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Morals and Markets
Update to this post: Catholic University will be hosting a tribute event to Michael Novak on February 21, 2018. You can register to attend here. Additionally, Fr. Robert Sirico, president and cofounder of the Acton Institute, wrote a beautiful tribute to his mentor in the Wall Street Journal. Find that tribute here.
In recent weeks, The American Enterprise Institute, Freedom House, and the Center for American Progress joined together to mark the publication of Freedom House’s country-by-country survey of political rights and civil liberties: “Freedom in the World Report 2018.” The report concludes that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
In a thoughtful keynote address at the event on democracy’s prospects, Senator Ben Sasse recalled the wisdom of the late Michael Novak, a long-time scholar at AEI. Sasse quoted from Novak’s address on receiving the Templeton Prize, a prize honoring “entrepreneurs of the spirit,” of whom Novak was certainly one. Sasse described Novak’s 1994 words in his Templeton address as prophetic. Here is the excerpt referenced by Sen. Sasse:
During the past hundred years, the question for those who loved liberty was whether, relying on the virtues of our peoples, we could survive powerful assaults from without (as, in the Battle of Britain, this city nobly did). During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. “There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.
Senator Sasse’s attention to the work of the late Michael Novak brings to mind another great thinker who recently spoke at an AEI event. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who received AEI’s highest honor last year, joined Novak as a winner of the Templeton Prize in 2016. In his Irving Kristol Award speech, Rabbi Sacks also highlighted intellectual and moral blight, saying:
We have seen public discourse polluted by fake news and the manipulation of social media. Not by accident did the Oxford English Dictionary chooses its word that we would remember from 2016 as “post-truth.” . . . Instead of a culture of freedom and responsibility, we have a culture of grievances that are always someone else’s responsibility. Because we no longer share a moral code that allows us, in Isaiah’s words, to reason together, in its place has come something called emotivism, which says, I know I’m right because I feel it. And as for those who disagree, we will shout down or ban all those dissenting voices because we each have a right not to feel we’re wrong.
The very intellectual infection Novak warned about while accepting his Templeton Prize 24 years ago has become a reality. Luckily, society has intellectual leaders like Senator Sasse and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to recognize the affliction and present a remedy.
Incidentally, Jonathan Sacks gave the 1998 Institute of Economic Affairs Hayek Memorial Lecture on markets and morals which was later turned into a publication by AEI featuring commentary from leading economists and intellectuals. Michael Novak penned a commentary on Rabbi Sacks’ lecture in 1999. It can be read here.
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