August 14, 2015


Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Democratic Realist (HARRY CLOR, 8/10/15, Liberty & Law)

Niebuhr's social outlook may be considered pessimistic, though he never gives way to an unqualified pessimism. To the passage just quoted, he adds this:

Where it (the selfishness) is inordinate, it can be checked only by competing assertions of interest, and these can be effective only if coercive methods are added to moral and rational persuasion.

Quite a bit of Niebuhr's argumentation looks like an effort to persuade his socialist and liberal-leaning colleagues that coercion is endemic to political life--and so they should desist from looking forward, naively, to a social transformation by which it would be eradicated or rendered unnecessary. Among the naïve are those who fail to see that even democratic movements are, and more or less need to be, coercive. Hence, despite his periodic denigration of the balance-of-power concept, Niebuhr ends up depending upon it to a considerable degree.

The distinctively Niebuhrian project is the reconstruction of democracy's philosophic foundation, especially its view of basic human nature. Central to that enterprise is his remarkable recourse to and utilization of the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin. (I say remarkable because of Niebuhr's general reputation as a liberal.)

Niebuhr maintains that modern liberal thought has been infected with two erroneous attitudes: an excessive individualism and a virtually boundless optimism about human beings and relations. Writing against "doctrinaire libertarianism," he makes this striking observation:

No democratic society can survive if it acts upon the assumption that [personal] liberty is the only principle of democracy and does not recognize that community has as much value as liberty.

How many of our contemporaries would affirm, publicly, what this passage clearly implies--that the claims of individual liberty must be balanced against, and limited by, the equal claims of community? (Ask contemporary Americans what this country stands for; you will hear "liberty" far more often than "community.") The trouble with doctrinal libertarianism is its refusal to acknowledge consequences of the fact that we are "social animals," not just individuals, and that some of our problems are much in need of public, that is governmental, attention.

Niebuhr's writings suggest that our excessive optimism is as deeply erroneous as our excessive individualism. Here is the root of it: "The conception of human nature which underlies the social and political attitudes of a liberal-democratic culture is that of an essentially harmless individual," who simply desires to stay alive in peace and security. But we fail to see how easily the will-to-live is transformed into a will-to-power. Even our ideals and idealists are inevitably infected with an egoistic corruption. "No matter how pure the aspirations of the saintliest idealist may be," he writes, "there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there are not some corruption of inordinate self-love." not individualist.

Posted by at August 14, 2015 1:37 PM

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