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Book Review: Free Persons and the Common Good

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Free Persons and the Common Good
by Michael Novak (Lanham Maryland: Madison Books, 1989); 233 pp.; $17.95.

One of the most profoundly enduring, yet frustratingly illusive concepts, has been that of the “common good.” Under its banner, noble ideals have been proclaimed and despicable crimes have been committed. Its elasticity of meaning and ambiguity of content have been its most appealing characteristics. The “common good” has served as a catch phrase for all seasons. For these very reasons, it has led some to suggest the banishment of the concept from all political and philosophical discourse.

Yet it continues to hover over the terrain of political and economic debate. In his recent book Free Persons and the Common Good, Michael Novak, the advocate of democratic capitalism and the enemy of liberation theology, reconsiders the meanings of the “common good.” He attempts to formulate an alternative meaning that is both compatible with human liberty and substantial in its content.

The political framework from which he pursues his investigation is classical liberalism. He quotes Ludwig von Mises: “Liberalism was the first political movement that aimed at promoting the welfare of all not that of special groups” and “Human society is an association of persons for cooperative action.” On this basis, Novak formulates his own working definition of the common good: “In practice, the essence of the common good is to secure in social life the benefits of voluntary cooperation.”

As a Christian, Novak’s starting premise is the uniqueness of the individual human soul created in the image of God, endowed with the power of reason (or as Novak calls it “reflection”), and given the potential for free choice. The result for the individual is the opportunity for self-development and creative achievement. To oppress him, or deny him the opportunity for the full exercise of his faculties, is the greatest of all political sins.

What makes a person a full human being, Novak argues, is choice guided by reflection. Reflection would focus on which values should guide one’s life, what moral standard should undergird one’s actions, and what ends are ennobling and worth pursuing. Choice guided by reflection is what Novak calls the Principle of Self-Interest Rightly Understood.

Novak argues that in the social arena, this principle “teaches humans that they are social animals, that they have need for one another, and that their own self-development depends upon their being social beings.” The realization that one’s own development is dependent upon the cooperation of others leads man to reflect on the importance of “the public interest.” People draw upon and gain from their fellow men, while at the same time leaving themselves free to pursue their own choices and potentials. In this way, everyone benefits.

Novak suggests, therefore, that the “common good” be understood in terms of a social order rather than social plan.

Common good as a social plan requires that each individual submerge his will and actions into an imposed and overarching design to which he must conform and to which he must be limited. Both human choice and human creative potential are hampered and straight-jacketed within such a plan.

On the other hand, social order implies a set of rules and institutions within which each individual is left free to pursue his own choices and develop as a human being, as long as he abides by such rules. Novak lucidly and eloquently describes the workings of such a social order in terms of a free-market economy. In this type of society, each person is left free to make his own choices and yet through the forces of open competition and the rule of voluntary exchange, still serves his fellow men.

But Novak also eloquently argues that the real common good is more than just market competition or the government institutions that exist for the protection of the social order. The common good also entails the habits and virtues upon which a free society rests and the self-restraints in personal conduct that guide reflected choice. These are qualities which governments can neither impose nor directly teach. They are learned, preserved, and improved in the family, the voluntary associations in local communities, in the practice of religious faith, and in the heart and mind of each self-governing human being.

Though not without flaws, Michael Novak’s book represents a major addition to the new literature on liberty, one that demonstrates that individualism and community are neither antithetical nor incompatible. It is an insight that the great classical liberals of the past understood and which happily is now being rediscovered.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).