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The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Capitalism is good, big government the pits

I read The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the newest book by American Enterprise Institute philosopher Michael Novak, in Tallahassee while the Florida Legislature was in session.

Let me tell you how it was -- not the book, but the experience of reading it. The book, as Novak followers would expect, was about the creative, innovative, exuberant and needs-fulfilling qualities of capitalism. And about the overbearing, incompetent, intrusive and life-deadening arrogance of government.

My hotel was run on the inventiveness of capitalism. I shared it with legislators. lobbyists and a sales meeting for Melaleuca cosmetics, which are named for a noxious tree that Floridians would dearly love to find a way to get rid of.

For $149 single ($89 corporate rate), the hotel offered a television set that didn't work and three live light bulbs for five lamps. The maid missed by room completely one day (of four). In the dining room, the tablecloths were dirty, and the only thing on the menus was grime. Under the grime were listed entrees that generally were not available. The waiter thought the bar had Heineken beer. Good try. It didn't.

Another creative bit of capitalism was an elevator that wouldn't go up to the 10th floor if it had to stop on the ninth. I was on 10, so if someone got on and pushed 9, I had to get off and wait for another elevator. The staff changed from day to day, and the capitalist innovator who fits it to our traveling needs lives far, far away.

Such was my week in the market economy.

From that depressing setting I went each morning to the seat of Florida government, where -- Novak would have it -- faceless men and women were putting new burdens on my back.

And the place was alive. I swam through seas of senior citizens with bright buttons; lobbyists walking while they talked on cellular phones; schoolchildren seeing government at work; executives from Fortune 500 companies trying to get lawmakers to pay for the governor's high-tech initiative; Bill Jones of Common Cause (a one-man sea by himself); and scores of people asking their lawmakers to take something away from someone else and give it to them.

The object of these teeming crowds was Florida's Legislature -- 40 senators and 120 House members. Each of those 160 lawmakers shuffled from committee meeting to House and Senate floor, getting buttonholed along the way, dealing with issues ranging from whether bars should be prohibited from having "happy hours" to how to get health coverage for 2.7 million Floridians who don't have it.

I'm guessing that Novak would be appalled by the number of things that the Legislature has to do something about. I wasn't appalled. I was discouraged by some of the items on the agenda, but not one item was put there without someone -- from a business, a church group, a school or a family -- asking for it. It takes a lot of organization for eight million Floridians to get along without one person's elbow hitting another person's ribs.

According to their various lights, the lawmakers seemed to be trying to harm no one while giving everyone what he or she asked for. Some lobbyists stared at committee leaders until the unfortunate politicians remembered how much the lobbyists' employers had contributed to their campaigns. Some parents cried while pleading for their child's rare disease to get attention from schools and insurance companies.

Capitalists looking for a leg up on the competition and victims of life's tragedies paraded through. The legislators tried to accommodate anyone. If the tablecloth had been dirty, they would have apologized and ordered a new one from the bill-drafting committee.

There was no indication that they had the slightest delusion they could make Florida conform to some academic principle they were choosing to impose on it.

Returning to my hotel after a day of that, I found it hard to follow Novak's thesis that private enterprise solves problems and government creates them. Nobody writes more seriously than Novak, but several times he made me laugh out loud. It's the difference between writing in an endowed chair and reading in a Tallahassee hotel.

In his new book, Novak has John Paul II adding a missing dimension to his capitalism. That's a bit of a switch from his previous magnum opus. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which he seemed to imply that Christianity had been completed by the prophets Adam Smith and James Madison, who added what Jesus had somehow neglected to tell the apostles.

(If he didn't mean to say that, he sure fooled me. I've been worried since I read it about how Christians managed to save their immortal souls between the first century and the arrival of the prophets Smith and Madison.)

Novak's chronology is better in the new book: Pope John Paul is saving capitalism from Max Weber. Upon reading that, my relief was boundless -- until the light bulb burned out.

Tom Blackburn is an editorial writer for the Palm Beach Post.
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Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 2, 1993
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