Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brooks Gets Conservatism Right

There are few people in political commentary who get it as right, and say it as well, as David Brooks of the New York Times. Though he is often chastised by the neo-conservative-right-wing-noise machine who have called him a closet liberal or "conservative-light," Brooks, instead, represents that calm, rational, and rather engaging voice of conservatism that I regularly call for. He is, in many ways, the last hope we have after the loss of William Buckley and William Safire, though many, including Brooks, would argue he doesn't have quite their monolithic voice in the conservative crowd. Regardless, he is always a pleasure to read, and his insight is well represented in his piece today, introducing two views of the future, represented by Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume.

I’ve introduced you to my friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume because they represent the choices we face on issue after issue. This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.

The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)

The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.

So let’s have the debate. But before we do, let’s understand that Mr. Bentham is going to win. The lobbyists love Bentham’s intricacies and his stacks of spending proposals, which they need in order to advance their agendas. If you want to pass anything through Congress, Bentham’s your man.

Brooks is just so damn smart that his allusions are often lost on many. But he is drawing from classic enlightenment history with astute nods to Jeremy Bentham and David Hume. It is these historical allusions that make his commentary so rich, but it is also what leads neo-conservatives to criticize him. For the reality is Limbaugh and Hannity and Beck and O'Reilly don't really understand Brooks or his allusions, and by association don't really understand conservatism.

David Brooks calls himself a Burkean conservative, and it is a definition and a pragmatic ideology I support. Sadly, most in the Republican Party don't really - and here's the irony because they use this charge so much - don't really understand their history. They don't understand the nature of their ideology and how to apply it to a changing world. Instead they rely on soundbites that simply become a rant about "low taxes" and "limited government." Yet, they don't understand how to take those ideas and actually "govern." Brooks, to his credit, tries to explain how the GOP needs to move beyond the "government is the enemy" idea of the Buckley and Reagan eras. For, while Reagan was absolutely right about marginal tax rates when they were 80%, his argument doesn't apply when they are 36%. Neo-conservatives don't get that, and they have never been able to reconcile their ideas with the social conservatives and the Religious Right. It makes for a mess of a message and a mess of a party.

One man who knows this - though sadly forgot it for about six months when his party needed him most - is John McCain. McCain had built an entire - and rather impressive - career on similar Burkean philosophy. This was effectively profiled in The Atlantic. Sadly, I think, few conservatives read that, and the noise machine couldn't understand it, so they dissed that type of thinking.

But there is hope. Brooks makes that clear. But you have to read it and you have to "get" it for that hope to have any chance.

Yes, we can. [sic]

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