13 August 2006 - Sunday

Democracy as coercion

Reinhold Niebuhr:

Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises. The democratic method of resolving social conflict, which some romanticists hail as a triumph of the ethical over the coercive factor, is really much more coercive than at first seems apparent. The majority has its way, not because the minority believes that the majority is right (few minorities are willing to grant the majority the moral prestige of such a concession), but because the votes of the majority are a symbol of its social strength. Whenever a minority believes that it has some strategic advantage which outweighs the power of numbers, and whenever it is sufficiently intent upon its ends, or desperate enough about its position in society, it refuses to accept the dictates of the majority. [...]

The vision [of perpetual peace and brotherhood] can be kept alive only by permitting it to overreach itself. But meanwhile collective man, operating on the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster. That goal will seem too modest for the romanticists; but the romanticists have so little understanding for the perils in which modern society lives, and overestimate the moral resources at the disposal of the collective human enterprise so easily, that any goal regarded as worthy of achievement by them must necessarily be beyond attainment.

-- Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932 and 1960), pp. 4, 22

It's such a fantastically dreary book -- made all the more so by the fact that Niebuhr still retained a lot of his Marxism when he wrote it, so its paradoxes actually seem more painful than what I recall of his later work. There must be something in this book to make everyone squirm; reading Moral Man is a lot like reading a Russian novel, but without the insouciance.

| Posted by Wilson at 21:02 Central | TrackBack
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