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Book Review: The Hemisphere of Liberty

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This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas
by Michael Novak (Washington, D.C.: The American Enterprise Institute Press, 1990) 152 pages; $18.95.

Michael Novak is one of the most eloquent Christian advocates of capitalism in the United States. His 1982 volume The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism demonstrated that rather than suffering from too much capitalism, the world suffered from too little; capitalism, he explained, had liberated man from poverty and tyranny. Four years later, in his book Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology, he defended the market economy from attacks by Christian socialists.

In his latest work, This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas, he turns his focus to Latin America and argues that the prosperity enjoyed in North America can be South America’s as well — if South America will adopt market-oriented institutions.

But Novak’s exposition involves more than just the economic case for capitalism and against socialism and mercantilism. His purpose is a much broader one. He demonstrates that not only is capitalism consistent with Christian (particularly Catholic) theology but is, in fact, the economic institutional order which is most supportive of Christian morality and virtuous living.

The foundation stones for a correct understanding of free-market capitalism, Novak argues, are the following:

Ordered Liberty. Individual freedom did not mean license or libertinism to the Founding Fathers of American liberty. Only where personal freedom is present is it possible for men to fully exercise their God-given free will. And only in an environment in which choice is possible can men learn to exercise their freedom in a responsible manner. Ordered liberty also means freedom exercised within spontaneous social institutions of family, church and community — institutions which teach and foster the habits and traditions of moral action. It is in the social setting of ordered liberty, Novak reasons, that the importance and value of each human being comes fully to be appreciated — the importance and value which God intends for each unique individual.

Creativity and Enterprise. God places in every human being the spark and potential for creativity. But God’s gift of reason and imagination, out of which creativity comes, can only be fully utilized in a social order that provides every human being the opportunity to utilize his talents. This is only possible through the institutions of private property and free enterprise. If men cannot own the means of production and cannot have the discretion to peacefully use those resources as their creative impulses guide them, then their human potentials will have no outlet. It is the human mind molding the material forces of the world that creates wealth. Unless minds are free to creatively mold matter in ways that make useful and desired things, poverty can never be lifted from the shoulders of mankind.

Fallen Man and the Free Market. Novak reminds his readers that Christian doctrine teaches that all men have fallen from grace — that all men have sinned and will sin. Social and economic institutions, therefore, must reflect the fact that men are sinners and not saints. Capitalism serves this purpose. Based on voluntary exchange and division of labor, the market economy makes all men interdependent; and it teaches everyone to direct their attention toward the needs of others in the process of caring for and fulfilling their own purposes. The impulses of selfishness are redirected into a more rational and more humane self-interest. The market teaches the importance of “other-orientedness.” And this fosters a respect, a tolerance and an appreciation of the values of others. God works in mysterious ways; and the “invisible hand” of the free market is one of those ways.

The lesson which Novak draws from these ideas is that only freedom can serve as the garden in which man can grow morally and virtuously. And another lesson is that poverty is neither necessary nor inevitable. Its elimination can come from the creation of wealth. But since wealth is a creation of the human mind, man must be set free in order for his creative potential to be fulfilled.

Prosperity cannot be planned or commanded from the top by those in political power. It can only grow from the bottom up. If Christians wish to help eliminate poverty, they must advocate the establishment of a true private-property order. They must call for the repeal of all government privileges — privileges which benefit some at the expense of others. They must support the case for a radical, free-market economy. They must endorse the principle that every man has the right to the fruits of his own creative labor.

The institutions of human liberty — constitutionally restrained government, individual liberty under the rule of law, and the market order of peaceful, voluntary exchange — were first planted in the Americas. Michael Novak’s argument and plea is for the fulfillment of this system of natural, ordered liberty throughout the Americas and eventually throughout the world.

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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).