Samuel Gregg considers Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in light of the apparent resurgence in interest in democratic socialism:
Novak never claimed that economics should be decisive in political choices. But he did think that the basic insights into reality provided by economics — the workings of incentives and self-interest, comparative advantage, trade-offs, the necessity of free prices as carriers of information, attentiveness to the known side effects of particular choices, etc. — should no more be ignored than any other empirically validated observation arising from the social sciences.
The lessons of economics, however, weren’t the primary point of departure for Novak’s critique of socialism. He genuinely wanted to understand why people embrace socialism, and he concluded that it wasn’t simply economic ignorance.
By the early 1980s, Novak argued, socialism had become less about practical economic programs than about (1) certain ideals regarding equality and poverty and (2) deep hostility to capitalism per se. The single-minded pursuit of these beliefs, combined with the tendency to view capitalism in almost demonic terms, meant that socialism assumed the form of what Novak called a “political religion.” This, he believed, was what made socialism erroneous — and very dangerous.
Being a political faith, socialism could never fulfill the expectations associated with true religion. But its ersatz religious nature meant that socialism’s economic and political failures would inevitably generate a very particular type of fury.
Socialism’s record of failure, Novak pointed out, was clear. Instead of growing wealth across society, it gradually impoverished all. Far from producing greater equality, it facilitated its own inequities, the most glaring being those between the planners and everyone else. …
Throughout The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak was relentless in stressing that any serious theory of political economy must pay attention to the human condition. Humans are good yet capable of evil. Our reason is powerful but not all-powerful. Men are not angels, but neither are they beasts. The genius of market economies, Novak held, is that they recognize humanity’s capacities and limitations and help direct them to the realization of some important goods. …
Many of the social dysfunctionalities that worry socialism’s advocates and capitalism’s critics don’t have market solutions because, Novak understood, their causes often have little to do with economics.