The Political Economy of Power: Niebuhr’s Insights Endure
University of Utah
Read at the 2nd Annual University of Utah History Conference
Published in Utah Historical Review, Vol III.
In this paper I attempt to introduce Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book The Irony of American History to the reader of 2013, as though for a new edition. I argue that Niebuhr’s warnings to Cold War-era policy-makers apply to two new audiences today: first, to those crafting policies for economic liberalization and global growth, and second, to an entire population of individual consumers in the developed world. In his book, Niebuhr describes the nature of American power, and the ironies embedded in the precipitous rise to power of a country that is, in principle, dedicated to the limitation of power. In my introduction, I point out three new levels of irony which characterize American power today. First, our position is ironic because while we aggressively promote neoliberal economic policies to the rest of the world, we achieve justice at home to the extent that we violate our own neoliberal creed. Second, our global power is ironic because we insist that, rather than wielding power or establishing control, we are deferring to a greater and more just source of organization—the free market. Third, promoting growth based on the free-market model will actually lead to our demise, first by debilitating markets themselves, then by rendering the world increasingly hostile to human life by degrading the environment. Niebuhr illuminates underlying sources for the exceptionalism and individualism which contributed to our ironic situation, both in the Cold War and today. His 1952 observations have proven prescient warnings regarding the “monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.” (5) But Niebuhr could not have foreseen the dimensions that such consequences would reach, since his pessimism was tempered by his religious faith.