All Commentary
Sunday, February 1, 1987

Book Review: Will It Liberate? Liberation Theology and The Liberal Society by Michael Novak

Paulist Press, 997 MacArthur Blvd., Mahwah. NJ 07430 • 1986 • 320 pages, $14.95 cloth

Michael Novak’s Will It Liberate? is a volume all men and women committed to liberty should purchase and read. The work’s subtitle—Liberation Theology and The Liberal Society—might deter potential readers for whom theology holds little appeal, but such a reaction would be sadly shortsighted, it would deprive them of an invaluable resource in the ongoing struggle for a free market economy in a free society. Novak in this work addresses what, in both secular and religious circles, is perhaps the most strident contemporary criticism of economic and individual liberty.

The phrase “trickle-down economics” refers to a caricature of free market economics. The phrase “trickle-down mythology,” however, accurately describes a familiar and important phenomenon. Ideas conceived in academic heights “trickle-down” to more earthy levels, taking simplified form in slogans scrawled upon walls and in allegedly self-evident troths assumed by journalists, television and radio commentators, and indeed by “ordinary” people.

One such idea goes back to the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding, who in 1906 penned a volume entitled Finanzkapital. The central thesis of this work also informs Lenin’s infamous 1906 essay Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and since this volume’s appearance, has been an essential component of orthodox Marxism-Leninism.

Crudely, it is claimed that the abundance enjoyed in developed nations was and is acquired by the systematic exploitation of developing nations. The so-called “North” has prospered and continues to prosper by plundering the so-called “South.” “They” are the victims of exploitation; “we” are the exploiting imperialists.

This claim has permeated Western thought. It has found popular expression in countless newspaper articles and has been disseminated from innumerable pulpits. Contemporary “political theology,” represented by the writings of Jürgen Moltmann and Johannes Metz, and “liberation theology,” typified by the many volumes penned by Latin American thinkers such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Juan Luis Segundo, are characterized by an uncritical acceptance of the myth of “rico-colonialism.” Little matter that Lenin’s original statement of the theory is widely discredited in academic circles. The myth has “trickled down” to the multitude.

It is this myth which Michael Novak tackles head-on in his latest and, in this reviewer’s opinion, most cogent volume. Whether readers typically meet this myth in its nakedly secular form, or more frequently encounter it dressed in religious garb, they will be grateful to Novak for his painstaking analysis and decisive refutation of beliefs uncritically accepted by so many critics of the free society.

Chapters 7 (“What Is Dependency? Who Are The Poor?”), 8 (“What Do They Mean By Socialism?”), and 9 (“What Is The Inner Will Of Socialism?”) display the awesome factual knowledge and psychological acuity Novak brings to his writing. Succinctly but accurately, Novak summarizes the massive literature which grew up in the 1960s and 1970s dealing with the idea of “dependency theory,” a contemporary variant on the old Leninist, neo-colonial theme. He clears the tangled linguistic undergrowth characterizing much confused and confusing arguments about poverty. He documents the changing meanings ascribed to “socialism” by men and women who seem more committed to a word than to any specific economic or political objectives. And he isolates with almost embarrassing precision the drives that characterize the pro-socialist mentality. These three chapters alone are worth the price of the book.

Will It Liberate? is not without its flaws. While Novak displays in this volume a greater appreciation of classical liberalism and Austrian economics than was the case in either The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism or Freedom With Justice, he quotes with approval PopeJohn Paul II’s condemnation of “unfettered capitalism.” He advocates sufficient intervention to establish a modest, welfarist “safety net” yet, although drawing on the insights of Ludwig von Mises and Israel Kirzner, does not consider the economic case against such intervention. More significantly, he does not note the moral considerations which lead many classical liberals to oppose any form of coerced wealth or income transfers.

Similarly, Novak carefully and correctly distinguishes a free market economy—in his terminology, a “democratic capitalist economy”—from many states popularly described as “capitalist,” such as Mexico. Yet he later seemingly ignores that distinction when discussing a case of impropriety by a major company, and justifying governmental regulation of the market by reference to that case (pages 61-62). If the facts are as Novak describes them, the company in question conspired with the means of coercion to get what it wanted the easy way—by short- circuiting the market process.

It would be singularly unfortunate, however, if what many of us would regard as lapses from a principled classical liberalism led us to ignore Novak’s volume. Novak has become a leading critic of socialist thought, meeting with and challenging quasi-Marxian theologians in Latin America and soft-socialist bishops in North America. He is imaginatively forging links between traditional Catholic social ethics and the classical liberal vision. He has provided students of liberty with valuable data which falsities significant claims of both the secular and religious Left, and brings to his exploration of the classical liberal tradition an enthusiasm which proves infectious.

I unreservedly recommend that readers purchase this volume. Indeed, I urge those who can afford to do so to purchase a second copy and give it to a minister or priest enthused by or sympathetic to “liberation theology.” If Michael Novak is unable to sway the thinking of such theologians, I doubt if anyone can. [] (The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams is a freelance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.)

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.