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The Virtues of Capitalism

Capitalism is easy to defend, but hard to praise. While economists receive credit for demonstrating the pragmatism of capitalism, in the same breath, critics call their methods callous and cold. But when Michael Novak praised the virtues of capitalism in his 1982 work “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” he recovered the language of morality for the defense of capitalism. “The virtues it requires,” he writes, “and the virtues it nourishes, are indispensable to a self-governing polity and to a sound morality.” Novak, a theologian and philosopher, sees that a democratic polity and pluralistic moral-cultural system must complement the free market to create a flourishing society. If citizens are expected to exhibit hard work, discipline and sacrifice in their business, they must learn these traits from a thriving moral culture. However, pluralism cannot survive without the protection of limited government. Like a three-legged stool, the economic, political and moral-cultural systems depend on each other to cultivate a society of virtues like community and common sense. Without community, democratic capitalism crumbles. Neighbors and co-workers must voluntarily unite to accomplish common goals and tasks—or else production halts. “Just because individuals are not collectivized, it does not follow they are not communal,” Novak writes. In fact, the lack of collectives allows families to freely form, and to cultivate the virtues of humility, self-discipline and critical judgment. The freedom to choose to associate enables those living under democratic capitalism to create powerful bonds built on personal purposes and common values. Of course, one of these values is common sense. Capitalism breaks us of the utopian vision that “fails to deliver,” replacing impossible ideals with practical adages such as “time is money.” Rather than interpreting this maxim as insensitive, Novak praises capitalism for teaching us to view time as an asset. This shift in perspective encourages a future-oriented culture, intent on using time wisely. As a result, companies become more innovative; religions become more active; and people become more prudent. The virtues of capitalism are not without evidence. Drawing on Steve Forbes’s remarks, Novak writes in a 2008 article from First Things that in the past 25 years “between a half billion and a billion of the poor have seen the shackles of their poverty cut away.” Novak wastes no time in setting the target of lifting “another billion persons out of poverty during the next twenty-five years.” In short, Dr. Novak’s lifelong scholarship teaches us that despite its flaws, capitalism has demonstrable strengths worthy of praise. On Thursday, September 27 we will join Michael Novak to hear about the moral roots of free enterprise, new challenges capitalism faces today and how we can benefit from the virtues capitalism has to offer.