Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sound Criticism or Impediments to Fruitful Conversation?

David Jones (la nouvelle théologie) has alerted me to the following by Fr. Jape -- "Against Progressives and Progressivisms" -- written in response to a passing reference to him in the context of our discussion of the Zwicks' article "The Economic Religion of Michael Novak" here, as well as criticisms of David T. Koyzis aka. "Byzantine-Rite Calvinist.

I haven't read a great deal of Fr. Jape and The New Pantagruel -- actually, I was going to make a serious point to spend part of the weekend reading his contributions -- so I'll bypass weighing the merits of the allegation that he wishes "to abandon the western democratic project entirely."

Regardless of their critique of the admittedly real failures of liberal democracy, it seems to me the "Augustinian Thomists" are nonetheless content to remain residents (and presumably participants) in "The American Experiment." As Fr. Jape notes, it is erroneous to assume that "if one rejects the liberal premise of public involvement, one must by necessity become a mountain recluse mailing explosive packages to university professors."

However, having familiarized myself to some degree with Novak's works, I think I'm qualified to comment on Fr. Jape's charges of utopial idealism in the latter part of his post:

. . . Novak went so far recently as to make the absurd claim that the onset of a global economy has demonstrated that "it need not be the case that 'you always have the poor with you' [quoting our Lord]" and "that it is a moral obligation of societies as well as individuals to overcome poverty." It is central to Novak's progressive gospel to believe that, in his words, "the chains of poverty [can] be systematically broken" and there is a "moral imperative that they must be broken." Perhaps Novak will soon turn up authoring a UN declaration that progress in human enlightenment has reached such a point that "it need not be the case that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God'" and that now it is incumbent upon society to break the yoke of human sin. But of course this is the logical outcome of the modern liberal state as developed and analyzed so clearly (and tragically) by Nietzsche's self-salvific proposal to deal grace to himself. Conservatives and Christians simply don't pay enough attention to Nietzsche

While Novak's turn of phrase is indeed susceptible to misinterpretation, I find Fr. Jape's interpretation nonetheless over the top and highly exaggerated. It's doubtful that Novak intended for his words to be taken in a utopian "make poverty history" sense of Bog Geldoff's Live8 concert campaign.

In fact, one might gain a better understanding of where Novak is going with this by reading the quotes in their proper context -- which is to say the rest of the paragraph, which Fr. Jape conveniently omits in his rush to castigate Novak for his presumed utopian faith:

While Americans retain a strong notion of human imperfection and affirm the need for checks and balances -- in other words, they hold to a nonutopian understanding of human nature -- they also take an almost Catholic delight in the goodness and possibilities and wonders of creation. "Chance," Tocqueville notes, "is an element always present to the mind of those who live in the unstable conditions of a democracy, and in the end they come to love enterprises in which chance plays a part. This draws them to trade not only for the sake of promised gain, but also because they love the emotions it provides."

In such a tumultuous nation, marked by extraordinary social and economic fluidity, people began to understand -- perhaps for the first time in human history -- that poverty was not necessarily a natural condition. The age-old class structure -- not to mention the seemingly inevitable premodern cycle of prosperity and economic decline -- could be broken. And if such progress were possible in the United States, why not in other countries? The chains of poverty could be systematically broken -- and if they could be broken, there was a moral imperative that they must be broken.

And so they were -- first in the United States, and then slowly, progressively, around the world. Little by little, people began to understand that it need not be the case that "you always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11) -- that it is a moral obligation of societies as well as individuals to overcome poverty. Whereas poverty had previously been taken to be the natural condition of most human beings everywhere, through the workings of capitalism it came to be considered as counter to nature, immoral, and the result of inadequate social planning and effort. In America, the process of moving up and out of poverty, generation by generation, came to be called fulfilling the "American dream."

Novak's optimistic assertions about the "American dream" and the potential of liberal institutions for moving the poor up and out of poverty, may indeed be subject to scrutiny, but I don't see how one could question the fact that we have a moral obligation to assist those in need and, insofar as it is possible, help them out of poverty.

Likewise, once Novak's quotes are read in context, it does not appear that Novak labors under the illusory utopianism of Fr. Jape's portrayal. He does, however, make the case that capitalist development in the context of liberal democracy presents the best opportunities for assisting the poor from the ground up, and is demonstrably better than socialist planning and other failed economic experiments of the past. "The greatest of all acts of charity is to teach the poor a system for escaping from the prison of poverty."*

I think that in such discussions as this one must always be on the alert for taking a phrase or a passage out of context. It is possible to take Novak's praise of the free market and corporations and, isolated from the rest of his work, conclude -- per the Zwicks, that he is an "apologist for Enron" who, along with Fr. Sirico of The Acton Institute, "use Catholicism as window dressing to promote an economic system based solely on self-interest," or, per Pat Buchanan (in a recent Godspy inteview, that he belongs to "a sect that holds, heretically, that free market-democracy is mankind's salvation." These kind of characterizations make for memorable sound bytes or catch-phrases to be recited ad nauseum -- but, in my opinion, they do nothing in terms of promoting a serious discussion.

It has always been Novak's contention, as far as I have read of him, that the very success of the free market and liberal democracy is contingent on the degree to which it is grounded in the practice of virtue and the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. For further discussion see my post The Neocons - Apologists for Free-Market Utopianism? January 8, 2005.

I've already demonstrated this penchant for quoting out of context with respect to the Zwicks. Although it seems to be the case with Fr. Japery in this post, I trust he knows better and look forward to reading more.

* * *

Update Where Novak stands with respect to capitalism was briefly articulated by Novak in the correspondence from the latest issue of First Things, which I was fortunate enough to read during this morning's commute. As it is not yet available online I will take the liberty of posting:

While I cannot agree with every part of [the reader's] summation of my arguent, he is quite right on his main point -- that capitalism posits no moral end for the human person. (To be sure, this is also an advantage; it is a system open to many persons who have quite contrary perceptions of the best life for the human person.).

That is why my own conception of a sound social system calls for more than capitalism -- in fact, for three systems in one; not only an economic system anchored around the ownership and practical insights reached through invention and discovery, but also a political system that protects the rule of law as well as individual and minority rights, and that separates political, legislative and judicial powers; and also a strong cultural system based on the full flourishing of persons and communities, and rooted in the depths of the human spirit. Capitalism alone could not suffice for a full human vision, nor even for its own integrity and longetivity.

In my view, the fullest vision of human fulfillment, both for individuals and for the whole human community, is the Christian (Catholic) faith. That faith provides the fullest theory of political and personal liberty that I have ever encountered, and also -- and this is a newer discovery -- the best theory of the free economy. But two thirds of humanity are not currently Christian, so the open-endedness of capitalism, its limitation in one respect, is in other respects a strength to be grateful for.

Indeed, whatever the limitations of capitalism, which are many and real, its strengths should not go underappreciated. Capitalism is the best hope of the poor to be liberated from immemorial poverty. It is, on the material side, the best supplier of support for a rich and complex civil society. And empirically, at least, it appears to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the successful rooting of democracy. These are not minor social virtues.

The specific complaint [against capitalism] -- that it tends to obscure Christian truth about the love of God, and to implicate us in too many worldly and pleasurable distractions -- was lodged just as effectively against mercantilism, feudalism, and every other economy in history.

Nonetheless, in a society as free and as rich in human possiblities as the United STates and Europe, I don't think that at the Final Judgement we will be able to plead as a mitigating circumstance that "capitalism made us do it."

We are, as history goes, remarkably free and remarkably endowed with the means to show our love for God in ways as numerous as the stars of the sky. If we do not do so, the fault lies not in our systems but in ourselves.

One might hope that Michael Novak's clarification will be enough to dispel the misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) of his detractors, and we can continue on a real and fruitful discussion of these issues.

* p. 108, The Universal Hunger for Liberty). To understand why Novak proposes this, I recommend part two of this book -- "The Economics of Liberty" -- as a brief introduction to Novak's thought, more fully developed elsewhere; and perhaps Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics: A Citizens Guide to the Economy (Basic Books, 2004).