A mere 15 years after buying it, I am finally getting around to reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Thoughtbasket readers will probably see numerous posts inspired by this book, likely spanning months, since that is how long it will take me to finish it based on my current reading pace.
The basic premise of the book is that while people, as individuals, are generally pretty moral, once they group together – as tribes, countries, companies, trade organizations – they often act in immoral ways. How Niebuhr bridges this dichotomy will require me reading beyond page 25, which is where I am now.
But in setting up the dichotomy Niebuhr discussed the forces that push man into society and ways that society enforces mores and rules. Writing in 1932, he says this:
“With the increased centralization of economic power in the period of modern industrialism, this development merely means that society as such does not control economic power as much as social well-being requires; and that the economic, rather than the political and military, power has become the significant coercive force of modern society.”
I don’t know whether to be relieved or disturbed that the economic elite have controlled our society for at least 75 years.
As the government throws trillions of dollars at Wall Street, with Goldman alumni seemingly running the Treasury department, and bankers using taxpayer dollars to pay themselves multimillion dollar bonuses (why isn’t that bonii?), it really seems like Simon Johnson is right and the financiers have taken over government via a quiet coup. But according to Niebuhr they took over government long ago, and while they have certainly managed to pillage the common man in the intervening years, the reality is that standards of living have increased since the 1930’s, so perhaps economic coercion isn’t that bad. That’s the relieved side of my brain.
The disturbed side of my brain, on the other hand, focuses on the pillaging. Note that in the above graph, standards of living have improved dramatically at the top end, but not so much at the bottom end. Not surprisingly, those who hold economic power ensure that society is set up such that most of the proceeds of growth accrue to them. Or, as Niebuhr puts it, “the dominant class….always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.” I wonder when and how we went from being a democracy deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” to a society in which economic entities are dominant.
Should we blame greedy businessmen and craven politicians? Of course. But we need to look in a mirror too. Gary Cross discussed at length in An All-Consuming Century the trade-offs that labor organizations consciously made to ensure steady employment at a stable wage. Many of these trade-offs transferred power from unionized masses to the corporate elite. And as I’ve noted before, we all need to be more active and informed voters; when our representatives are more beholden to corporations than to people, we need to vote them out.