Continuing my interview with the great philosopher Michael Novak about his book, Writing From Left to Right, Novak talks about the working class commonsense he learned from his family growing up as a Democrat in Johnstown and McKeesport. He captures an attitude about coercive income equality programs which has almost completely been lost in the Democratic coalition. The transcript is below.
Jerry: “Is that maybe one of the ways in which that old union democrat base of the party inadvertently invited in the new left: the resentment against management? I remember a lot of that. That’s still around, [and] that still dominates the world that I live in of Western Pennsylvania: resentment against the wealthy, a kind of a class reverse-snobbery. I mean, it seems to me socialism could have invaded the Republican Party or the Democratic Party but those union democrats, in my opinion at least, kind of left the door open a little bit. Maybe they didn’t like when the socialist intellectuals shoved their way in, but to some degree those union democrats gave them an opportunity (in my opinion, [but] I’d like to hear yours) by having such negative views towards management, [and] such negative views towards capital in general and towards people who were wealthier than they were.”
Michael: “That probably was stronger in Pittsburgh from everything I know and read, and even [from] some family connections. It wasn’t Johnstown; Johnstown’s a smaller place, and while there were clearly felt resentments between those who lived up on the hill — as we used to put it, ‘the hills that towered above the city’. Johnstown’s the kind of city [where] on all sides it’s surrounded by hills… not Rockies, but they’re considerable and they block out the sun. It’s not until ten in the morning that the sun gets to shine downtown up over the hills, and then at four in the afternoon it’s disappearing behind the hills on the other side. Anyway, there was animosity going up towards the people living in the hills but not that much. It just was diminished and people from the valley started moving up — I think my father was one of the first ones to do so — started moving up on the hills. My father said things to me like, “Michael, never envy the rich. Just look around. They tend to lead such unhappy lives.” That I thought was a pretty common view: “Don’t envy the rich, you have your place, you can do better things than they can do and you live happier lives.””
Jerry: “It’s almost a Solomonic insight, a kind of Ecclesiastes insight. “The trouble of wealth.” You write a lot in the book Writing from Left to Right about envy and covetousness as destructive.”