Michael Novak, RIP: His Big Idea

Michael Novak, adviser to popes, who died February 17, 2017, had the biggest idea of the 20th century. Since the obits out there, NRO and WSJ and WaPo and (finally) the NYT, don’t seem to really grasp this, I will tell you all about it.

Novak’s big idea is pretty simple, and it was developed in his magnum opus, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982.

According to Novak, we should think of our modern society as articulated into three sectors, political, economic, and moral/cultural. The key to the pursuit of happiness is that there should be a separation of powers between the three great sectors of modern society.

We all agree that the separation of powers between the three branches of government is a Good Thing. And we all agree that the separation of church and state -- the separation between the political sector and the moral/cultural sector -- is a Good Thing. Except that the left doesn’t understand that its marriage of politics and secular ideology is a violation of the separation of secular church and state, because the left doesn’t understand that their leftism is just as much a religion as Mormonism.

But when it comes to the separation of government and economy, that is a bridge too far for most people, liberals and lefties especially.

I call Novak’s expansion of the notion of the separation of powers beyond government to the three sectors of modern society, the Greater Separation of Powers. I think it should be the rock on which we conservatives, libertarians, and Trumpists should build our city on a hill. In fact, I have written about it at length.

Notice how this concept of the Greater Separation of Powers goes against everything that our liberal and lefty friends believe. In their Marxist clothing, our lefty friends believe that the political sector should completely dominate the economic sector. In their costume change to the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School they believe that the political leaders should dominate the culture with “repressive tolerance.” In their administrative liberal clothes they believe that educated experts from the cultural and political sectors should dominate the economic sector through the wonders of top-down administrative bureaucracy.

In any clothing, the name of the left’s game is Domination.

But in Novak’s concept is No Domination. Instead he proposes a limit on the ability of the political sector to loot the economic sector. He wants a limit on the ability of moral/cultural scolds, whether priestly or SJW-ly, to name and shame ordinary people and ostracize them from polite society or send them to reeducation camps or get their products kicked out of Nordstrom. And he wants a brake on the terrifying power of capitalism’s “creative destruction.”

You can tell that everybody gets this notion, that power should be limited. Our lefty friends grasp, with a searing insight, that corporate power should be curbed. They practically foam at the mouth at the thought that any religious power should sneak in the back door of the nation’s schools and influence the little heads full of mush.

Conservatives and libertarians are eternally vigilant about excesses of political and administrative power. Good for us, someone has to warn about that. But we have tended to be a little careless about the harm that economic power can do to ordinary people. Enter Donald Trump and his appeal to the white working class economically stranded out in the Rust Belt.

Novak is not the only thinker experiencing modern society as differentiated into sectors. There is Jean-François Revel in The Totalitarian Temptation. He sees six new powers challenging the three basic state powers. Then there is Michael Mann, a lefty Brit, and his Sources of Social Power in four volumes. For Mann there are four sources of social power: political, military, economic, and cultural.

Against these models of society, the left has a simple us-and-them model. The power is the bosses. Or the patriarchy. Or the racists. You can see that this makes life very simple; it reduces it to a fight to the death: fight the bosses, fight the patriarchy, fight the racists.

But what if society is not binary, but composed of different sectors, each with its own different power? Then the problem is different, it becomes a problem of thinking through how to balance all the different power centers against each other.

That is what Michael Novak means to me. He imagined a way of thinking about our modern society that encourages us to see several sectors that need to acknowledge and respect each others’ power and contribution to modern social cooperation and competition. And he shows, by the light of his idea, that the left’s simplistic model of the people versus the powerful is, as the Brits say, rubbish.

And that is a very big thing.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, usgovernmentspending.com. Also see his American Manifesto and get his Road to the Middle Class.

Michael Novak, adviser to popes, who died February 17, 2017, had the biggest idea of the 20th century. Since the obits out there, NRO and WSJ and WaPo and (finally) the NYT, don’t seem to really grasp this, I will tell you all about it.

Novak’s big idea is pretty simple, and it was developed in his magnum opus, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982.

According to Novak, we should think of our modern society as articulated into three sectors, political, economic, and moral/cultural. The key to the pursuit of happiness is that there should be a separation of powers between the three great sectors of modern society.

We all agree that the separation of powers between the three branches of government is a Good Thing. And we all agree that the separation of church and state -- the separation between the political sector and the moral/cultural sector -- is a Good Thing. Except that the left doesn’t understand that its marriage of politics and secular ideology is a violation of the separation of secular church and state, because the left doesn’t understand that their leftism is just as much a religion as Mormonism.

But when it comes to the separation of government and economy, that is a bridge too far for most people, liberals and lefties especially.

I call Novak’s expansion of the notion of the separation of powers beyond government to the three sectors of modern society, the Greater Separation of Powers. I think it should be the rock on which we conservatives, libertarians, and Trumpists should build our city on a hill. In fact, I have written about it at length.

Notice how this concept of the Greater Separation of Powers goes against everything that our liberal and lefty friends believe. In their Marxist clothing, our lefty friends believe that the political sector should completely dominate the economic sector. In their costume change to the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School they believe that the political leaders should dominate the culture with “repressive tolerance.” In their administrative liberal clothes they believe that educated experts from the cultural and political sectors should dominate the economic sector through the wonders of top-down administrative bureaucracy.

In any clothing, the name of the left’s game is Domination.

But in Novak’s concept is No Domination. Instead he proposes a limit on the ability of the political sector to loot the economic sector. He wants a limit on the ability of moral/cultural scolds, whether priestly or SJW-ly, to name and shame ordinary people and ostracize them from polite society or send them to reeducation camps or get their products kicked out of Nordstrom. And he wants a brake on the terrifying power of capitalism’s “creative destruction.”

You can tell that everybody gets this notion, that power should be limited. Our lefty friends grasp, with a searing insight, that corporate power should be curbed. They practically foam at the mouth at the thought that any religious power should sneak in the back door of the nation’s schools and influence the little heads full of mush.

Conservatives and libertarians are eternally vigilant about excesses of political and administrative power. Good for us, someone has to warn about that. But we have tended to be a little careless about the harm that economic power can do to ordinary people. Enter Donald Trump and his appeal to the white working class economically stranded out in the Rust Belt.

Novak is not the only thinker experiencing modern society as differentiated into sectors. There is Jean-François Revel in The Totalitarian Temptation. He sees six new powers challenging the three basic state powers. Then there is Michael Mann, a lefty Brit, and his Sources of Social Power in four volumes. For Mann there are four sources of social power: political, military, economic, and cultural.

Against these models of society, the left has a simple us-and-them model. The power is the bosses. Or the patriarchy. Or the racists. You can see that this makes life very simple; it reduces it to a fight to the death: fight the bosses, fight the patriarchy, fight the racists.

But what if society is not binary, but composed of different sectors, each with its own different power? Then the problem is different, it becomes a problem of thinking through how to balance all the different power centers against each other.

That is what Michael Novak means to me. He imagined a way of thinking about our modern society that encourages us to see several sectors that need to acknowledge and respect each others’ power and contribution to modern social cooperation and competition. And he shows, by the light of his idea, that the left’s simplistic model of the people versus the powerful is, as the Brits say, rubbish.

And that is a very big thing.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, usgovernmentspending.com. Also see his American Manifesto and get his Road to the Middle Class.

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