Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reinhold Niebuhr - Experience v. Liberal Dogma

From The Irony of American History (1952), Chapter V "Experience Triumphs Over Dogma":
[T]he liberal society never achieved the perfect harmony of which it dreamed because it overestimated the reciprocity of the free market and also equated economic competition with all encounters in society. It overestimated the reciprocity of the market because it was oblivious both to the elements of power in society, and to the disproportions of power in economic life. Power, in the thought of the typically bourgeois man, is political. He believes that it must be reduced to a minimum. The earlier bourgeois man wanted to eliminate political power because it represented the special advantages which the old aristocracy had over him. The present bourgeois man wants to reduce it to a minimum because it represents the effort of a democratic society to bring disproportions of economic power under control. In the shift of motive from earlier to later bourgeois man lies the inevitable degradation of the liberal dogma. Marxism was bound to challenge the dogma, and to find the later form particularly vulnerable.

The reciprocity of the market was too simply equated with the social harmony of the community because self-interest was restricted to the economic motive. The false abstraction of "economic man" remains a permanent defect in all bourgeois-liberal ideology. It seems to know nothing of what Thomas Hobbes termed "the continual competition for honor and dignity" in human affairs. It understands neither the traditional ethnic and cultural loyalties which qualify a consistent economic rationalism; nor the deep and complex motives in the human psyche which express themselves in the desire for "power and glory." All the conflicts in human society involving passions and ambitions, hatreds and loves, envies and ideals not recorded in the market place, are beyond the comprehension of the typical bourgeois ethos.

Inevitably this meant that social realities would develop which were not anticipated in the creed. The strong would and did take advantage of the weak. Prudence was not wise or strong enough to deter them. The earlier industrialism did aggravate, rather than mitigate, the lot of the poor, as certainly as it accentuated the disproportions of power existing in traditional societies. Reason which, according to the liberal creed, would always seek the point of concurrence between the interests of the self and of the other, could not function consistently in this manner. Rather it conformed to Thomas Hobbes' conception of the function of reason. It would make demands upon the community which seemed reasonable to the claimant and inordinate from the standpoint of the community.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press ed. 2008) at pp. 93-94.

Thist is my selection from this book, which has much to say that is oddly still applicable despite its genesis in the culture and politics of the Cold War.

Let me note in passing that what took me to the book in the first place was reading somewhere that it had influenced Barack Obama. The U. of Chicago Press, in introducing their new edition of this book, quotes Obama as follows:
"[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard." —Senator BarackObama
U of C Press.

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