Honoring MLK by Honoring His Teacher

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born 84 years ago today, wrote that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) had profoundly influenced his thinking. Niebuhr, King said, taught him that his “superficial optimism” about human nature was wrong: “The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence.”

A few decades later, New York Times columnist David Brooks, upon learning that Niebuhr was one of the favorite philosophers of Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama, asked Obama what Niebuhr had taught him. Obama’s response: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Niebuhr’s relevance continues today. When free market ideologues like Paul Ryan assert that ANY critique of the excesses of present day capitalism amounts to an endorsement of Stalinist central planning, they cite as authority Ayn Rand, of course, but also the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and his 1944 work, The Road to Serfdom. Niebuhr, who reviewed the book for The Nation, articulated the weakness of Hayek’s theory in a way that has not been surpassed:

No social philosophy dealing with only one of two contrasting perils which modern society faces is adequate to our situation. Dr. Hayek sees the perils of political power clearly enough, but there is nothing in his book to indicate the slightest awareness of the perils of inordinate economic power. He writes as if the automatic balances of a free competitive system were still intact, or would be, if the world had not been beguiled by collectivist thought. There is no understanding of the fact that a technical civilization has accentuated the centralization of power in economic society and that the tendency to monopoly has thrown the nice balance of economic forces — if it ever existed — into disbalance.

Happy birthday, Dr. King, and thank you, Professor Niebuhr.

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