Original Sin Liberalism


Reinhold Niebuhr might be described as an “original sin liberal”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes about it in relation to gun control at Commonweal:

Here is a taste:

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, Dionne mentions Reinhold Niebuhr.

One thought on “Original Sin Liberalism

  1. From the article: “Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?”

    The answer can partly be found in the question itself. The question implies a couple of things:
    1) that the proposed laws will actually accomplish what they are intended to do
    2) that the trade-offs, such as the additional expense of compliance, will be worth it and the benefits will outweigh the costs

    For instance, the “living wage” argument. The rhetoric surrounding the issue implies it is moral and just and supporters may even throw in a few Bible verses. So government will in essence mandate that no work can legally be performed unless it is done at a rate of $15/hr or higher. What if someone wishes to do some work but it is only worth $8, $10 or $12 an hour to the business owner or the worker possesses no skill that make him able to produce $15/hr worth or goods or services?

    What if I want to get a second job and make some side money for a hobby, for my kid’s college tuition or for whatever reason. I find some work I will do for $8 or $10/hr, but it’s not worth $15/hr for an employer to pay that rate, but the employer is willing to pay 8 or 10. On what basis does government rightfully prohibit me from entering into the transaction with the employer?

    What benefit is $15/hr for someone who can’t get a job because an employer has a greater limit on the amount of work for which he/she is willing to pay that rate?

    It’s far easier to trot some pawn at a SOTU address and show them off as a beneficiary who will benefit from a policy, but it’s an invisible cost for all the people who won’t get a job or a job won’t even be available because of the cost of implementing that policy.

    Review the last couple of decades of policy regarding the ethanol as an example of both 1 and 2.

    Using ear tickling rhetoric that sounds good, just and holy doesn’t mean basic laws of economics invalidate your claims or negate the Law of Unintended Consequences. There are some powers that Congress just does not possess.

    There’s so much more that could be said.


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