I was not surprised to see that Michael Novak, the well-known neoconservative author, had written a book called The Universal Hunger for Liberty. I was surprised to see the subtitle —Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable. Although strongly opposed to the foreign-policy positions Novak has advocated, I can appreciate much of what he is attempting to do here. Intentionally or not, Novak has written a book that tempers the extremism of the likes of Daniel Pipes on the most belligerent end of the neoconservative spectrum, whose vision of the future involves ceaseless war and the very clash of civilizations that Novak’s new book insists is avoidable.

Early on, Novak concedes that democracy, the form of government for which he believes the whole world pines, is an imperfect system, and he makes a perfunctory nod in the direction of Winston Churchill’s famous dictum about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. Yet this book is nothing if not a positive and largely uncritical celebration of democracy. One would never guess that the transition from monarchy to democracy in Europe culminated in dramatic increases in government debt, bureaucracy, economic regulation, and rates of taxation—not exactly stunning confirmation of Novak’s thesis that democracy is the form of government most friendly to free enterprise. These defects, as Hans Hoppe argues in Democracy: The God That Failed, inhere in the very incentive structure of democracy. Even if we were to accept Novak’s premise that no better form of government exists, that would be no reason to sweep the very serious problems with majoritarian democracy—which the Framers of the U.S. Constitution feared and despised—under the rug.

Although Novak recognizes the importance of intermediary institutions between the individual and the state (though it is surely peculiar for Novak, a Catholic, to cite Masonic lodges as among such salutary institutions), largely missing from his vision of a liberal state is a concern for scale, for local self-government, and for resistance to the usurpations of centralized power. There was a reason that F.A. Hayek once observed that liberty would in the future be most likely to be preserved in small states. Novak is not by any means alone in neglecting the issue of the proper size of the political unit; with the exception of the eccentric Rousseau, the question is all but ignored in modern political philosophy. But it is no less an oversight for all that.

The regime of liberty that Novak describes and advocates is one in which freedom is preserved by democratic elections, the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers (with particular emphasis on an independent judiciary), and constitutional restraints on government. What should occur to Novak at this point in his argument is that precisely these features characterize the present-day United States. Yet the American government today is hardly the strictly limited institution— scrupulously confining itself to the enumerated powers granted it in the Constitution—that the Framers intended. The independent judiciary has ridden roughshod over the rights of the states and the religious and moral traditions of the American people (a fact Novak certainly deplores), and the checks and balances that keep the three branches of the federal government from encroaching upon each other have done nothing to restrain the overall power of Washington. As early as 1825, Thomas Jefferson was expressing skepticism about the role of checks and balances: if the branches were simply to unite and gang up on the American people, he asked, what could be done?

If modern history teaches us anything, it is that if you want to have a state with strictly limited powers—if such a thing is possible at all—then additional institutional restraints are necessary. Jefferson, whom Novak is fond of quoting on other matters, believed that in order for the states to preserve their rights to self-government they needed a mechanism of corporate resistance to the federal government, either in the form of nullification of unconstitutional federal legislation or of outright secession. Neoconservative circles have not been known for their sympathy to such ideas, preferring instead a strong central government along Hamiltonian lines. That this model has entirely failed to limit the power of the federal government has not provoked the kind of soul searching or critical re-evaluation among such thinkers that one might expect.

These structural issues notwithstanding, Novak devotes the most potentially controversial part of his book to exploring whether the institutions of the free society might be expected to take root in Islamic soil. He wonders whether there exists within Islamic theology the potential for doctrinal development, whereby what is implicit in Islamic belief is drawn out and rendered explicit with the passage of time, such that fresh insights may be gleaned from older truths. John Henry Cardinal Newman, the celebrated 19th-century Anglican whose Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine led him into the Catholic Church, famously posited just such a phenomenon within the Christian tradition. Novak is confident that ideas of individual responsibility and human dignity, which he describes as fundamental to Islam, may under the proper theological guidance be developed in such a way as to provide support for political moderation, even liberalism. He points to Muslim scholars who are anxious to carry out this very project, though he concedes the uphill struggle this woefully outnumbered minority have before them.

Critics may still say that Novak is too optimistic about this project. Perhaps he is. But Islam is a fact of life, and it is the faith of a billion people around the globe. The Christian world has had next to no success in its attempts to convert Muslims in any serious numbers, and while missionary failure is no reason to give up trying, it certainly does add a cautionary note to our deliberations. It is not sentimental hooey to hope—no matter how forlorn such a hope may be—that these people, with whom we live in this world, can carve out for themselves some kind of livable political order that befits human beings.

Novak frequently makes the casual assumption that democracy will lead to the liberalization of Muslim societies, or even that democracy and liberalization are essentially the same thing. But this conclusion is far from certain: the recent history of Algeria, as Novak well knows, suggests that more democracy means more Islam.

Still, Novak may genuinely be on to something when he detects signs of liberalization here and there within the Muslim world. Young people’s disgust with the theocratic Iranian regime is an open secret. Indeed, the increasingly liberal political opinions of Muslim youth contradict the routine assertion that the Islamic world is bound to remain hostile to Western values. To the contrary, a United Nations report in 2002 revealed that an astonishing 51 percent of older Arab youths wished to emigrate from their countries of origin. Of those expressing a desire to relocate, only 13 percent intended to move to another Arab country; the overwhelming preference was to move to Europe or the United States. That more than half should have expressed an intention to emigrate was, according to the report, a clear indication of “their dissatisfaction with current conditions and future prospects in their home countries.”

Why do they wish to leave? The most common reasons cited involve Arab youths’ impatience with the lack of freedom in their countries as well as meager employment and educational opportunities. “The implicit judgment of how livable these young people consider Arab societies to be is evident,” the report noted.

A 2002 poll conducted in eight Middle Eastern countries found that most people there hold favorable views of Germany, Canada, France, and Japan. (A majority in all eight viewed the U.S. and Britain unfavorably—even in Kuwait, the country that the U.S. liberated in 1991—but that outcome surely has to do with those countries’ foreign policies.)

Middle Eastern youth are by no means uniformly hostile to Western values, therefore, and appear to have little confidence in the present direction of their own societies. They find themselves at a crossroads, Novak suggests: “Young men and women can either hear the siren call of the political extremists and terrorists, who promise almost nothing by way of economic opportunity or political liberty to their people but only humiliation of the secular enemy. Or they can join in the effort to build societies of open economic opportunity and prosperity, conjoined to a regime of liberty and individual dignity, under a form of democracy compatible with Islam” (emphasis in original).

At the same time, the falsehoods, dumb belligerence, and obvious partiality that constitute the Bush administration’s foreign policy provide endless propaganda value to Osama bin Laden and others who wish to recruit these alienated young people into a jihad against America. The choice that young Middle Easterners will make is very much up in the air right now. If the Bush administration wants to guarantee that they will direct their sympathy toward the militants, it should continue full steam ahead with its current policies.

These are precisely the policies that Novak favors. They only make life more difficult for the moderate Muslim, since they cause Muslim societies to close ranks against the U.S. and all it stands for and to cast suspicious glances at those whose ideas seem American in inspiration. (That is why open support from the U.S. is the last thing that young opponents of the mullahs in Iran want.) Thus the aggressive foreign policy that Novak supports has the paradoxical effect of isolating and marginalizing the very forces of liberalism and moderation that Novak himself seeks to strengthen and encourage. The resolution of that paradox will apparently have to await another book.


Thomas E. Woods Jr. is author, most recently, of The Church Confronts Modernity and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.