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Capital Gain?

reflections on wealth and virtue

A month before the historic election of Barack Obama, with global capitalism already in crisis, Michael Novak, the conservative theologian, author, and former US ambassador to the United Nations, drew a standing room only crowd of more than 150 people to a lunchtime gathering at BC Law sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society.

Billed as a question and answer session on the topic, “Wealth and Virtue: The Moral Case for Capitalism,” Novak’s talk covered material familiar from many of his internationally best-selling books, including The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). The great test of capitalism is how well it raises up the poor, said Novak. “The poor gain most from capitalism. That is why the poor have always gravitated toward capitalist countries.” He described how his own grandparents, Catholic farmers from Slovakia, came to the US in the late 1800s with virtually nothing and lived to own their own homes and see their children and grandchildren scale the socio-economic ladder.

“The heart of capitalism is invention, discovery,” said Novak. “Take everything in this room; none of this existed in 1776. It all had to be invented.” His eye fell on bottle caps and paper plates left over from lunch. “Awful things,” he admitted, with a laugh, “but there we are.” The American republic, he said, became “the pattern of the future,” free from the old European aristocratic and scholarly contempt for commerce and industry. And it promoted the virtues of personal independence, discipline, voluntary association, civility, and public-spiritedness.

He said little about the current economic crisis, except to note that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with their combination of government protection and private profit, “aligned with no other accounting rules in the world.” In the short time allocated for questions, one audience member asked, “How do you account for the successes of socialist countries, like those in Scandinavia?” “It’s cold there; they learn good cooperative habits,” said Novak, genially. Then he added, “That’s a 10-year argument.”

Jane Whitehead

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