A great Catholic thinker, whose work plays a great role in my thinking; here is his obituary from the City Journal.
Michael Novak died February 17, at the age of 83, after a battle with cancer. It’s hard to imagine the Catholic Church—or the world—without him.
Novak is perhaps best known for his comprehensive examinations of the practical realities and ideals of “democratic capitalism,” first advanced in his 1982 masterpiece The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and developed in a series of subsequent books, including The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993), Business as a Calling (1996), and, most recently, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (2015), co-authored with Paul Adams.
Novak’s writings on democratic capitalism fought socialism not just on the level of economic efficiency, but on moral terrain, too. Socialists have long attacked market-based economies for their inequalities and consumerist frenzies, but, as Novak argued, their arguments invariably compared luminous socialist ideals with the often prosaic realities of capitalist societies. Had socialists looked instead at the socialist world as it actually existed, they would have found truncheon-enforced political conformity, economic ruin, and spiritual decay.
Novak showed that democratic-capitalist societies did promise—and often instantiate—moral goods. Respect for the individual conscience, the rule of law, the ignition of creativity and entrepreneurialism, general prosperity—these were remarkable achievements by any historical standards. Novak’s social thought proved hugely influential, cited by Margaret Thatcher and Poland’s Solidarity activists, who read it in Samizdat editions. Many believe that Novak even helped Pope John Paul II change his mind about free markets.
As Novak acknowledged in his thoughtful 2013 political autobiography, Writing From Left to Right, it took him a while to see all this. He spent the 1960s and some of the 1970s as a radical leftist, opposed to the Vietnam War and sharply critical of mainstream American life. His move to the right was gradual, not a sudden conversion, based partly on his research in political economy and partly on his work on Democratic political campaigns, which brought him into contact with America in all its untamable variety. Left-wing opinions about the country began to seem abstract, far removed from the concerns of real citizens—especially the kind of hardscrabble folks he grew up around in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (today, they’d be called “deplorables”). By the late seventies, his political evolution was basically complete—indeed, leaving academia (he had taught at Harvard, Stanford, and the State University of New York), he moved to the American Enterprise Institute, helping over the course of three decades to make that conservative think tank a standard-bearer for right-of-center thought.