In "Max Weber Goes Global" (April), Michael Novak argues that Max Weber's iron cage of capitalism can be avoided by a properly Catholic "delight in the goodness of creation." Although this analysis is at times compelling, the article overestimates capitalism's ability to cultivate full human flourishing.
Novak correctly restates Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that the "psychological tensions" of Calvinism allowed the northern European nations to succeed economically by instilling in the population a perceived "duty to increase their store and better their condition." Although this thesis has been maligned for misunderstanding the nature of Protestant Reformation theology, Novak argues that Weber is largely correct in identifying a connection between economic success and the religious and moral qualities of economic agents.
Weber saw in capitalism the potential to enslave, to trap its practitioners in an iron cage of endless asceticism and laborious struggle. For Novak this is not a problem of capitalism itself, but merely an artifact of its religious support system. It was the Protestant Reformation's propensity for "inner loneliness," born of an absolutely sovereign God, that led to a capitalism of duty, scarcity, and self-denial. A better understanding of the Catholic contribution to capitalism would do away with the iron cage, because Catholics "delight in the goodness of creation," Novak concludes.
The problem with Novak's assessment is his uncritical acceptance of the thin conception of human fulfillment that underwrites capitalism. Capitalism posits no moral end for the person. It holds no conception of the good life other than a life spent acquiring things and taking delight in them. But the Catholic tradition holds that human perfection lies in loving God, and the means to this goal include freedom from concupiscence and the death of the will. The love of God, the source and sustainer of all things, is the only love that never fails to fulfill us. Capitalism, particularly American-style consumerism, tends to obscure this Christian truth.
Kevin P. Lee
Ave Mafia School of Law
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michael Novak replies:
While I cannot agree with every part of Kevin P. Lee's summation of my argument, he is quite right on his main point--that capitalism posits no moral end for the human person. (To be sure, this is also an advantage; it is a system open to many persons who have quite contrary...