Michael Novak on "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism"

Professor Novak discusses his most famous book.
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TRANSCRIPT

Novak: Oh, I’ve learned an awful lot. You know, I, I’m not an economist. I’m not a political scientist. I’m a theologian and a philosopher but I do love America and I did want to understand what’s the inner philosophy, what’s the inner dynamism of the American system, and you couldn’t learn it just from the economist and you couldn’t learn it just from the political scientist and the humanists seemed to spend most of their time doing footnotes on one another instead of trying to understand the whole. It was very little trying to understand, though. If a European or an Asian asked me what is the American idea? What is the Novus Ordo Seclorum that is written on the seal of the United States, the New Order of the Ages? Not very many could help. And so, I, you know, I sat down myself to try to work it out in my own terms. A free society such as I love and would like to see grow hereto is of a creative, dynamic economy, liberating the poor from poverty, my own family among them came here very, very poor a hundred years ago, and a republic which protects human rights and the rule of law and allows for the sovereignty of the citizens who as it were hire and fire their elected leaders, since you need to have leaders to move forward. We call that democracy now, but the old idea for that, I think a better idea for it is a republic. And third, a powerful set of institutions teaching a good character and love for the truth and love for honesty and courage and nobility of soul, and setting up ideals for our young so that they become a disciplined adults who love their own liberty and they’re willing to take the responsibilities necessary to be sure that they don’t chuck all the burdens off to the state. That’s the road to tyranny. It’s when free citizens decide to do things for themselves and have a capacity to organize to get things done. That should generate free societies. Tocqueville said the first principle of democracy, the first law of democracy is the principle of association, the ability to join together to get things done. I think that’s quite true. I think those ideas are still quite germane and are being cited… You know, people using the term democratic capitalism everywhere. I was not the first, but, practically, the first to make it popular, and if I had a nickel, if I even had a penny for every time the word is used now, I’d be, I wouldn’t have to worry about my retirement. So, I think the concept has great utility and helps to shed light in several different directions. I learned to put more emphasis on creativity, that the heart of a capitalist system is not a free market. There had been free markets in history but not much dynamism and it’s the patent of copyright law, the sense that the greatest wealth is not land, which it was for almost all of history, but the greatest wealth is in ideas. It’s caput, the old head in Latin, caput. That’s where the wealth comes from and the release of that, that every human being born is a carrier of capital, that this capital is of more value than land, more value than machinery, more value than money, you know, I think that’s an extraordinarily powerful idea. Not every baby born doesn’t consume more, eat more than he or she would… They’re capable of creating a lot more than they’re going to consume. That’s the secret to progress. You know, so I’ve learned to think deeper by each one of these elements and, you know, see where I was wrong here, where I was wrong there, but I see more and more people picking up the idea and applying it. So, you know, I feel blessed that the book had a certain merit in it.

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