THIS HEMISPHERE OF LIBERTY A Philosophy of the Americas By Michael Novak American Enterprise Institute. 153 pp. $21

IT IS probably true that nobody in the last two decades has been more influential than Michael Novak in making the philosophical and moral case for democratic capitalism. Only a few years ago, many, perhaps most, intellectuals thought "democratic capitalism" to be an oxymoron. Some still do. But in light of the Revolution of 1989 and the dissolution of communist and sundry socialist myths, the intellectual climate is changing radically. Outside the most sheltered of academic and religious enclaves, it is generally recognized that some combination of democratic institutions and market economics is the way the world is going, and should go.

The title of the present book suggests that "this hemisphere of freedom," the Americas, is the precursor of the world's democratic future. Novak is here making that case in particular response to Latin Americans whose objections he has encountered over the years. He contends that they are wrong to blame capitalism for their economic, political and social woes. Almost all of Latin America, he writes, is "precapitalist," bogged down in habits of thought and behavior that stifle cultural freedom and economic initiative. The slogan of hope for the poor of Latin America and elsewhere is, according to Novak, "Up to Capitalism!"

There is a mischievous side of Novak that insists upon rescuing from intellectual opprobrium terms such as capitalist and bourgeois. Those who attend to his argument, however, quickly discover that he bestows upon such terms a rich and complex significance. Capitalism, for instance, is for Novak much more than private property and market exchanges. It is preeminently the American experiment in a novus ordo seculorum (new order for the ages) that includes three inseparable spheres -- the economic, the political and the moral and cultural. Similarly, bourgeois means more than middle-class. It connotes, rather, a Whiggism that Novak associates with worthies such as Adam Smith, Jefferson, Madison and Tocqueville. In preference to categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, Novak engagingly explains why he is a Whig, and why the rest of us should be Whigs, too.

A Whig is a conservative progressive, or a progressive conservative. Whigs operate on the supposition that their grandparents were probably as smart as they are, and, while being realistic about human proclivities to evil, are modestly hopeful about making a difference for the better. Whigs have a respect, bordering on reverence, for the mediating institutions of society, such as family and voluntary associations. They therefore want to limit the state to doing only those things that people cannot do better for themselves. In contrast to both traditionalist and liberal elitisms, Whigs have great confidence in the common sense of ordinary people to figure out what is in their interest and what, however indirectly, redounds to the common good. In sum, Whigs are devoted to, in Novak's favored phase, "ordered liberty." These are among the salient elements of the Whiggism proposed by Michael Novak. THERE IS another element, however. Novak is both a Whig and a Roman Catholic. More accurately, he insists that he is a Catholic Whig. He insists on that, in part, because he is addressing the cultural sensibilities of Latin America, which is dominated by a Catholic emphasis upon community that is frequently pitted against individual initiative, economic or otherwise. He insists, also, because he is enthusiastic about currents in Catholic social thought, especially as articulated by Pope John Paul II, that he believes are increasingly favorable to a political economy of ordered liberty. But, most of all, Novak insists that he is a Catholic Whig because he believes that being a Whig is a very Catholic thing to be. In support of that point, Novak includes an addendum titled, "Thomas Aquinas, the First Whig." It is not to be missed -- not because it is conclusive, but because it suggests lines of inquiry that beg for fuller exploration.

This is a small book that attempts to do many things. Arguably, it attempts too much. And yet, the argument calls for more. One wishes, for instance, that Novak had addressed the mushrooming growth of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America, a typically anti-Catholic force that seems to be advancing the democratic capitalism that he favors. Also, we need a fuller explanation of why his program of Catholic Whiggism has, in historical fact, been pioneered under cultural auspices of a distinctly Protestant nature. Finally, one wonders if the author does not make too much of a few selected statements by John Paul II, tending to ignore papal pronouncements apparently in tension with Novak's understanding of democratic capitalism. Far from being in the lead, it is possible that Catholic social teaching is just beginning to play catch-up in a world that is rapidly moving beyond anti-capitalist versions of moral reasoning.

That said, This Hemisphere of Liberty is a book of great importance and persuasive force. Michael Novak is inviting us to consider whether we might not be like the fellow who one day discovered that he had been speaking prose all his life. In view of all the promised futures that have now failed, it may be that we Americans have met the future, and -- for better and for worse, but mainly for better -- it is us.

Richard John Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things: a Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.