The (Moral) Freedom to Succeed


Perhaps you are like me having watched the Republican National Convention this week, culminating in last night’s speech by Mitt Romney. Such speeches are always interesting to evaluate. After discussing it with Angela into the late hours of the night, particularly the idea concerning the necessity of creating an environment in which men and women can work hard and prosper, I went to sleep thinking about a lecture by Michael Novak, which I heard earlier this summer.

Theologian Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) laid an invaluable theological framework for economic theory. In it, he argues that democracy does not flourish without a free market economy and that the market cannot thrive without morality. Concepts such as freedom and responsibility, equal opportunity for individuals to succeed, and the threat to the market posed by human sinfulness provide the components necessary for a vibrant culture and economic stability. It is in such an environment that Christians have the freedom to pursue their callings for God’s glory. Novak captures the idea:

Democratic polities depend upon the reality of economic growth. No traditional society, no socialist society—indeed, no society in history—has ever produced strict equality among individuals or classes. Real differences in talent, aspiration, and application inexorably individuate humans. Given the diversity and liberty of human life, no fair and free system can possibly guarantee equal outcomes. A democratic system depends for its legitimacy, therefore, not upon equal results but upon a sense of equal opportunity. Such legitimacy flows from the belief of all individuals that they can better their condition. This belief can be realized only under conditions of economic growth. Liberty requires expanse and openness.

Not only do the logic of democracy and the logic of the market economy strengthen one another. Both also require a special moral-cultural base. Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work. Under some moral-cultural conditions, they are simply unachievable.1


1 Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 15-16.

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