David Brooks: Two Theories of Change

Posted by Kendall Harmon

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchHistoryPhilosophy* Economics, PoliticsPolitics in General* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

12 Comments
Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:39 am

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1. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems.

The difference is, the conservatives have a historic record to look at what worked and what didn’t and why, while the liberals don’t seem to grasp the implications of their philosophy with regard to the Katrina response, the lack of market oversight leading to the Great Recession, or the most recent BP Gulf Disaster response.  Government has proven inept at these huge and important responsibilities…so how is their “tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems” justified?  (BTW, I am not picking on the Left alone for inept government - both the Rs and Ds are inept in a truly bi-partisan way.)

May 26, 7:55 am | [comment link]
2. MarkP wrote:

“liberals don’t seem to grasp the implications of their philosophy with regard to the Katrina response, the lack of market oversight leading to the Great Recession, or the most recent BP Gulf Disaster response.  Government has proven inept….”

Hang on, you yourself say the Great Recession was prompted by “lack of market oversight.” Maybe government did a lousy job of oversight because it had its hands tied in most of those examples by conservatives (who were in power at the time) who believe in the ineptitude of government. I think both sides would say they’re responding to the “historic record,” though coming to different conclusions.

May 26, 9:16 am | [comment link]
3. Sarah wrote:

It’s interesting.  Brooks attributes to the “conservative radicals” the Paine-style “sweeping away” rather than Burke’s philosophy.

But one might *just* as easily do the exact opposite and compare the conservative desire for reform to Burke’s approval of the American Revolution.  Here’s what Brooks says about Burke: “Burke also supported the American Revolution, but saw it in a different light than Paine. He believed the British Parliament had recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the colonists had come to enjoy. The Americans were seeking to preserve what they had.”

The fact that Brooks did not go with *that* description of the so-called “conservative radicals” tells us where Brooks is concerning the conservatives.  Myself, I believe that the Congress and Presidency has “recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the citizens had come to enjoy and that conservatives are seeking to preserve what they had.”


There—Burkean.

May 26, 9:42 am | [comment link]
4. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

#2

I did say that both the Rs and the Ds were inept.  However, your attempt to hang it all on the conservatives leaves out the important roles that Chris Dodd and Barney Frank played in creating the Great Recession and also fails to take into account that the Democrats held both houses of Congress when the economy crashed and burned.  That seems a bit disingenuous at the least.

May 26, 9:51 am | [comment link]
5. MarkP wrote:

#4—You said the difference is that conservatives look at the historic record and liberals don’t. I was simply trying to add a little nuance to your unbalanced account.

May 26, 9:57 am | [comment link]
6. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

I fail to see how distorting history improved the alleged “imbalance” of my account.  The Katrina fiasco, I think, falls fairly on the Bush administration.  The Great Recession should be attributed to both the left and the right.  The BP Disaster fiasco rests fairly with the Obama administration.

My comment was on the philosophical natures of the conservatives (that tend to want to hold onto the way things currently are or to restore things to their past order because they perceive that things worked better in the past) and the liberals (that tend to want to try new things that by definition have not been tried before because they view the current and past order of things to be intolerable).

Personally, I think that a mixture of the two is healthy.  conservatives need to be more willing to try new things while liberals need to identify the things that they have tried that end up not working and return things to the way they were when they actually worked - the Department of Education being a prime example).

May 26, 12:16 pm | [comment link]
7. Militaris Artifex wrote:

First of all, the Democrats are not liberals in any meaningful sense of the word. They are progressives, who appropriated the “liberal” name to their own use at the end of the first third of the twentieth century, when progressivism had proven hollow with the electorate, i.e., had fallen out of favor at the polls.

Second, Sick & Tired of Nuance, as to what has not worked in practice, I would challenge you to name one major federal program that that what you call liberals have tried that does work. Just off of the top of my head, I can’t find a single one. [By major, I refer to any program that is either a principal responsibility of a Cabinet Department, or that has its own Federal ‘czar.’] Mind you, I am not particularly pleased with a fairly large number of self-identified ‘conservatives’ amongst the elected officials either. But, with few exceptions, they haven’t really launched very many major federal programs.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

———————-
“The common belief that whisky improves with age is true. The older I get, the more I like it.”[Ronnie Corbett]
“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”[classical adage, believed based on a quotation from Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus]
—[i[]If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand the gravity of the situation!”—[author unknown]

May 26, 7:00 pm | [comment link]
8. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

One Federal program initiated by the liberals that has been a success (and to the best of my knowledge, the only one from the Dept. of Ed.) is the Head Start program.  But it isn’t cricket to make me struggle so, to try to find successes in the ash heap of history.  However, the Rs have been busy bees themselves, especially during the Bush administration.  They tried to buy votes from democrats by being democrats-lite, with all that “compassionate conservativism” which was just more of the socialist agenda in Republican clothing.

Item: President Richard Nixon proposed the EPA and with the approval of congress it began operation on December 2, 1970.

Item: President George Bush Jr. proposed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and it was co-authored and shepherded in the Senate by Senator Ted Kennedy and voted into law by the Republican controlled majority of both houses.

Item: Dennis Hastert, Republican Speaker of the House introduced the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act into the House of Representatives in 2003.  It was voted into law, with the vocal support of President Bush, and signed into law by him.

Furthermore, the Republicrats have lied time after time to the American people about eliminating Democrat programs…like the Department of Education.  When they held the Presidency, the House, and the Senate - for 6 YEARS - not one Democrat program was repealed or reigned in.  There was no reversal of course at all!

So, again, I see both the Rs and the Ds at fault in this.

I’ll concede the point about the semantics of “liberals” and “progressives”, but I ask your indulgence because the terms I use are the result of long custom.  What I mean when I use them is socialists/communists, a.k.a. the Left (or radical Left if that suits you better).

May 26, 8:58 pm | [comment link]
9. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Oh yeah, and wasn’t it President Bush the supported that turn-coat in PA, Arlen Specter?!?

Wasn’t it GOP Presidential Candidate John McCain that worked with Feingold to squash our 1st Amendment Rights?  And wasn’t it John McCain that championed amnesty for the illegal aliens?  And didn’t the Bush administration do NOTHING about illegal immigration?

May 26, 9:06 pm | [comment link]
10. Militaris Artifex wrote:

8. & 9. Sick & Tired of Nuance,

As I thought I had made perfectly clear, I hold no brief in favor of the Republicans. My only observation is that their errors have tended, but only tended, to be somewhat less dismal than the Democrat’s. I am neither Dem nor Rep, but rather an Old Whig, in the mold of those to whom Edmund Burke appealed in his An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, which, if you are well-read in Economics, you will recognize as the stance to which F. A. Hayek adhered in his Why I Am Not A Conservative.

Further, I would argue that wrong is wrong and right is right, although that runs against the grain for most people who are politically active, who, consequently, tend to think in terms of what is “achievable,” rather than thinking in terms of right and wrong.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

———————-
“The common belief that whisky improves with age is true. The older I get, the more I like it.”[Ronnie Corbett]
“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”[classical adage, believed based on a quotation from Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus]
—[i[]If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand the gravity of the situation!”—[author unknown]

May 27, 12:01 am | [comment link]
11. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

#10 Martial Artist

Thank you for your reply.  I wish I were more educated when it comes to economics, so I thank you for your mentioning the authors that have helped shape your thoughts.  There are so many books and subjects of interest that it is difficult to carve out the time to become conversant with them all…yet your posts have intrigued me and I hope to delve the mine of knowledge in the near future.

I agree with your assertion about wrong and right and long for political leadership that actually has a moral compass and scruples.  I suspect we are fairly close in many of our views.  Thank you again for your insights.

May 27, 4:23 pm | [comment link]
12. Militaris Artifex wrote:

11. Sick & Tired of Nuance,

Thank you for the kind words. If you are going to read Hayek, I would suggest either (or better, both) of the two books which are most accessible to the (economically) lay reader: The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Fatal Conceit (1988). These give, respectively, a synopsis of his ideas on “central planning” in general, and an overview of his views on the free price system and spontaneous order, which is also referred to as “that which is the result of human action but not of human design.” Most other of his works require some familiarity with the arguments and historical view presented in those books. Neither book is large and both are written for non-economists. If you read some of Hayek, and desire to discuss his ideas, or want further recommendations, feel free to send me a Private Message through this site. Same with Edmund Burke or Adam Smith.

The essay Why I Am Not A Conservative can be found on the web at the Institut Hayek. One of his colleagues is the subject of a book that I am currently reading, Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966), a German émigré to Switzerland during WWII, and later an advisor to German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard in the early 1960s.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

———————-
“The common belief that whisky improves with age is true. The older I get, the more I like it.”[Ronnie Corbett]
“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”[classical adage, believed based on a quotation from Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus]
—[i[]If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand the gravity of the situation!”—[author unknown]

May 27, 4:48 pm | [comment link]


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