Tuesday, March 23, 2010

David Brooks: Will It Be Red Toryism or National Greatness?

The same weekend that the political movement David Brooks ostensibly used to represent, conservatism, was suffering one of its worst defeats in the form of the further socialization of healthcare, he had a column in the Times defending Red Toryism, more or less a form of smaller-is-better paleoconservatism that chastises government and bigtime capitalism equally for disrupting small, local institutions and the subtle ties that bind them.  The perverse thing about Red Toryism, especially as praised by statist Brooks, is that whatever its stated intentions, it is, of course, an invitation for government to come up with new methods of micromanaging the culture (in a more neocon than paleocon way), all in the name of fending off the depredations of capitalism.

I once asked Brooks whether he thought government intervention was preferable to letting markets and tradition evolve organically (since he’s supposed to be such a Burke fan), and, giving the example of a public school that had become the heart of its troubled, inner-city community, he said that he doesn’t prefer government to tradition but prefers it to nothing.  For a conservative, he seems oddly unacquainted with the idea that it is government (not markets or some even more mysterious force) that has crowded out the usual alternatives to nothing.

To think government can do the job of shaping — or even being — local culture is to invite it to do the same bang-up job with culture that it’s been doing for the economy for the past century.  That whole mess was the result of government (ostensibly) thinking it could intervene on behalf of “the little guy,” and there’s no reason to think it’ll do any better if it decides to start intervening on behalf of “the little institutions.”  Local institutions thrive when left alone by centralized government power — and not all institutions should be local.  Some work best on a local, some on a far-flung basis — even, yes, a standardized basis.

(One would not want to fall into the common paleo error of talking as if local is always better, otherwise one’ll end up saying, for example, that hammering things with the rocks you find in your own back yard is morally superior to using an inexpensive steel hammer manufactured on the other side of the continent — or on another continent altogether, for that matter.  One can almost hear the undoubtedly poetic-sounding paleo essay about it now: “Rocks are a natural extension of the human hand — and thus of the human spirit — in a way that cold metal objects mass-produced in distant factories cannot be.  True, houses built using rocks as hammers are likely to be less stable, but they will make up in cultural solidity what they lack in walls that keep drafts out.  Might stronger families result?  Sounds good to me — and tougher than any nail.”)

But to get back to this Red Tory interest in the local: it would be fine if it just meant restricting government instead of asking government to “help” local institutions fend off capitalism.  Don’t keep coming up with exciting new ways government can intervene, you imbecile statists!  You’ve done enough damage to enough nooks and crannies of this battered civilization already.  Brooks, who is especially prone to come up with a paradigm-of-the-day in his columns, should be told to stop getting excited about the prospect of government taking an interest in things: Please do not suddenly discover two years from now that, say, reading is very important and so imply that government should take a bigger role there…and then discover two years later that informal information networks are very important and so government should intervene more there…and then discover the conservative usefulness of gathering places for the elderly…and then the importance of pets…and then…

Stay out, technocrat!  The damage you claim to be responding to with things like Red Toryism was caused by the previous round of pro-government tinkerers like yourself.  I’d say go back to your birth-country of Canada, but after Sunday’s healthcare vote, I can’t really joke about Canadians anymore, and there is little point in exaggerating differences between the U.S. and other lands if they no longer exist.  We are all Canadians now.

In the highly unlikely event that big central governments learn to respect and foster local institutions, maybe someday, if we go too far in that direction and there’s nothing left of civilization bigger than a subsistence-level family farm, Brooks et al can shift back to writing essays about how we need government to foster large-scale, continent-spanning projects that contribute to “national greatness.”  Remember that idea?  Say, might that kind of thinking have been part of the reason our tiny, local, non-governmental institutions ended up dilapidated?  (I recall Cato’s Ed Crane, shortly after 9/11, grumpily mocking Brooks’s national greatness phase as the belief that a country achieves magnificence by “digging a tunnel to England or something.”)

Brooks, ever eager to appear moderate and cautious, would no doubt say some projects are meant to be done at the local level, some at the national, which is true, as I said earlier — and that’s why we have markets to sort out these projects and their proper scale, not government planning committees operating on the basis of the latest manifesto or op-ed column.


Gerard said...

Speaking of Canadians,

David Frum, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization, said Republicans had tried to defeat the bill to undermine Mr. Obama politically, but in the process had given up a chance of influencing a huge bill. Mr. Frum said his party’s stance sowed doubts with the public about its ideas and leadership credentials, and ultimately failed in a way that expanded Mr. Obama’s power.

“The political imperative crowded out the policy imperative,” Mr. Frum said. “And the Republicans have now lost both.”

“Politically, I get the ‘let’s trip up the other side, make them fail’ strategy,” he said. “But what’s more important, to win extra seats or to shape the most important piece of social legislation since the 1960s? It was a go-for-all-the-marbles approach. Unless they produced an absolute failure for Mr. Obama, there wasn’t going to be any political benefit.”

Jump on the bandwagon, Todd!

Gerard said...

Not to be too “glass is half full” about this whole debacle, but you will be in luck if you begin to patronize TGI Friday’s in the coming years.

Menu Labeling Coming Next Year

Gerard said...

FWIW, that provision was included at the behest of the restaurant industry. So everyone who thinks policy is determined by a cabal of self-interested lobbyists and their government benefactors…

Well, you’re probably right.

Todd Seavey said...

Frum’s strategy basically amounts to avoiding Sunday’s defeat by self-defeating months earlier, the approach that’s served the GOP so badly for so long: If the Dems say “We’ll take a $100 billion in new taxes,” come back at them with “Never! We say $85.6 billion in new taxes!” Screw that. Stick to principles, fight, educate, repeal on all fronts.

Frum, like Brooks, represents the lamest aspect of neoconservatism, the idea that it’s better to have one’s thumbprint on legislation than to fight against it. This was an important but fairly narrow defeat, and the public will never be educated about why such fights are necessary if the GOP chooses not to fight them at all.

In short: more lines in the sand, fewer barriers made out of nothing but sand, please. Anyone not focused fiercely on shrinking government as priority one at this point is aiding and abetting at this point. Less Frum, more Tea Party.

Dave said...

I’d like to point out, when I reread Atlas Shrugged this year I was struck how NON-callous she seemed towards the “little guy” She used the plight of the little guy to illustrate the evils of government. I don’t recall her having any examples of any welfare programs.

It was government intervening on behalf of the “little institutions” that was causing all the problems. She made a point of illustrating also how little institutions actually benefited from lower prices and more abundant goods and services when the larger companies were allowed to flourish.

Right-Wing Links (March 24, 2010) said...

[...] David Brooks: Will It Be Red Toryism or National Greatness? The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. — Adolph Hitler, Hitler's Secret Conversations 403 (Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens trans., 1961) [...]

David Brooks, Statism Of | KyleSmithOnline.com said...

[...] pal Todd Seavey concisely and calmly lays out exactly what is wrong with alleged conservative David Brooks’s thinking. Brooks has [...]