More from the late, distinguished Reinhold Niebuhr: are conservatives really sure they want to cite this man's "realism"?
"A laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief 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 this theory; but it is still maintained, or is dying a too lingering death, particularly in nations as politically incompetent as our own."
Niebuhr was writing in 1932.
"[Laissez faire's] survival is due to the ignorance of those who suffer from the application of this theory to modern industrial life but fail to attribute their difficulties to the social anarchy and political irresponsibility which the theory sanctions."
To be clear: Niebuhr just said that unfettered free markets sanction "social anarchy" and "political irresponsibility," and that only the "false consciousness" (not Niebuhr's phrase, of course) of the exploited working class keeps it from recognizing the true source of their ills.
"[Such] ignorance permits the beneficiaries of the present anarchic industrial system to make dishonest use of the waning prestige of laissez faire economics...when economic power desires to be left alone it uses the philosophy of laissez faire to discourage political restraint upon economic freedom."
Niebuhr goes on to add that "economic power" also relies on the brute police power of the state when it needs to do so, claiming (hypocritically) in such instances that "its only desire is social peace". Niebuhr observes that "A rational analysis of social facts easily punctures this pretension...[the use of force] tends to perpetuate injustice and the consequent social disaffections."
If Niebuhr had no illusions about the limits of collective morality, the demands of national self-interest, the notion of Progress or the possibilities of social engineering, neither was he deceived in the least about the supposed civic virtues of market capitalism.
It would be nice if some of those on the political Right who claim to admire Niebuhr would pay more attention to what he actually wrote.
[Niebuhr quotes from MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY]