The Closet Socialists
by Michael Novak
Mr. Novak held the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. at the time this article was written. This article appeared in the Christian Century February 16, 1977, p. 171. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Seldom have 1,200 words of mine generated so much attention as “A Closet Capitalist Confesses (Washington Post, March 14, 1976). Bruce Douglass’s temperate and reasoned reply in the Century’s pages (“Socialism and Sin,” December 1, 1976) provides a rare opportunity for discussion. On grand themes like “capitalism” and “socialism,” much passion is generated. Arguments are theological rather than empirical, for the reality of any economic system is larger than the universes of empirical fact. When “systems” are in conflict, there is pitifully little room outside them where one can find a vantage point of neutral observation.
Douglass was wise to suspect at first that I was “putting us on -- that it was all tongue-in-cheek”; but upon mature reflection he was also perceptive enough to see that I was serious.” I have difficulty believing in socialism; I cried out in the dark for help. Douglass thinks the 1970s an inauspicious time for capitalism; my weak faith found these years inauspicious for socialism. The spectacle of Great Britain’s becoming less than Great, the terrors of the Gulag Archipelago. Ingmar Bergman’s problems with the Swedish tax bureaucracy, the disastrous socialisms of the Third World, the flight of economic resources from socialist-leaning Quebec, the perfidy of political planners in New York city, efficient tyrannies from Cambodia to Czechoslovakia -- these do not inspire me with confidence in the practice of socialism. As a religious vision, socialism has my respect. As a practical way of arranging human political and economic affairs, it evokes my skepticism. I find that even candles burned to St. Michael Harrington (my socialist patron saint) fail to quicken sluggish faith.
On reflection, I realized that I had never read an intelligent description, let alone a defense, of democratic capitalism. Persons trained in the humanities, history and sociology -- my usual contacts in the literary and intellectual worlds -- tend to speak disdainfully of capitalism, profits, business and Detroit. They tend also to be as economically illiterate as I am, who long could not read a balance sheet, do not understand “the dismal science,” find business a foreign world. The only theoretical materials I ever encounter are socialist.
So it hit me: Socialism -- to play on the Volvo slogan -- is the thinking man’s economics. They go together, socialism and intellectual life. Capitalism is abandoned to practical men and women of affairs. Democratic capitalism as we experience it in the US. has no “manifesto,” and pitifully scant theoretical interests. There are many fundamentalist preachers of the creed -- in Rotary clubs, at the AMA -- but there is no serious theology accessible to the ordinary reader. All the fashionable theoreticians -- John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Lekachman, Michael Harrington and a scattering of others -- are socialists and review each other’s books.
According to the prophetic tradition, one ought to warn oneself to think against prevailing winds. It is one thing to be a nonprofit thinker; nonprophet thinking is worse indeed. It is not really very “radical” for a theologian to promote socialism; it is the expected niche. In A Theology for Radical Politics I did not urge forms of socialism, but only those forms that strengthen rights and liberties and extend our own tradition. No doubt our own form of democratic capitalism has accepted many socialist elements over the generations; Peter Drucker’s work on the effects of “pension-plan socialism” is only one such evidence. It is an advantage of our system that it is subject to continual modification -- “creeping socialism,” as some call it.
Intellectually speaking, a theologian should be critical of both capitalist and socialist tendencies. It is by no means plain from the historical record that all virtue and truth reside on one side. Among businesspeople, one would perhaps want to raise one set of reflections; among socialist-inclined intellectuals, another. In recent years the balance of highly respected public rhetoric has plainly tipped toward the socialist side. Wisely? Critically? Or in “bad faith”?
The wisest course for a theologian today, I believe, is to be suspicious of the two ideologies -- of, as Peter Berger puts it, those twin Pyramids of Sacrifice -- and to start thinking carefully about one’s own economic experience. It is necessary to begin reading economics. As I argued in Ascent of the Mountain, Plight of the Dove, economic system, are the most profound institutional enforcers of the prevailing “sense of reality.” Economic institutions are more basic than political institutions. Sophistication in “political consciousness” must give place to sophistication in “economic consciousness. But economic consciousness is not to be gleaned solely from books of propaganda. Experience is a more reliable criterion by far. We must move from “political theology” to “economic theology.” We might even speak of “the economy of salvation,” if liberation theology had not already made that particular connection. But in launching out in these directions the greatest weakness of us theologians is how little we know about economics.
Douglass’s defense of socialism is unusual for its modesty and pragmatism. His essay is one of the best I have read on the subject. One can sense his care to submit to the evidence, not to he stampeded by desire. Still, one need not look at the evidence from within his horizon. Looked at from another standpoint, his evidence does not help a doubter.
Douglass really has only two points to make, and one of them confirms the central point of my essay. He says it best: “Democratic socialism still remains, therefore, much more a vision than a demonstrated possibility.” It is a vision. One must approach it as one approaches a religion. Even its claims -- as Douglass correctly reports them -- are religious: it will generate a new type of human being, more rational, people who “acquire only what they truly need.” At stake in the choice between democratic capitalism and democratic socialism “is a fundamental moral distinction” [italics added]. Dr. Douglass resists my phrase “secular religion” in order to rebut the “secular” part; it was the “religious” part that caught my attention.
“Under socialism.” he writes, “no one goes hungry: everyone who is able works; those who work receive benefits commensurate with their social contribution; and there are not the radical disparities in wealth and opportunities characteristic of capitalism.” My own minimal travels abroad teach me no such facts about the practice of socialism. Do most persons in say, Czechoslovakia meet U.S. minimal standards of nutrition? By our definition, are they above the poverty line? As for unemployment, forced labor can end that anywhere. I believe I have seen evidence of “radical disparities of wealth and opportunities” in every socialist nation I have visited, even independently of reading Yugoslav social critic Milovan Djilas. As for social cooperation, here is how Soviet MIG-25 flyer Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan, described American crewmen at work on a carrier: “I’ve never seen men work with such proficiency and coordination.” They moved so casually, he marveled, “without ever being given an order and without anyone shouting at them.”
The problem is that socialism is now several generations old; it is no longer merely a vision or a dream; it has a historical record and is embodied in actual systems -- scores of them around the world. Characteristically, intellectuals deal with ideas and visions when writing of socialism -- and then suddenly become ruthlessly concrete when describing the capitalism they know. This hardly seems fair, until one recognizes that democratic capitalism lacks the texts, theories and visions that might be compared point for point with those of socialism. As a body of ideas, socialism has a coherent beauty and the elaborate casuistry theologians love. That alone makes me believe that it is too good for this frail, sinful world -- that it is lacking in practice and is too beautiful by half to supply a useful guide to actual human behavior.
Still, one tries to believe. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an economic-political system delivered everything: not only productivity sufficient to alleviate poverty, disease and ignorance, not only freedom for science and intellectual pursuits, but also citizens tutored to “acquire only what they truly need”? My experience with socialists suggests that they are any. body’s equal as consumers, connoisseurs of good foods and expensive foreign cars (built by multinational corporations), and not detectably less greedy than the capitalists I have known. My hunch -- ingrained cynicism, perhaps -- is that the coveting of goods antedates capitalism and outlives socialism. In addition, my limited international experience (both travel and reading) does not indicate that socialist systems are more “rational” or even more ‘humane” in the allocation of resources than capitalist systems.
As a vision, socialism encourages my longing to believe. As a system well advanced in historical experience, it prompts me to ask myself: Would I want to live under such a system? Would I like for the U.S. to become one? Until a better apologist gets to me, I will have to confess, shamefaced (since this confession proves me less humane, less just and less visionary than those with faith), that my flesh and my experience will not let my spirit soar so high.
Temporarily, therefore, I confess as a matter of considered judgment that democratic capitalism is not only a more humane and rational economic-political system than socialism has yet produced but also the most advanced human form of liberty, justice and equality of opportunity yet fashioned by the human race. When a better system comes along, or when genuine internal improvements are, imagined for it, I will most happily support such. For ours is obviously a deficient human system. Nonetheless, actual socialisms are, without exception, worse.
I have even formulated some reasons for this dreadful conclusion, to which my head, despite the heart’s yearnings, forces me.
First, liberty. Democratic capitalism “is indeed flexible,” to cite Douglass once again. It is endlessly reformable. Freedom of ideas prevails, private initiatives are encouraged, and practicality has great weight. “As Michael Harrington keeps insisting,” Douglass warns us, “as long as the means of production remain in private ownership, there is a fundamental structural obstacle to the realization of socialist objectives” -- and also, it might be added, to total state tyranny.
I seem to lack the necessary confidence in bureaucrats, political, leaders and state ownership. On reflection, I prefer a world in which private ownership is both possible and effective. I prefer the liberation of private spheres of economic activity, so that economic and political orders are kept in tension. It’s ideologically impure of me, I know, but it does seem that “socialist objectives” may not be worth destroying that tension for, and that they could not survive its disappearance. In a word, the socialist dream seems not only unworkable in practice but also deficient in theory. Countervailing forces in the economic order are indispensable.
Second, equality. Recently I heard civil rights spokesman Bayard Rustin ask an audience (predominantly black) which nation of the world a black would rather he living in now. Is there more opportunity for self-realization for a young black -- or Hungarian, or Indian, or Dominacano -- in any other existing system? The American ideal is not, of course, equality of results but equality of opportunity; but even in the (humanly unrealizable) sphere of equality of results, what system in existence draws as many immigrants year by year, or counts as “poverty” annual incomes unparalleled elsewhere? (The average grant to a welfare family in Harlem last year was $6,100.)
Last summer I watched a bicentennial parade in Cresco, Iowa, a town just over 100 years old. The earliest farm implements were resurrected. Three generations ago, one saw vividly, America was an underdeveloped nation. No tractors, no power machines. Then, in this same midwest, industrial invention flowered as nowhere else. (My wife’s grandfather himself invented the extension ladder, the grubbing machine -- for pulling up stumps -- and a special lightning rod.) A great historical miracle occurred. Democratic capitalism nourished it. The whole world now has new horizons.
Disparities of wealth and power, within the United States and outside it, cannot by any means be understood simply as evidence of “oppression” of sins against “equality.” The subject is a complicated one. Some use inequality of results as prima facie evidence of inequality of opportunity on the one hand, or of “oppression” on the other. Would that life were so simple. Equality of results is neither a natural, nor a virtuous, nor a creative, nor a free condition. Egalitarianism is, in practice, egalityranny; it must be enforced. Its social costs -- in inventiveness, initiative and creativity -- are exceeding high.
Third, justice. I fail to see any practicing socialist state whose schemes of justice exceed those of democratic capitalism. Justice is never fully achieved by human institutions, but in no land known to me -- or to former militant Eldridge Cleaver -- does the steady advance of justice have as creditable a track record as in ours. The demands we Americans characteristically make on our social institutions are both extraordinary and exorbitant. We even expect them to make us happy. Justice in Czechoslovakia? Forget it.
And so on. Perhaps it is best, by way of conclusion, to show how Dr. Douglass’s second point -- the irrationality and inhumaneness of capitalism, so disappointing to our academic socialists -- fails to help my lack of faith.
1. Detroit’s automobiles. Dr. Douglass can buy a car of virtually any size from Detroit, or from any other auto-producing nation. Has any socialist a wider range of choice than he? I do not share his enthusiasm for mass transportation; neither the Long Island Railroad, nor the Bay Area Rapid Transit, nor New York city’s subways, nor the Paris Metro, nor Eurail, nor any other system can quite match the liberty of action and distribution of costs of the personal automobile. Social costs of various sorts will force us to live differently in the future. You and I will pay for them.
2. Food production. The problem is not one of underproduction. for no economic system in the world is so productive, but one of international distribution. One need not buy foods containing additives; the fastest-growing group of food stores is the “independents” catering to the advanced and purified tastes of (among others) intellectuals. Our artificial foods do not seem to lead to shorter life-spans than those of our ancestors.
3. The energy crisis. Having discovered oil and its uses, we will now have to find other cheap sources of energy, and live differently. Socialist nations will no doubt suffer even more than we from higher oil prices.
4. The consumption ethic. The most highly educated Americans -- who happen to be the most affluent -- provide the best markets by far for consumer goods. Who else has so much discretionary income? My socialist friends drive expensive foreign cars and have habits in consumption that are not quite so “conspicuous” as to be vulgar, but are actually even more expensive. In a society like ours, there is also freedom not to consume. One can teach such restraint to one’s children and one’s students, if one practices it. One need not care too much about the sinfulness of one’s neighbors. Some like consumption, some pornography. Let them.
5. “Public penury.” Douglass’s comment about “underpaid teachers, police. men, firemen and social workers” is probably intended ironically, so far as New York is concerned; but even in Washington federal salaries are notoriously high. In any case, the public pays. Government is not an efficient provider of many services. Where there is government, there is corruption -- and also high motivation, well, to shrug.
Douglass wants “a rational plan” rather than “the whims of investors.” Look at this meaning of “rational.” Would you be satisfied with someone else’s “rational plan” if you had a better idea? Investors are rather more careful about their own money than the word “whim” suggests. It seems to me more intelligent -- and vastly more creative -- to develop and utilize our productive capacities on the basis of the intelligent self-interest of investors than on the whims of planners (to invert a Douglass sentence). Socialist planning has not become the laughingstock of socialist citizens for nothing.
Douglass would like a world without economic accountability: “If you choose to do something which does not lead to profits and which requires substantial financial support, your chances of being frustrated are rather high” Such chances are high in any case in this imperfect world. But the amount of money available for nonprofit work, with substantial financial support, in this nation of all nations in history is astronomical. Dr. Douglass and I draw remarkable salaries from nonprofit universities, for example. Has any civilization ever paid so many so well for being nonproductive?
There is scarcely a sentence of Douglass’s modest defense of socialism and calm attack upon capitalism which -- much as I admire it -- does justice to the complex facts of my own experience of democratic capitalism. Capitalism “builds upon and in fact encourages selfishness” -- but also extraordinary generosity, a sense of service, voluntarism, giving. “A capitalist environment naturally inclines us to believe that people must be addicted to a greedy, competitive individualism.” But how, then, explain the extraordinary innocence and moralism of Americans, so many of whom seem to believe in the essential goodness of humanity and are so deliciously outraged by each example of “greedy, competitive individualism” they encounter in the news? Dr. Douglass argues from what the socialist books say Americans must be like -- not, I think, from the way his friends and associates regularly behave.
A very large proportion of Americans do not seek upward mobility; are content to stay at the salary level they have attained; do not work in order to consume; are not greedy, or even competitive; nourish their families and like their neighbors. The top 10 per cent, the ambitious, of course, do otherwise -- and pay the high personal costs. The democratic capitalist conviction is that such individualists will -- subject to the checks and balances of our society -- do more good than harm. The record seems to support this rather optimistic assessment of human liberty, this method of “harnessing human egoism.” As to “cultivating a better human nature,” those of us who are Christian leave this slim possibility to the miracle of divine grace and meanwhile do not set too much store by the chance of its happening in history.
Dr. Douglass makes the best case against capitalism and for socialism that I have yet encountered. His vision sounds noble, moral, heroic even. At night, faith wavering, I still thumb through pictures of Sweden, Albania, China, Yugoslavia, Nigeria and other socialist experiments, trying to awaken a dying light. How fortunate are those who still believe.