Tag Archives: reinhold niebuhr

Niebuhr vs. The Free Market

The deeper I get into Moral Man and Immoral Society, the more I realize that Reinhold Niebuhr was tremendously prescient. Or, perhaps, the world just hasn’t changed in the 70 years since he wrote the book.

For example:

“Thus, for instance, a laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant believe that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible political restraints upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory….The men in power in modern industry would not, of course, capitulate simply because the social philosophy by which they justify their policies had been discredited. “

And yet, since the Reagan presidency, we have seen nothing but deregulation and an emphasis on laissez faire economics. And even after the meltdown of the past two years, the Right is clinging more than ever to its free market mantra, following the siren song of Ayn Rand, letting the Howard Roarks of the world build their luxury highrises while the city crumbles around them (that was buildings as metaphors and as concrete examples (and THAT was using a word which is a component of buildings also as a descriptive (Thoughtbasket has layers, baby))).

Just yesterday the NY Times reported on how Congress is gutting the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, removing the post-Enron regulations that were meant to prevent corporate chicanery, succumbing to corporate and banking lobbyists at the expense of small investors. Were Niebuhr alive he would be knowingly, and sadly, shaking his head.

America: Democracy or Dollarocracy?

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.

US Income Distribution

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.