There is a specially ironic element in the effort of the seventeenth century to confine man to the limits of a harmless “nature” or to bring all his actions under the discipline of a cool prudence. For while democratic social philosophy was elaborating the picture of a harmless individual, moved by no more than a survival impulse, living in a social peace guaranteed by a pre-established harmony of nature, the advancing natural sciences were enabling man to harness the powers of nature, and to give his desires and ambitions a more limitless scope than they previously hadThe static inequalities of an agrarian society were transmuted into the dynamic inequalities of an industrial age. The temptation to inordinate expressions of the possessive impulse, created by the new wealth of a technical civilization, stood in curious and ironic contradiction to the picture of essentially moderate and ordinate desires which underlay the social philosophy of the physiocrats and of Adam Smith. Furthermore a technical society developed new and more intensive forms of social cohesion and a greater centralization of economic process in defiance of the individualistic conception of social relations which informed the liberal philosophy.4 (footnote below)

The demonic fury of fascist politics in which a collective will expresses boundless ambitions and imperial desires and in which the instruments of a technical civilization are used to arm this will with a destructive power, previously unknown in history, represents a melancholy historical refutation of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of a harmless and essentially individual human life. Human desires are expressed more collectively, are less under the discipline of prudent calculation, and are more the masters of, and less limited by, natural forces than the democratic creed had understood.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (pp. 23-24). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

4. (footnote)

Thus vast collective forms of “free enterprise,” embodied in monopolistic and large-scale financial and industrial institutions, still rationalize their desire for freedom from political control in terms of a social philosophy which Adam Smith elaborated for individuals. Smith was highly critical of the budding large-scale enterprise of his day and thought it ought to be restricted to insurance companies and banks.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (p. 41). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.


This was written in 1944. Niebuhr had transitioned from a socialist skeptic of the New Deal to become cautious of a political system that was either too optimistic or too pessimistic of human nature.  The Enlightenment thinkers had underestimated the degree in which man’s identity is tied to his social structure and the overlap of his desire for power with his personal survival and self worth.

Man’s collective identity was expressed politically in socialist ideologies and economically in corporate structures.  Technical advances empowered the collective, rendering the morality and individual prudence ill prepared to contain.

Progressivism sought to apply the liberal restraints of political power to collective iterations of economic power (monopolies and large corporations).

Adam Smith’s free market ideology, focused on individual behavior, was challenged to expand its application to large corporate behavior.