mind. The trinitarian nature of liberty—political, economic, and moral-cultural—is also discussed anew. But this slim volume is more than a condensed version of Novak's 1982 classic, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In the present book, Novak makes the case that democracy is the destiny of “this hemisphere of liberty” and beyond.
The Latin American connection of This Hemisphere of Liberty is located in the genesis of the book itself, which originated as a series of lectures given in Latin America over the course of the past few years. While recognizing “the unique and distinctive complex of mental tendencies that speaks to the Latin American condition,” Novak focuses his case for the universal destiny of liberty in what he has coined “the Catholic Whig tradition.”
The Catholic Whig tradition stretches back to the first Whig (Lord Acton's characterization), Thomas Aquinas, and includes, more recently, the theological and philosophical heritage of Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacques Maritain. This tradition has been nourished by secular influences as well, most notably by the Scottish Enlightenment writings of David Hume and Adam Smith.
Novak acknowledges that there are other traditions of liberty. For example, there is the left-leaning “progressive” tradition that locates human dignity and progress as its central affirmations. And there is the right-leaning “conservative” or, as it is presently known, “paleoconservative” tradition, a tradition that values the past for its innocence, dependence on custom, and awareness of the limits of human striving. The Catholic Whigs are uncomfortable with both, rejecting, inter alia, the former's dangerous utopianism and the latter's naive embrace of the past. At the same time, writes Novak, the Catholic Whigs “believe that it is the human vocation to construct—patiently and slowly—better institutions for the future. . . . In short, the Whigs are the party of liberty, tradition, and progress.” That is, tradition and progress “rightly understood.”
For the Catholic Whig, the right understanding of tradition and progress is rooted in four principles. The first principle, ordered liberty, stands in stark contrast to the contemporary notion of unfettered liberty that finds its basis in the putatively absolute nature of individual “rights.” Ordered liberty, by contrast, is “achieved through self-mastery that nourishes reflection and choice . . . [and] is won by slowly gaining dominion over appetite, passion, ignorance, and whim.” In other words, ordered liberty is liberty with purpose, and that purpose is to produce virtuous citizens and a virtuous society.
The second and third principles of the Catholic Whig tradition, the person and community, are integrally related. Novak argues that the present task of the Catholic Whig tradition is to “form a new synthesis of philosophical conceptions and practical institutions that do justice, together, to private rights and public happiness.” The Catholic Whig finds the choice between the common good and the individual a false one. In reality, Novak notes, “the ancient debate between the person and the community [has] been changed by the American experience.” The American novus ordo, with its revolutionary form of social life—the voluntary association—demonstrates that ordered liberty and human rights are products of social arrangements that give primacy to both persons and communities. Each, Novak points out, “is necessary for the other's definition—and for the other's flourishing.”
Essential to the three previous principles, and indeed to Novak's entire argument, is the role of morality. Novak discusses morality as the fourth principle of the Catholic Whig tradition, implying a coequality among principles. In fact, however, morality is the foundational principle to the others. Novak's discussion of morality is the most sustained and significant theme of his book, and it is, I believe, the most relevant to the democratic project presently underway around the globe.
To date, most of the energies of newly democratizing societies have focused on the construction of the institutions of political and economic liberty—freely elected parliaments, free markets, etc. This is both understandable and legitimate. What is missing in these efforts, however, is attention to the vastly more problematic moral-cultural component of democracy. As Novak reminds us, a new political and economic order of liberty “demands a new set of moral virtues.” All the courage in the world coupled with all the political and economic wisdom in the world can not build a stable, functioning democratic capitalist society. The heart of the democratic revolution, Novak repeatedly points out, “is moral or it is not at all.”
Recent events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere provide compelling evidence that the secular political and economic “salvation myths” of the twentieth-century tyrannies are unable to address what Novak calls the “possibilities of our moral lives.” What the peoples of these former tyrannies understand is that economic and political liberty permits the cultivation of those virtues that allow men and women to achieve the possibilities of their moral lives.
Herein lies the challenge of the present historical moment. The failures and vast human costs of modern “salvation myths” are now well known, as is the capacity of democratic capitalism to raise up the poor, protect human rights, and allow for unprecedented freedom of thought and action. However, the moral prerequisites and purposes of democratic capitalism are rarely articulated, and are frequently ignored, even by the religious leaders of free societies. This is tragic. For democratic government cannot endure apart from a common understanding that liberty is not an end in itself, but a means toward the fulfillment of humanity's deepest quest for personal and communal meaning.
Near the end of This Hemisphere of Liberty, Michael Novak calls for a moral awakening to quench the spiritual thirst that underlies the present global democratic revolution. “Spiritual thirst” is an apt metaphor: What we are witnessing around the world is not just a yearning for freedom, but, more fundamentally, a search for a canopy of meaning that will satisfy mankind's most basic spiritual instincts. The most profound contribution of the Catholic Whig tradition to democratic theory lies in this recognition that man does not live by bread alone.
Dean C. Curry teaches at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of A World Without Tyranny: Christian Faith and International Politics.