The most destructive social passion

Michael Novak passed away Friday, at the age of 83.  The WSJ reprinted a 1994 article of his on democracy, capitalism, and morality.  An excerpt:

My own field of inquiry is theology and philosophy. From the perspective of these fields, I would not want it to be thought that any system is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Capitalism isn’t. Democracy isn’t. The two combined are not. The best that can be said for them (and it is quite enough) is that, in combination, capitalism, democracy, and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities, and conscience of ordinary citizens (all citizens) than any known alternative.

Better than the Third World economies, and better than the socialist economies, capitalism makes it possible for the vast majority of the poor to break out of the prison of poverty; to find opportunity; to discover full scope for their own personal economic initiative; and to rise into the middle class and higher…

[Novak argues that the first service democracy provides to capitalism is the peaceful transfer of power.  Then…]

Another service provided by capitalism to democracy is less well understood. The founders of the U.S. understood it very clearly, however, as one can see by a careful study of Federalist No. 10 and No. 53. Benjamin Franklin in London and Thomas Jefferson in Paris searched libraries to find out why previous republics had failed. Envy, it turns out, is the most destructive social passion—more so than hatred, which is at least visible and universally recognized as evil. Envy seldom operates under its own name; it chooses a lovelier name to hide behind, and it works like a deadly invisible gas. In previous republics, it has set class against class, sections of cities against other sections, leading family against leading family. For this reason, the early Americans stood against division (“divided we fall”) and sought ways to neutralize envy.

To accomplish this task, the Founders determined that a republic cannot be built upon the clerical (priestly) class; nor upon the aristocracy and military (whose interests in “honor” caused so many rivalries and contestations); but upon a far humbler and typically more despised class, those engaging in commerce. They opted for what they called “a commercial republic.” Why did they choose as their social foundation a class, and an activity, universally regarded by philosophers, religious leaders, and poets as lowly and ignoble?

They chose commerce for two reasons. First, when all the people in the republic, especially the able-bodied poor, see that their material conditions are actually improving from year to year, they are led to compare where they are today with where they would like to be tomorrow. They stop comparing themselves with their neighbors, because their personal goals are not the same as those of their neighbors. They seek their own goals, at their own pace, to their own satisfaction.

Indeed, in America, as de Tocqueville and others noted, there was a remarkable freedom from envy. On the whole, people rejoiced in the success of others, as signs of the coming prosperity of their village, city, and nation. Across America today, in public schools and colleges and universities, one still sees many portraits of public benefactors who were successful in commerce and industry. Democracy depends on a growing economy for its upward tide—for social mobility, opportunity, and the pursuit of personal accomplishment.

The other reason the Framers chose commerce and industry as the economic foundation for this nation is to defeat the second great threat to republican institutions, the tyranny of a majority. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, in particular, understood the ravages of original sin in human affairs. They, therefore, strongly supported Montesquieu’s (and Aquinas’) notion of separated powers, plus the “principle of division” throughout every branch of society.

It is in the nature of commerce and industry that they focus the interests of citizens in many different directions: Some in finance, some in production, some in supply, some in wholesale, some in retail, some in transport, some in lumber, others in tobacco, or cotton, or vegetables, or whatever. In their structure and goals, industry differs from industry, firm from firm. In such ways, commerce and industry render highly unlikely any single, universal majority.

In summary, commerce and industry are a necessary condition for the success of republican government (”government of the people, by the people, and for the people”) because they (1) defeat envy, through open economic opportunity and economic growth; and (2) defeat the tyranny of a majority, through splitting up economic interests into many different foci.

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