Michael Novak published The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (also known as The Spirit or TSDC) exactly forty years ago in April 1982. It is arguably the greatest Christian book that most people have never read. Why? Because it explains the Judeo-Christian essence of the Western world in terms that anyone can understand.
Generations and Wars
This is notable only because of the book’s anniversary, yet we’re reminded of its impact as the war in Ukraine becomes the latest faultline beneath the West. The Western world exists as it is today because of the impact of Christianity on Europe and North America during the last 2,000 years, and because of ancient Jewish, Roman, and Greek foundations developed prior to that.
Today, few Millennials and Gen Zs understand the geo-political-economic situation that existed between the West and the Marxist block (dominated by Russia and China) between the 1960s and 1980s. Today’s war is a somber reminder that the young, especially, stand in need of reminders.
To be fair, it’s easy for most of us to forget. Few knew back then who might win the Cold War or, better yet, which system—free Western liberalism or planned Marxist communism—would out-perform the other. During that time, Westerners (and even college students like me) harbored permanent fears that super Soviet tank divisions massed along the border could and would overrun Europe at any moment with no provocation needed—the same situation as in Ukraine today.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism’s timing could not have been better. By the early 1980s, the West needed an enthusiastic boost of confidence, a serious half-time speech kicking over a trash can in the locker room. Mr. Novak’s book delivered it on time in his own calm, reasoned, and heart-felt style. It seemed to perfectly accommodate President Reagan’s emerging, sunny, masterful presidential leadership.
Making History with A Three-Legged Stool
Mr. Novak and President Reagan thought alike. The results are in. Greatest Generationers and Boomers have erred in many ways, but the near-elimination of material poverty in America is a success story not told often enough. Such has never happened in world history on such a mass scale. In 1982, no one would have predicted that victory, either.
Mr. Novak knew that Americans, especially business people like me, love a three-legged stool analogy:
What do I mean by “democratic capitalism”? I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by the ideals of liberty and justice for all. . . My argument is that political democracy is compatible in practice only with a market economy. In turn, both systems nourish and are best nourished by a pluralistic liberal culture (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, page 14).
For those who prefer video, here is also a short clip that was recorded as part of a longer interview with Michael Novak toward the end of his life, making key points beautifully and succinctly. For the Institute of Faith Works & Economics on The Spirit’s thirtieth anniversary, Mr. Novak offered this an extensive comment on democratic capitalism’s amazing global progress over the period.
Inspiration for the Christian Worldview
While our Judeo-Christian three-legged system never stops evolving, the basics of the Christian worldview undergirding our Western institutional structures today remain largely the same. They are proven winners, and they cannot be improved upon except at the margin. Westerners will not find more wise and inspiring words.
On the other hand, those of us who set our compasses by the heady 1980s missed something important. With the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in the early 1990s, many of us believed that America, Europe, President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher, John Paul II, and Lech Walesa (in Poland) had won a permanent victory, and that any study of Marxism was obsolete, trashed in the ash bin of the “end of history.”
In Honor of Mr. Novak
If Mr. Novak were alive today, he would probably agree on the need for new words to better express our true Christian values, our worldview—one in which persons, families, churches, businesses, and governments can freely and virtuously operate for the common good of the whole. As the war in Ukraine shows daily, the West is not reducible to mere capital or money. It’s about Judeo-Christian values and freedom.
We may be living them every day, but we are not expressing ourselves adequately in the public square—else Marxism would not be experiencing a renaissance. No doubt, the author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism would have agreed—and fervently.
Editor’s Note: Michael Novak’s essay, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism 30 Years Later, is available from IFWE as a paperback or digital download.