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Michael Novak: A Champion of Human Freedom

As a person, Michael Novak was soft spoken and gentle. As a thinker, he was unambiguous in making the case for human liberty and democratic capitalism.

Article by Amanda Schnetzer February 24, 2017 //   4 minute read

In 1995, I had the good fortune to land my first full-time job at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Wide-eyed, curious, and more interested in policy discussions than pop culture, I marveled at the intellectual giants who walked AEI’s halls then. One of them was philosopher, theologian, and diplomat Michael Novak, who died last Friday after a battle with cancer.

Touching words have been written about Mr. Novak in recent days. As a person, Mr. Novak was soft spoken and gentle. As a thinker, he was unambiguous in making the case for human liberty and democratic capitalism.  George Weigel’s essay in National Review about his longtime friend and colleague is worth a look.

Also worth a read, or re-read, are Mr. Novak’s own writings. Where others have descended into despair about our country and the world, Mr. Novak always seemed to find opportunity—and responsibility—in our very human nature.  This passage from The Universal Hunger for Liberty describes the demands on anyone living in a free society.  My fellow Americans, take note:

Mastering the virtues required by a vital democracy also demands significant personal effort and institutional support. Some have called the requisite political virtues, generically, “civic republicanism,” but the name for them is not so important as the daily practice. Among the requisite virtues are such habits as civility, personal responsibility, cooperativeness, a spirit of compromise…and the habit of “loyal opposition” rather than mutual ill will.

On China’s challenge to democratic capitalism he had this to say:

As a matter of principle, the Chinese leadership is betting on the possibility of sustaining economic liberty without political liberties. It is currently willing to risk its future without the checks and balances built into a republican form of democracy. I judge that this project will not be successful. Once there are a sufficient number of successful entrepreneurs…[t]hey will demand their own representation in national decisions—that is, representative government with its checks and balances.

And then there is this classic statement written in 2011 in the midst of the Arab Awakening:

Do Americans believe in natural rights? Do they hold that all men are created equal…and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights? Then what on Earth is the puzzle about the sudden outburst of huge throngs demanding respect for their rights throughout the Middle East?…A rebellion against a cruel dictator is not the same long step as a choice for a polity of law and rights; it is only a step. Yet it took the Jewish and Christian worlds centuries to begin cashing in their own longings for liberty…Islam, a religion of rewards and punishments, is—like Christianity and Judaism—a religion of liberty. History will bear this out.

Looking at the world today, one might think Michael Novak was either naïve or Pollyannaish to pen words like these.  Some said as much over the decades of his career.  But I think he was simply taking the long view and standing firm in his beliefs about the yearning for freedom that lives in all of us, regardless of race, religion, geography, and other factors.  May he rest in peace.