Next time your work is frustrating or unpleasant, reflect on these words: “Enjoying what we do is not always a feeling of enjoyment; it is sometimes the gritty resolution a man or woman shows in doing what must be done — perhaps with inner dread and yet without whimpering self-pity.” The author of this tough love is the great philosopher and policy expert Michael Novak, who died Friday at 83. Novak, a longtime scholar at the American Enterprise Institute until his retirement in 2010, was one of the most influential conservative scholars of the past 75 years. His work shaped an entire generation of intellectuals.
Novak’s own formation started with twelve years training for the Catholic priesthood. He left the seminary just a few months before ordination. But he never wavered in his Catholicism and put his priestly training to good use in a career-long apostolate for faith, family, and free enterprise.
Like many thinkers of his generation, Novak intellectually matriculated as a progressive but graduated to conservatism. The first reason was his observation that the Democratic party of the 1970s was softening on Communism; then over social issues such as abortion and the family; and finally over support of the American free-enterprise system. He ultimately defined himself as a neoconservative alongside AEI colleagues such as Irving Kristol. But while Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Novak preferred the definition “a progressive with three teenage children.”
My own ideological migration from left to right matched Novak’s. Although at the time I had never met the great man, his work was especially helpful to me as a young Catholic. In the 1990s, I was struggling to ascertain how my religion fit with the conviction that capitalism was the superior economic system, at a time when much of the Church hierarchy appeared to be asserting the opposite. Was my ideology at odds with my faith?
Novak’s work as a policy analyst was just as consequential. Perhaps most notable was the 1987 volume he edited, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare, which argued that welfare dependency was a bigger problem for the American poor than poverty per se. This was a radical idea at the time, and it complemented the work of his AEI colleagues Charles Murray and Irving Kristol. Murray, Kristol, and Novak were intellectual godfathers of the welfare-reform efforts of the 1990s that pulled millions of Americans out of unemployment and poverty.
I came to relate to Novak in more ways than just ideological and religious. We both moved from Syracuse University (he taught religion; I taught public administration) to AEI, although he did so 30 years before me. When I joined AEI as its president, I found it nothing short of astonishing that I was a colleague of the counselor to presidents and popes, whose work had done so much to influence my thinking.
That influence was nowhere greater than in his belief that all economic arguments must have a moral basis in human dignity. This was definitively clear in what I believe is his greatest book of all, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which he published in 1982. “Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin,” he wrote with characteristic toughness. “Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny — perhaps our last, best hope — lies in this much despised system.”
An AEI colleague once remarked that Michael Novak’s tough conservative brain was motivated entirely by a tender heart. It’s not a bad combination, and a legacy which I can only hope to imitate in my own career.
— Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.