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The Vocation of Enterprise

As its title implies, Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling brings a somewhat missionary zeal to the defense of commerce and capitalism, subjects that have been mainly exposed in the recent past to the zealotry of frenzied opponents. Mr. Novak’s effervescence and originality as an advocate and his rigor as a scholar make for a provocative and interesting read. He traces the rise of capitalism, the docile acceptance by its practitioners that they were concerned with means and not ends, the identification of commerce with Darwinian and Spencerian unsentimentally, the rise of religious opponents like Paul Tillich and socialist opponents like R. H. Tawney, and the recent great public relations crisis of business.

A Morally Serious Enterprise

His counter-attack starts early in the book and builds throughout. On page 8, we are advised that “business is a morally serious enterprise.” Calvin Klein’s suggestive advertising and Time-Warner’s outrageous “gangsta rap” are cited as examples of moral commercial lapses that were rescinded after irresistible protest. He returns to the theme to accuse business, as advertisers, of acquiescing in and even promoting the destruction of its own reputation. In the television series “Dallas,” the “most murderous, lying, double-dealing, cheating, wife-swapping cads” are businessmen, who, (as sponsors) “are the first minority not only to allow their moral reputation to be systematically dragged through the mud every night but also to pay for the privilege.” He makes the point that the entire economic and social system of the Western world could collapse if commercial interlocutors were really all “liars, scoundrels, and moral weaklings.”

He defines a calling as unique to each individual, requiring talent, enjoyable, and energizing to the individual so-called and likely to be hard for the individual to discover. He invokes Sir John Templeton and Edward Crosby Johnson among exemplars.

As 23 million Americans in 1994 worked for governments and non-profit organizations, 11.5 million for the Fortune 500 and 89 million for smaller enterprises, among them 10.2 million self-employed people (including farmers), Mr. Novak argues that a great many Americans have heard the call. Mr. Novak convincingly debunks the antiquarian aristocratic condescensions to trade and Christian and socialistic type-casting of grubby businessmen, and makes the link between commerce and religious practice. According to a rather extensive 1990 survey, businessmen were the third most religiously observant leadership group in the United States, 50 percent attending religious services at least once a month, after military officers (67 percent) and religious professionals (98 percent, the other 2 percent might have rather exotic views).

Saint John Chrysostom is invoked in support of the notion of commerce as “the material bond among peoples” and as a material sign of the “mystical body of Christ.” The portrayal of commerce as a “faintly smelly enterprise” is taken back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, updated to Germany’s nineteenth century Das Sozialproblem (poverty), ostensibly caused by some people having too much money. “Intellectuals have rejoiced ever since in defining the business class as their number-one class enemy, the epitome and cause of social evil.” The decriers of greed, privilege, and degeneracy and champions of economic equality are forcefully rebutted in turn.

The Ideals of Business

Only a very few wealthy people “become hedonists, voluptuaries, gourmets, bon vivants, Epicureans, or even member of the ‘idle rich’.” Mr. Novak exalts the American ideal of equality of opportunity that assumes inequality of use of opportunity over the European enforcement of equality. Being “created equal” is held not to mean remaining equal in economic terms. He shares James Madison’s view that enforcement of economic or social or professional equality is “wicked.”

The ideals of business are presented as the sense of community, creativity, practical realism, and self-discovery. The intellectual founders of capitalism, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, liberated the world from feudal misery and Malthusian gloom, and the so-called “robber barons,” though not without their shortcomings, were self-made men who broadened the economic horizon of the whole world.

In support of this powerful sequence elegantly argued, a range of authorities is hurled into battle, from Andrew Carnegie to Mrs. Jerry Rubin (defending the grace of her husband’s economic conversion), to Karl Marx’s famous assertion in 1848 that the detested bourgeoisie in “scarce 100 years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together.”

Mr. Novak rejects Marx’s definition of capitalism as based on the principle of market exchange, private property, and the profit motive, and substitutes his own definition of a market system dependent on reciprocally supporting political and cultural systems and based on creative entrepreneurial and managerial intelligence. He has little difficulty establishing that capitalism is a much more efficient means of spreading wealth around a society than any other system, provided it is allowed to flourish, monitored vigilantly by its practitioners and others, and functions in a democratic society. For capitalism to function properly there must be general adherence to and enforcement of the traditional ethical virtues of Western civilizations, based on the Bible, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Shakespeare.

Like a successful nineteenth-century military commander, Mr. Novak turns the repulse of his enemy into a rout and then a take-no-prisoners slaughtering pursuit. Capitalism, because of the skill and qualities it requires, is the antidote to decadence. It is also the antidote to envy. Given equality and generosity of opportunity, people will measure their standing not against their neighbors’ but against where they were a few years previously themselves and where they want to be. In fact Americans are conspicuously less envious than other nationalities. Envy, Novak reminds us, is the principal target of the Ten Commandments, being condemned as “covetousness” seven times.

Democracy and Capitalism

Capitalism and democracy are indispensable to each other. For example, elections are no substitute for economic opportunity in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Capitalism is the cornerstone of the American republic because Madison and Hamilton opted for a “commercial democracy” where the cross-purposes of society’s different economic interests will prevent the landed gentry, bourgeoisie, urban masses, or any other single interest from predominating over the others. Capitalism is also represented as having appealed, correctly, to the authors of the U.S. Constitution as the most reliable bulwark against the tyranny of the majority, as each source of power in the society, in exercising its prerogatives, would be a check on all the others.

Mr. Novak holds that the poor perception of capitalism in the United States and of the traditional values that foster it are due to the ambivalence about virtue and character on the part of the “high culture,” the intellectuals, professors, and artists; the disparagement of virtue and character by the entertainment media who are yet dependent on those qualities to make their dramas intelligible; the absence of these considerations in contemporary ethical discussion, and the moral relativism of the mass media.

In this climate, he claims the public school system has ceased to be concerned with virtue. For example, in fifty years the principal school disciplinary problems have changed from talking in class and chewing gum and dress code violations to drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, assault, and suicide.

Democracy and capitalism will flourish together in a society that remains rooted in the pursuit and elevation of virtue. Thus, recent leftist oracles and icons like the Club of Rome and north European social democracy are bowled over like ten-pins.

In the last section of the book Mr. Novak urges companies to conduct their own civil rights campaigns, advocates a modest version of health care reform, a novel form of catastrophic illness insurance, portable pensions, more aid for the homeless, practical business loans and advice to the Third World, and gives some advice to those setting up benevolent foundations (“caveat donor!”).

There are also some wild-eyed suggestions for turning labor unions into “independent business corporations, supplying trained and intelligent workers, as needed, to other corporations.”

Whether its enthusiasm delights or offends, this is a valuable book. It smites the leftist myth-makers hip and thigh and literally punishes the ungodly. There are a few Manichaean excesses. This author rightly states that “seventy years of communist mockery and abuse have destroyed the moral capital of Russia,” but I’m not so sure that country’s “religious and moral capital was built up by one thousand years of patient development.” If Russia had been a little more virtuous prior to 1917, the world would have been spared much in the intervening years.

The author’s enthusiasm for the present pope is understandable and well-expressed. Certainly the pope has undone almost all of the illconsidered economic nostrums of Paul VI, but he is prone to believe overly in the virtues of trade unions and he strained the Vatican’s resources to the breaking point by overpaying unskilled employees of the Holy See. John Paul II’s railings against materialist excesses are unexceptionable, but some of his reflections on capitalism generally are hard to square with Mr. Novak’s well-founded effusions on the same subject.

These are minor cavails; this is a profound and a refreshing book and I hope it accelerates the receding riptide in the intellectual economic debate.