Michael Novak’s Legacy: Welfare to Work Is Social Justice

“America’s system of democratic capitalism represents a fusion of our political, economic, and moral-cultural systems. No facet can exist apart from the others.”

This was the central thesis in the book “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” written by Michael Novak and published in 1982. It’s not the only book he wrote on the subject.

Novak died Friday at age 83 and he is remembered as a titan of intellectual thought. He is the progenitor of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, which originated from conclusions laid out in the 1987 proposal for A New Consensus on Family and Welfare that Novak presented to President Ronald Reagan. It was the first major policy statement to suggest a work requirement in exchange for welfare aid.

That policy took shape among 35 other books that Novak wrote during his life.  Social justice was the general theme in his life’s work, and it is an outlook that helps guide new policy, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker‘s latest attempt to encourage a work requirement in exchange for government assistance. Opponents of the idea try to cast it as cruel, but from Novak’s point of view, work is dignity, and the state’s support of the individual without any incentive to engage with larger society is the truly socially unjust act.

As Flavio Felice described it in a 2016 essay, Novak’s notion of social justice meant everyone is a contributor to the greater good, if only for the benefit of one’s personal growth.

According to Novak, “social justice” rather expresses the decisive rejection of individualistic sentiment, on the basis of a social anthropology in which the main actor is the “person,” which he understands as “individual and community”—the ontological, epistemological, and moral center of social action. In this way, in free societies, citizens are inclined to use their own tendencies to associate, to exercise new responsibilities, and to move towards social ends. In this sense, “social justice” is the particular form taken today of the ancient virtus of justice. Therefore, it does not necessarily involve the strengthening of the presence of the State, but rather, the development of civil society, in keeping with Hayek. In the words of Luigi Sturzo, a beloved author of the same Novak: “Nothing therefore exists of human activity, which, though originally individual has no associated value; nothing among men can come into being, which does not mention any form of association.”

Similarly, the most dangerous enemies of “social justice” appear the same as denounced by Sturzo on his return to Italy from his twenty years in  exile (1924-1946), which he identified as the “evil beasts of democracy:” “statism, particracy, waste of public money.” In practice, for “statism” we mean the false belief that, by entrusting to “the State activities for productive purposes, connected to a restrictionism that stifles the freedom of private initiative,” we can “make amends for inequalities” (Sturzo). Such a degeneration in the task of the State, which denies freedom, favors “particracy”, that is, the irresponsible interference of political parties and trade unions in legislative functions, which negates equality. A corollary of the first two “evil beasts” is the “waste of public money” which would violate justice.

That’s a heavy dose of philosophy, but as Felice summarized, “The work of Novak and (cowriter Paul) Adams puts us on guard against easy shortcuts, which are so often accompanied by rhetorical proclamations and authoritarian pretensions unsuited to a society of free men.”

Novak was a counselor of popes and politicians whose gentle and warm personality made him a beloved figure to many. His legacy lives on in good social policy.