Democracy, he says, is "a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems," and he describes this as a constant balancing act, where great vigilance is required to keep one set of organized interests from overwhelming another.
There is a naive and flawed assumption in democratic theory, he says, which is the idea that economic forces will somehow balance each other out in the marketplace and arrive at some sort of rough "natural" equilibrium. This is, he points out, little more than a statement of faith, and one that is seldom borne out in fact. He describes Adam Smith's notion of the "invisible hand" as simply a secularized version of divine providence.
So this assumption that the self-interest of the powerful will somehow harmonize with and uphold the interests of the greater good is one that hasn't fared so well in practice, although the illusion of a convergence of interests is certainly alive and well.
This means that questions that seem relatively settled and uncontroversial, such as the nature of private property and the relationship of church and state, he says, are issues that are constantly under renegotiation, whether we realize it or not. When these questions stop being considered, he says, power accumulates in ways that seriously threaten democracy, which, for all of its flaws, is the best option we have.
This was in 1944, and somewhere along the line, the debate largely seems to have stopped. Niebuhr died an old man more than 35 years ago, but I get the feeling that if he were to rise from the grave today and take a gimlet-eyed look around, he'd say, "What? Didn't anybody read my book?"
And the answer would largely be "No." We don't really read anymore. In this sped up, distracted, crap-filled world in which we live, who has the time?
There is a wonderful essay by Arthur Schlesinger on this very subject, entitled Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr. Nebuhr has fallen out of fashion, he says, because his ideas in general are anathema to the religious right, while his notions of "original sin" are uncomfortable to the left.
"Niebuhr would have rejoiced at Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic. According to the Irish bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne, a fanatic "does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts iv th' case." There is no greater human presumption than to read the mind of the Almighty, and no more dangerous individual than the one who has convinced himself that he is executing the Almighty's will. "A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man's apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the "relativity of all human perspectives," as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself "in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle." In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called "compulsory godliness," Niebuhr argued that "religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values." Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, "the worst corruption is a corrupt religion."