Michael Novak died last week. He was the consummate First Things intellectual: conservative in the way the late twentieth-century American political scene defined “conservative,” and religiously orthodox, with the latter far more important than the former.
Michael was involved in our work for the very beginning. I’m looking at a photo of a small gathering of wise heads in the living room of Richard John Neuhaus’s apartment on East 19th Street. Richard is running the meeting (as he loved to do), with David Novak beside him. George Weigel and Stanley Hauerwas are by the piano nobody ever seemed to play. Jim Neuchterlein and Maria McFadden Mafucci, editors of This World, which had only recently been shut down by the Rockford Institute, are present. Michael is in his suspenders, sitting on the couch by the windows overlooking the back garden. They’re planning the launch of First Things.
I first met Michael at a Dulles Colloquium, one of the ad hoc meetings Neuhaus would convene under the aegis of Fr. Avery Dulles, who at that point was not yet Cardinal Dulles. I can’t remember our topic for discussion or any other aspect of the meeting, aside from Michael’s intervention. His point seemed to me an eccentric meditation juxtaposing two different spiritual styles. I was baffled at first, and on reflection saw the brilliance of Michael’s mind. His gifts were intuitive and emotional. He could discern the tone of an argument, its spiritual texture. This capacity to bring forward the moral qualities of public policies was the key to the influence he wielded.
During the Cold War, conservative intellectuals defended the American Way of Life. That way included capitalism, which was contrasted with the command-and-control economy of communism. But there remained a suspicion that socialism—if implemented in a humane way—was the morally superior approach. What Michael did in his most famous book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was to describe the moral contributions a free economy makes to a healthy society.
In recent years, I’ve begun to think that capitalism is everywhere ascendant. Even the leaders of the Communist Party in China are pro-capitalist, at least insofar as China produces wealth without challenging the party leaders’ monopoly on power. In the twenty-first century, the most pressing need is to address the excesses of globalized capitalism, rather than defend it against critics. And the greatest excess is secular materialism.
I said as much in May 2013, at a colloquium here in New York. Michael demurred. He agreed that without the leaven of a strong religious and moral culture, capitalism encourages a thin, materialist vision of the good life. But he warned me that the lure of utopian thinking is perennial and we would need to remain vigilant in our defenses of freedom, including economic freedom.
Michael was not an ideological drone who imagined that all social problems were solvable by redoubled application of market principles. As he liked to emphasize, he was a proponent of democratic capitalism, not simply capitalism. In the last feature article he wrote for First Things, “The Future of Democratic Capitalism” (June 2015), he argued that a free society depends on three systems of liberty: economic freedom, democratic freedom, and a moral and religious culture that encourages self-governance. At the end of his life, what worried him most was the decline of the latter. If we’re slaves to Mammon, no amount of market deregulation, tax cutting, and free trade can restore true liberty.
The generation of 1960s radicals turned neo-conservatives is passing from the scene, as Michael’s sad departure from this life reminds us. They were men and women of moral passion and spiritual ambition. Michael wrote a number of articles and books about theology, culture, and politics that were saturated with the idealism of the 1960s, many of which make for embarrassing reading today. As Irving Kristol put it, that generation was “mugged by reality.”
Yet, they were not realists with a dour sense of what’s possible within this mortal coil. Michael was, perhaps, among the more dreamy neo-conservatives—which is a reason why he never refashioned himself as a tedious policy wonk. But his presumption that even the field of vision of the dismal science of economics could be lifted to a higher moral plane was of a piece with the neo-conservative cast of mind. Our public life is the better for his many decades of analysis, commentary, and spirited partisanship on behalf of higher religious, moral, and political truths.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.