Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Neocons - Apologists for Free-Market Utopianism?

A friend inquired by email what I thought of Pat Buchanan's remark in his Godspy interview that the Catholic "neoconservatives" (George Weigel, Michael Novak, Richard J. Neuhaus) were "the altar boys of a sect that holds, heretically, that free market-democracy is mankind's salvation."

My response was that a comment like that is such a gross distortion (actually, outright falsehood) of Novak and Neuhaus that I wonder if Buchanan -- like certain members of the Catholic left -- had actually read their books.

When I was in college I was a bit of a radical lefty anarchist sort -- anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, heavy imbiber of Chomsky & Howard Zinn, little bit of Marx, Nietzschian nihilism thrown in for good measure. You might be familiar with the type.

I read a lot of criticism about conservative thinkers (or neoconservatives) in those days, but as far as I can recall, didn't find much time to actually READ them. It wasn't until after college that I actually picked up Novak's books from the library, along with Fr. Neuhaus, and what I encountered hardly compared to the crude little caricatures I'd fashioned in my mind.

If you're interested in what the "First Things crowd" has to say on this topic, I'd personally recommend Doing Well & Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist, by Fr. Neuhaus, which I'm presently re-reading -- his reflections on the topic occasioned by Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus and The Catholic Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism, by Michael Novak -- if you don't mind reading used books, you can find both for affordable prices at Read them and judge for yourself, but don't let the spurious rantings of disgruntled critics prejudice your opinion.

Lastly, on the popular conception (or slur, rather) of Novak as apologist for "unbridled capitalist greed," it has always been Novak's contention, as far as I read him, that the very success of the free market and liberal democracy is contingent on the degree to which it embodies the moral virtues of Christianity. Regarding Buchanan's charge of material utopianism, consider the following:

A capitalist system is only one of three systems composing the free society. The economic system is checked and regulated by both of the other two systems: by the institutions of the political system and by the institutions of the moral/cultural system. Capitalism does not operate in a moral vacuum. Those who fail to live up to the moral standards implicit in its own structure are corrected by forces from outside it. Thus, capitalism supplies only some of the moral energy present in the free society as a whole. There are moral energies in the democratic polity to call it to account. And there are moral energies in families, in the churches, in journalism, in the cinema, in the arts, and throughout civic society to unmask its failings and to call it to account.

This is as it should be. For the free society is not constructed for saints. There are not enough saints on earth to people a free society. A free society must make do with the only moral majority there is — all those citizens called to a noble destiny, indeed, but often weak, tempted, egocentric and quite imperfect. In imagining the free society of the future, it is important not to be utopian. This century has built too many graveyards in its so-called utopias. The citizens of the 2lst century will warn one another against the mistakes of the 20th.

In addition to systemic checks and balances, there must also be internal checks. James Madison wrote that it is chimerical to imagine that a free republic can survive without the daily practice of the virtues of liberty. A free society depends upon habits of responsibility, initiative, enterprise, foresight, and public spiritedness. It depends upon plain, ordinary, kitchen virtues. Citizens who are dependent, passive, irresponsible, and narrowly self-interested will badly govern their own conduct, and their project of self-government is bound to fail.

It is, therefore, a crucial act of statesmanship to identify and nourish the cultural habits indispensable to the practice and survival of liberty. The free society cannot be made to thrive on the basis of any set of moral habits at all. Where citizens are corrupt, dishonest, halfhearted in their work, inert, indifferent to high standards, willing to cheat and to steal and to defraud, eager to take from the public purse but unwilling to contribute to the commonweal, and entirely self-aggrandizing, self-government must fail. Many peoples of the world, in fact, have shown themselves incapable of making the institutions of liberty work. The road to liberty, Tocqueville warned, is a long one, precisely because it entails learning the habits of liberty. Not any habits at all will do. The road is narrow and the gate is strait.

From "Wealth & Virtue: The Moral Case for Capitalism", National Review Feb. 18, 2004.

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