All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1997

Book Review: Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life by Michael Novak

A Moral Business Serves the Common Good of the Community

The relationship between economics, business, philosophy, and theology periodically received serious attention from the time of Adam Smith into the early twentieth century. Albeit with a handful of very valuable exceptions, this discussion unfortunately has been on a general decline ever since.

With his book Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, Michael Novak offers one of these precious exceptions. Novak is a trained philosopher and theologian with a sound understanding of economics. In his introduction he notes the prevailing weaknesses in the two camps that at least supposedly ponder the mix of business, economics, and morality. He criticizes business and economics faculties for being complacently concerned almost exclusively with means rather than with ends, and also observes that religious leaders speak inadequately about business—more so than about almost anything else they preach on. Business as a Calling attempts to fill some of the void left by both these camps.

Novak captures the ultimate and critical purpose of the business enterprise: Business is about creating goods and services, jobs and benefits, and new wealth that didn’t exist before. In contrast to today’s predominant views, Novak illustrates clearly that business is neither morally bankrupt nor amoral. Instead, business is a morally serious enterprise that requires moral conduct. Indeed, since he rightly identifies business as the single largest institution of civil society under the project of self-government, Novak concludes that the moral health of society, therefore, depends to a great extent on the moral character of business leaders.

The author cites seven responsibilities of the business enterprise which spring from the ubiquitous nature of business as an economic association serving the common good of the community: (1) satisfying customers with goods and services of real value, (2) earning a reasonable return on the funds entrusted to the business corporation by its investors, (3) creating new wealth, (4) creating new jobs, (5) defeating envy—which Novak correctly identifies as the ultimate destroyer of republics—by generating upward mobility and empirical evidence that hard work and talent are fairly rewarded, (6) promoting invention and ingenuity, and (7) diversifying the interests of the republic.

Novak lists seven further sets of moral responsibilities proper to the business worker as Christian or Jew: (1) establish a sense of community and respect within the firm, (2) protect the political soil of liberty, (3) exemplify respect for the law, (4) practice social justice as a social virtue, (5) communicate with investors, shareholders, pensioners, customers and employees, (6) make the surrounding community a better place, and (7) protect the moral ecology of freedom.

All of these responsibilities can sound almost trite at first glance. But as described, discussed, and examined by Novak in Business as a Calling, they carry a great weight and deserve serious attention.

For example, Novak makes a very important Madisonian economic point as to why business is important to the interests of the republic: The sheer dynamism of economic invention makes far less probable the coalescing of a simple majority, which could act as a tyrant to minorities. The economic interests of some citizens are, in an important sense, at cross-purposes with the economic interests of others, and this is crucial to preventing the tyranny of the majority.

As for protecting the political soil of liberty, the author sagaciously advises: Since the survival of business depends on the survival of free institutions, the responsibilities of people in business include the need to build majorities well informed about the principles of free society. Many businesses take this responsibility quite seriously.

Business as a Calling can be appreciated for many reasons. This reviewer, though, was most satisfied by its understanding and explanation of individuals as creators, and that only the free-market economic system allows individuals to fully unleash their creative energies and abilities for the good of all. Religious leaders who too often look down upon the business vocation need to understand Novak’s following point:

The dynamism driving a capitalist system forward . . . is the virtue of creative initiative. The other side of that virtue is the responsibilities it imposes. Implicit in that dynamism is a commitment to make things better. The assumption behind it is that the Creator did not make the world finished but to be finished. His purpose in making women and men in his image was to draw them into his own creative work as co-creators.

Michael Novak proves to be far closer to the original concept of the economist as exemplified by Adam Smith than are many of today’s narrow economists who see economics as only dealing with aggregate demand theories or econometric models. Novak understands that economics ultimately is about human actions.

  • Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.