David Brooks and President Obama both claim to be fans of the great Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Their proclamation has caused renewed interest in his work and so the New Republic has posted several of his old articles.
In “Liberalism: Illusions and Realities” Niebuhr reviews Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Being a fan of Kirk’s work myself, it is fun watching Niebuhr examine his own liberal views in light of the book.
Niebuhr gives a short summary of the history of liberalism:
Thus in every modern industrial nation the word "liberalism" achieved two contradictory definitions. It was on the one hand the philosophy which insisted that economic life was to be free of any restraint. In this form it was identical with the only conservatism which nations, such as our own, who had no feudal past, could understand. It was the philosophy of the more successful middle classes who possessed enough personal skill, property or power to be able to prefer liberty to security. On the other hand the word was also used to describe the political strategy of those classes which preferred security to absolute liberty and which sought to bring economic enterprise under political control for the sake of establishing minimal standards of security and welfare. It has been rather confusing that both of these strategies go by the name of "liberalism."
Niebuhr is unabashedly a liberal in its second stage of development. The Welfare State provides a safety net for the contingencies of a Modern Technical Society. President Obama’s Health Care Reform reveals a similar logic.
Niebuhr moves on to discuss another strand of Liberalism, the French Enlightenment:
The French Enlightenment was "liberal" …..But it also had a total philosophy of life based on confidence in the perfectability of man and on the idea of historical progress. These two ideas were basic to all the political miscalculations of the Enlightenment and were the source of its errors. "Liberalism" acquired a special connotation as a philosophy of life which did not take the factors of interest and power seriously, which expected all parochial loyalties to be dissolved in more universal loyalties; and which was indifferent to organically or historically established loyalties and rights under the illusion that it would be simple for rational man to devise more ideal communities and rights.
Here he agrees with Kirk’s diagnosis of the French school of thought: “The liberalism of the French Enlightenment was thus based upon illusions as to the nature of man and of history.” Niebuhr ends the review by arguing that one can hold the liberal positition in regards to the Welfare State, but still disavow the utopian visions of the French Enlightenment. This is what he calls a “realistic liberal.”
Again, one can find Niebuhr’s position underlying President Obama’s thought, specifically his Nobel Peace Prize Speech. To the consternation of those who subscribe to the French Enlightenment, President Obama said the world being what it is, force is sometimes necessary. Moreover, his open endorsement of Just War Theory and its assumptions about a flawed human nature fly in the face of the thesis of the perfectiblity of man and a world of perpetual peace.
But just don’t take my word for it. Check out links on this topic here, and here.