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The Free Market and Public Morality

R&L: What was it that caused you to have second thoughts about the role of the state in economic life and about the left-wing agenda of the 60’s of which you were so much a part?

Novak: In many places the liberal agenda did not work as we had hoped. I was living in New York at the time, and the city almost went bankrupt. Crime and illegitimacy were mounting. Those of us who were in favor of the “War on Poverty” never said “Just wait, in thirty years we’ll move the illegitimacy rate from 6 percent to 30 percent. Crime will go up 700 percent. Poverty programs will work for the elderly, but among the young the sense of dignity and rule of law will be far lower than it is today.” We did not intend any of these things. The programs did not work in the way that we imagined they would.

R&L: In your view, what are the limits of state action? Could you answer that in the context of “neoconservatism”–a type of contemporary conservatism with which you have identified yourself?

Novak: I didn’t so much choose to be a neoconservative. I was given that label by others.

It is difficult to state abstractly where the role of civil society ends and the role of the state begins. It is far better to settle that pragmatically, on a case by case basis. But where there is uncertainty, the benefit of the doubt ought to go to civil society.

I have argued that the American system requires a strong and active political sector, including the state as an actor, but not as a manager or director. Certainly I favor a limited state, one attuned to, at the very least, not doing any harm and performing duties that only strengthen and help civil society. I have allowed for a larger role for the state in several areas than many libertarians do, but a role much reduced from that of my former allies on the Left.

R&L: How would you respond to the concerns of the communitarian movement which sees an essential role for government in the protection of individuals from the perceived abuses of free-market capitalism?

Novak: I was writing about communitarianism before there was communitarianism. The evidence seems to show that a free economy is a boon to certain kinds of community.

First, it’s necessary to be quite clear about what we mean by community. Second, it is necessary to make certain that we recognize the disabilities of “community” –such disabilities as parochialism, xenophobia, nosiness, censorship, group think, and the like. We must distinguish genuine adult forms of community from highly flawed and confining forms of community.

R&L: Do you believe that some of the writers associated with the communitarian movement neglect some of these negative characteristics of community?

Novak: For some, communitarianism is another way to be anti-capitalist without being socialist. For others, it is a proper reaction to an artificial and abstract sense of the lonely individual. And finally, some come to it as a result of warm and fuzzy thinking that lumps together many forms of community into one.

The first rule of morality is to think clearly, and this includes thinking clearly about community as well as about the individual. I think the best treatment of this in my work is in the early lectures of This Hemisphere of Liberty where I show the way community enters into the definition of person, and person into the definition of community.

R&L: To what extent do you attribute the collapse of communism to the election of Pope John Paul II?

Novak: Without the Pope’s leadership in Poland, the confidence he gave the Polish people, the penetrating spotlight he put on those oppresive regimes, I doubt whether the many elements of civil society in Poland, in the then Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, in East Germany and the other countries, would have developed so rapidly and with so much confidence against communism as they did. In other words, although it is hard to measure the real power of the moral force exerted by the Pope, there is no doubt that power was exercised and felt.

For example, on the Pope’s first visit to Poland, when hundreds of thousands were gathered together at mass with him, there dawned among many of them the realization that they were the whole nation and they were more powerful than the Communist Party. People could see and feel that almost tangibly. George Weigel gives the best account of this influence in its many forms throughout eastern Europe in The Final Revolution. [See review on page 7–Ed.]

R&L: What is so significant about Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus? Could you put it in the context of past social encyclicals?

Novak: The Hundredth Year, to refer to it by its English title, really succeeds in being a critical reflection on the best of the preceding hundred years of papal social thought. It draws together the most creative and effective tendencies in that history, setting aside the wrong turns and the tentative gropings that were not so successful.

It is also distinguished for finding a deeper starting point and conceptual apparatus, which permit the author to produce a new synthesis previously unseen in any other single work of religious reflection on the economy.

Finally, it comments quite succinctly on the reasons for the collapse of socialism that became evident in 1989. By section 42, the Holy Father considers the consequences of that collapse and asks, “After the collapse of socialism, should we recommend capitalism to the bishops of the rest of the world?” Here again, the Holy Father says, “That depends on what you mean by capitalism” and he makes a very astute separation between the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural components of the free society. He offers a unified vision of how the three relate to one another.

He then proceeds to make a cultural critique of the existing order, and reveals an ecology of the free society–a moral ecology–which I think opens up the battle ground of the future.

So, in short, I think his conceptual apparatus is deeper and his tools are truer for work of great precision, and the commentary on the events that happened in our time is more exactly on target, than previous works.

R&L: Do you foresee this recognition of the free market influencing, in the near future, the thinking of church bureaucracies, who for decades promoted increased state intervention in the lives of citizens?

Novak: It is difficult to change thinking throughout a bureaucracy. Most people change their thinking very slowly, if at all. And while Catholic thinkers have, for the most part, been adversarial to socialism, many have been too optimistic about the state as a tool of social policy, without accurately counting the costs of that use.

We must be careful that in shaking ourselves free from this tendency toward a form of statism that falls just short of socialism, that we do not overreact in the opposite direction. But this re-thinking is well begun–though we will have a battle on our hands to keep the process moving along.

R&L: Tell us the response of your former liberal colleagues who saw your “rightward” intellectual shift over the past two decades.

Novak: I was cut off by some very close friends. Some wrote sad warning letters, and then wanted nothing to do with me. From others, the phone stopped ringing. Friends would say “don’t you understand what people are saying behind your back, what they’re telling one another?” I had always thought that people on the Left were especially self-critical and interested in the facts. It doesn’t turn out that way. At least not for everybody.