Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Neoconservative Response Part Two

by John Médaille



The Economic, Moral, and Political Orders


A society is built up from the economic, political, and moral orders,and these orders are, for Novak, separate and distinct. Novak laments the encroachment of the political order on the economic and the growth of the federal government; he notes the government’s power to destroy whole industries, such as the nuclear power industry. In discussing the economic system, Novak notes that it is not a democratic system; businesses should not be run as democracies because democratic methods are not universally desirable; organizing industry democratically would be a “grave and costly error.” Further, the encroachments by government impose unacceptable costs on business. Novak uses the example of requiring pollution controls at Bethlehem Steel. In noting the “red dust” put in the air by the smelters, he says, “Only in my adulthood was this same dust suddenly perceived as ‘pollution.’”

In discussing the moral-cultural order, Novak notes that it is “the chief dynamic force behind the rise of both a democratic political system and of a liberal economic system.” He laments that business is not sufficiently supported by the moral system and that businessmen are likely to be portrayed as villains. He finds that the cultural system does not have sufficient respect for businessmen, who, being men of action, do not make a moral presentation of themselves to the world. Novak laments the “burden of guilt” piled up on business for the problems of the third world countries whose problems “[third world leaders] do not consider attributing to themselves.”46 He therefore concludes that the moral-cultural system is insufficiently supportive of capitalism, and that “Democratic capitalism is more likely to perish through its loss of its indispensable ideas and morals than through weaknesses in its political system or its economic system. In its moralcultural system lies its weakest link.”

A Theology of Economics

Novak places the “empty altar” at the heart of Capitalism which requires “not only a new theology but a new type of religion.”48 After all, the economy of the biblical nations was “an economy of caravans and traders,” and biblical writers “did not envision questions of political economy we face today.” This “new religion” cannot be associated with any particular denomination, since it is a religion of pluralism.


Yet if Jewish and Christian conceptions of human life are sound, and if they fit the new social order of pluralism, the widespread nostalgia for a traditional form of social order may be resisted… For the full exercise of their humanity, being both finite and sinful, free persons require pluralist institutions.


It is Christianity that must fit in to the new religion of pluralism while “nostalgia” for traditional forms must be resisted; the social order of pluralism becomes the standard by which we judge the faith. According to Novak, the emphasis on scripture has resulted in a “gap between the Word of God and systems of economic, political, social, and cultural thought.” Since capitalism is necessary for political liberty and liberty necessary for capitalism, the role of the Church must be, a priori, to support capitalism.51 Of critical importance to Novak’s theology is the idea of man as co-creator with God. Capitalism, he believes, aids this relationship by allowing us to “create” as many goods as possible in an unending stream.

Novak’s “new theology” depends on six doctrines, which he addresses “in their Christian form”52 even though they represent for Novak something more universal. We must keep in mind, however, that for Novak capitalism does not depend on any specific religion and the “empty shrine” remains at its center.

The first doctrine is that of original sin. An economic and political system must tolerate sin and allow vice to flourish; because of original sin, no system can be designed to suppress sin. The attempt to do so leads to the law of unintended consequences, the idea that the attempts to do good will only have bad results. Capitalism succeeds because it intends only the good of commerce, namely, goods, and hence ends up doing good, namely liberty.

The Trinity: Novak labels the Trinity a “symbol,” since “no one has ever seen God.” The point of this symbolic Trinity is to teach us about pluralism and unity and to show us how to act in community without compromising individuality. “Experience and Scripture alike suggest that what is most real in human life, of highest value, is a community of persons.” Novak asserts that under capitalism, communities are transformed into “modalities unfamiliar in previous history” because they are not based on kith and kin, but on voluntary association.

The Incarnation: Novak takes a rather pessimistic view of the Incarnation; it is no longer the salvific act of a loving God but the ultimate demonstration of the futility of good intentions.


The point of the Incarnation is to respect the world as it is, to acknowledge it limits...and to disbelieve any promises that the world is now or ever will be transformed into the City of God. If Jesus could not effect that, how shall we? ...The world is not going to become ever— a kingdom of justice and love.


Competition: “A political economy needs bold political leaders who thrive in contests of power… The will to power must be made creative, not destroyed.” Novak finds support for this belief in the parables of the talents, of the foolish and wise virgins, of the prodigal son, of the workers in the vineyard who all received the same pay, and in St. Paul’s use of sports metaphors. The Christian is


...inspired to noble competition by the example of the saints who have gone before… The competition is relentless. Judgment is constant. Critics sometimes suggest that competitiveness is foreign to a religion of love, meekness, and peace. They have no idea how hard it is to be meeker than one’s neighbor.

For all these reasons, it seems wrong to imagine that the spirit of competition is foreign to the gospels, and that, in particular, competition for money is humankind’s most mortal spiritual danger.


The Separation of Church and State: Based on the “Render unto Caesar” text (Mt. 22:21), Novak believes that Christian values— or any other values—cannot be imposed on a society. The political system cannot be a Christian system. “On the question of abortion, for example, no one is likely ever to be satisfied with the law, but all might be well advised not to demand in law all that their own conscience commands.” The economic system needs special protection from religion because, “No intelligent human order— not even within a church bureaucracy— can be run according to the counsels of Christianity.”

Caritas: The purpose of caritas is to teach us realism. Caritas is at the basis of contractual communities, which Novak regards as higher than natural ones. “Yet when they form communities, they choose them, elect them, contract for them. The natural state of political community for persons is arrived at not by primordial belonging but by constitutional compact.” Our obligations in caritas are to raise the material base of society: “A system of political economy imitates the demand of caritas by reaching out, creating, inventing, producing, and distributing, raising the material base of the common good. It is based on realism.”

Evaluating Neo-Conservatism
Capitalism and Natural Law

The major critiques of neoconservatism are two-fold: it is not new, and it is not conservative. Or rather, what it seeks to “conserve” is the Enlightenment, and what is new is the presentation of 19th century Liberalism as “conservative.” As such, neoconservatism seeks to continue the project of the Enlightenment to subordinate society to a rationalistic economics, viewed as purely the operation of “natural law,” and to continue the project of the modernists to subordinate the Church to the dictates of the Enlightenment. In fact, Novak himself states that “neo-liberal” would be a better epithet than “neoconservative,” and one is forced to agree that the tenets of Liberalism describe more accurately the actual content of the movement.

Of that content, a dualistic view of natural law is crucial. The Enlightenment sought to cut natural law and morality free from the base of religion and Scripture, to find a principle analogous to Newton’s laws of motion to govern the affairs of men. This dualism of physical facts and religious values is explicit throughout Novak’s work. The “naturalness” of the capitalistic economic system is exempt from any critique and is indeed not really examined at all in the text, but merely assumed. Although other systems are critiqued, capitalism is assumed a priori to be the “natural system of liberty,” and this “naturalism” isolates it from any theological critique because a “natural law” system is beyond such critique; one would not “critique” the theory of marginal productivity anymore than one would “critique” the orbit of Venus. But this immediately leads to a contradiction: If the theologian cannot comment on the economics, how can he give a theological defense or critique of any economic system? Wouldn’t that be purely a matter for the specialists in that field, the economists? As long as the economists differ as much as they do, can a theologian committed to a “scientific” view of economics take sides on purely theological grounds? The very dualism which immunizes capitalism from critique also immunizes it from a defense, or even a comment, from theologians. It would be purely a matter for other specialists. The tenets of capitalism, such as marginal productivity, cannot be assumed to be a part of the “natural law,” but must be demonstrated to be so, something which Novak never attempts, either on theological or economic grounds.

“Facts” without “Values”?

Novak’s dualistic view of natural law depends on a fact-value distinction which cannot be defended, because there are no “naked” facts which stand apart from values. Take, for example, the statement, “The unemployment rate stands at 5.3%.” This may seem like a statement of “objective” fact, but in fact it conceals a host of value judgments. We must ask, for example, “5.3% of what?” Of all citizens? Of all adults? Of all residents, legal or illegal? Of all people who may want a job? But how do we judge who wants and does not want a job? Is a person counted in the workforce if they have not sought a job in one week? In two? In ten? And so forth. Every perception of a “fact” involves value judgments; facts do not stand apart from values but are dependent upon them. The idea of a “natural law” that can be perceived without values always ends up merely hiding the “value judgments” that a person is making behind a smoke-screen of “facts” which are not facts, but judgments.

The “Orders” of Society

Novak separates society into economic, moral-cultural, and political orders. However, it is clear that he subordinates the moral and political orders to the economic. He laments the “encroachment” of the political order on the economic and finds that the moralcultural order is insufficiently supportive of the capitalism, and, indeed, the biggest threat to its survival.

Novak discusses the moral and political systems entirely from the standpoint of the support they give, or ought to give, to the economic system. But certainly this is a reversal of the right order of values. There are indeed three such systems, and they are hierarchically arranged. But Novak stands the hierarchy on its head; he subordinates the political and spiritual to the economic. Surely the purpose of an economic system is to provide the necessary material base for the political system (man living in community) and the moral system (man’s quest for ultimate truth and meaning).

The reason for this inversion of right order lies in Novak’s dualism. In the “fact-value” distinction, only “facts” can have a real ontological status while values fall into the realm of wishful thinking. Novak makes facts stand over and against values, and hence values must in some way always support “facts.” But as already noted, these “facts” turn out to be value-judgments that are hidden behind a “scientistic” smokescreen.

The Empty Altar and the New Religion

Since for Novak the economic system is a matter of pure natural law, it is not an arena of human freedom. Rather, it is “scientific” and hence religion must conform itself to the findings of this science, just as in the past the Church had to conform herself to the findings of astronomy. Conforming herself will require the Church to adopt not just a “new theology” but even a new religion, since writings from the pre-scientific days of the “caravans” cannot help us today. With that in mind, Novak reinterprets the traditional Christian doctrines so that they will be supportive of capitalism and analogous to doctrines from other religions.70 But to accomplish this, he must drain the specifically Christian doctrines of any specifically Christian content. For example, he discusses the Trinity and the Incarnation as “symbols” only, the former a symbol of pluralism and the later a symbol of the futility of good intentions. According to Novak, because of the Trinity, “the mind becomes accustomed to seeing pluralism in- unity.”71 It is not quite clear how the three divine, co-equal, and co-eternal persons constitute a form of pluralism. But Novak is certain that they represent the superiority of voluntary associations over natural ones. This appears to be Enlightenment “social contract” theory projected back to the Godhead. But the social contract is pure fiction, and the Trinity is not an analog for such associations: the Father does not offer to beget the Son or negotiate his being with him. For our part, when the umbilical cord was cut, we were not greeted by a lawyer, explaining to us our rights and responsibilities under the social contract. Rather, we were received into communities of kith and kin and received from them gifts of life and language and culture. It is under the aspect of gift (that is, “grace”) that we must relate Trinitarian love and community to economy. The question that the Trinity, the community of grace and love, poses for us is how we will be stewards of the gifts we have received and make them fruitful in a way that spreads God’s gifts in the way he intends.

We can note Novak’s pessimism on this very point; after all, he tells us, “If Christ can’t bring about the Kingdom, how can we?” This bleak assessment of the Incarnation is really the utilitarianism of Mises rooted in violence and a false idea of scarcity. If the Incarnation was to teach us about “limits”— if there is no hope for a kingdom of justice and love— then marginal utility is the real lesson of the Cross. It is quite true, as Novak says, that we do not strive for utopia, but we do strive for the kingdom. The kingdom really is advanced (or retarded) by our actions here in the world. Each one of us has the material responsibility to bring about the kingdom, not indeed everywhere, but in our own little corner of the world. The kingdom is a realistic hope because it is based on the true nature of man. Its achievement is the perfection inherent in man’s nature. Indeed, the full realization of the kingdom is obscured and delayed by sin, but its partial realization is ever present. We work with the full confidence that if we allow Christ to work through us, then we will really advance towards the kingdom.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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