Fisking Brooks

It's been a while since I did a good fisking, but David Brooks' column today angered up the blood. He's a friend. I mean no personal animus. He's a good guy. But I think he is deeply, deeply wrong about what ails conservatism. David's column is in italics. My responses aren't:

There is an argument floating around Republican circles that in order to win again, the G.O.P. has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days. It has to once again be the minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism and states' rights. This is folly. It's the wrong diagnosis of current realities and so the wrong prescription for the future.

So far, nothing but rhetoric and cliches from David. "Rugged individualism"? Why the "rugged"? Why not just freedom to live one's life as one chooses, as opposed to the way in which David's allies in the religious and authoritarian right want to boss us around?

Back in the 1970s, when Reaganism became popular, top tax rates were in the 70s, growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Federal regulation stifled competition. Government welfare policies enabled a culture of dependency. Socialism was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model.

In short, in the 1970s, normal, nonideological people were right to think that their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. People were right to believe that government was undermining personal responsibility. People were right to have what Tyler Cowen, in a brilliant essay in Cato Unbound, calls the 'liberty vs. power' paradigm burned into their minds the idea that big government means less personal liberty.

But bigger government always means less personal liberty. This is simply a fact, not an opinion. The trade-off is always there. It may be worth it in some instances - which is why I'm not a libertarian. But it is simply true that every dollar taken by the government is one dollar less for you and me to spend on what we decide is best; every freedom removed or infringed by the government is one less for you and me to enjoy. You can defend the trade-off, and should at times, but please don't pretend it isn't there.

I'm a small government Goldwater conservative, but I think compulsory high school education is worth the trade-off of freedom. I think universal healthcare insurance is an infringement of liberty, but since we have committed to providing emergency healthcare for all, it's a trade-off worth making for fiscal and moral reasons. Small government conservatives don't want to abandon government. We want it small - but strong and focused on what government really ought to do. And we have learned from experience that the bigger government is, the less effective it often is; and the more confusing and massive it is, the less accountable it is.

We currently have a government planning to go to Mars, heal broken marriages, and build bridges to nowhere - and also one that cannot wage a war competently, cannot respond to a hurricane adequately, and cannot enforce borders. Is it too much to ask that it get the basic things right before embarking on grandiose schemes to make us all feel more secure in amorphous ways? The lesson of our time is the utter incompetence and dysfunction of government at all levels. The solution to this is not to enlarge government, but to remove from it what it shouldn't be doing, and focus like a laser beam on getting it to work right on the essential tasks no private entity can do.

But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people's future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremism, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation.

And more government is the answer to all this? "Complex, decentralized phenomena" require clumsy, bureaucratic big government to solve them? When did David Brooks become a closet liberal? (Answer: in the 1990s.) What we desperately need is smaller, better government: a more effective use of military and intelligence  to contain and deter Islamist terror, freer trade, effective education (which is best innovated at a local not federal level), a simple, serious carbon tax to foment private sector innovation in new energy technology, and shrewder diplomacy. This isn't big government. A Reaganite government could do all these things, after tackling the middle class welfare state that is slowly strangling the capacity of government to operate solvently at all.

Normal, nonideological people ...

Please. This is a straw man. Everyone who differs from David is ideological and abnormal?

... are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena. The 'liberty vs. power' paradigm is less germane. It's been replaced in the public consciousness with a 'security leads to freedom' paradigm. People with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world.

I'm sorry, but the security-before-freedom is and has always been central to small government conservatism, not the Christianist-dominated welfare state Bush has created and Brooks helped defend. None of us who believe in maximal freedom and minimum government believe the government should not be dedicated to security. In fact, it's the over-extension of government that has helped take its focus off security. I'd love to end farm subsidies, pork, the mortgage deduction, and to means-test social security - and spend the money saved on securing our ports and borders, rebuilding hollowed out necessities like FEMA, increasing the size of the military, and providing universal health coverage through the private sector. And all of that is compatible with small government conservatism.

People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities.

But government has no business and no competence in creating "stable homes". That's the role of families, churches, local leaders, relatives, synagogues, mosques and all the institutions of civil society that David seems to want to be replaced or guided by government. Brooks "national greatness" isn't conservatism; and it never was. It's statism, overlayed with religious sanctimony and imperial ambitions.

The 'security leads to freedom' paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology, but conservative think tankers and activists have been slow to recognize the change in their historical circumstance. All their intellectual training has been oriented by the 'liberty vs. power' paradigm. (Postwar planning in Iraq was so poor because many in the G.O.P. were not really alive to the truth that security is a precondition for freedom.)

Well yes on the latter. But providing basic law and order is not what we are discussing in America. I might add I find it amazing that in an era when habeas corpus has been suspended for many, when the government is wire-tapping phones without a warrant, when U.S. citizens are "disappeared" without charges for several years, and when torture has been introduced as a legal government tool, David is actually charging that the problem with the liberty vs power paradigm is that it is outdated?? It has never been more relevant. It is Brooks who is stuck in the past - some time in the late 1990s when the intellectual experiment that created the Bush administration was in its infancy. The authors of that experiment should, to my mind, be leery of venturing out in public, not defending "no U-turns" in Bush conservatism.

The general public, which is less invested in abstract principles, has been quicker to grope its way toward the new mental framework. As a Pew poll released last week indicated, the public has not lost its suspicion of big government. Most Americans believe government regulation does more harm than good. But they do think government should be more active in redressing segmentation and inequality. Almost all corporations, including Wal-Mart, have extraordinarily high approval ratings. But voters are clearly anxious about globalization.

The Republican Party, which still talks as if government were the biggest threat to choice, has lost touch with independent voters. Offered a choice between stale Democrats and stale Republicans, voters now choose Democrats, who at least talk about economic and domestic security.

Hmmm. I wonder why many Independents have become turned off by the GOP? Could it be that David's project of bringing in a cohort of religious zealots has tarred the GOP as a bunch of intolerant, bossy bigots? Could it be that the massive spending, debt and entitlement splurge has alienated fiscal conservatives in the Perot mode? Nah. It's the libertarians fault, isn't it? In my view, the obvious reason voters now pick Democrats is the astonishingly awful legacy - foreign and domestic - of Republican power under the aegis of Brooks's philosophy. If you have to choose between two big government parties, dedicated to taking care of everyone, why not pick the brand that knows how to do it and actually believes in it? And the one that isn't patently mean-spirited toward gays, immigrants, and non-evangelicals?

The Bush Republicans, following David's advice, have exploded spending, loaded massive debt onto the next generation, taken pork to record levels, and passed a biggest new entitlement since the Great Society. They've increased spending faster than anyone since FDR. Meanwhile their actual effective governance has been a shambles. Of course voters prefer Democrats when they have to pick between fundamentalist, insolvent, incompetent big government and secular, solvent big government. I sure would.

The Democrats have a 15 point advantage in voter identification. Voters prefer Democratic economic policies by 14 points, Democratic tax policies by 15 points, Democratic health care policies by 24 points and Democratic energy policies by 20 points. If this is a country that wants to return to Barry Goldwater, it is showing it by supporting the policies of Dick Durbin.

No, they're simply registering that the Brooks experiment in turning the GOP into a religious, statist party for cronies and incompetents has been a disaster for Republicanism and a catastrophe for conservatism. Given no true conservative alternative, voters have gone back to the Dems. Brooks was an intellectual architect of both visions - massive intervention abroad, and warmed-over socialism at home. No wonder the conservative coalition has fallen apart, and people are now backing Democrats.

The sad thing is that President Bush sensed this shift in public consciousness back in 1999. Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to move beyond the 'liberty vs. power' paradigm. But because it was never fleshed out and because the Congressional G.O.P. rejected the implant, a new Republican governing philosophy did not emerge.

The classic dodge: national greatness conservatism - big spending at home, big wars abroad - wasn't tried and therefore didn't fail. Please. It was tried, David, with bells on, and it has failed so spectacularly you need glasses with neocon thickness not to see it. In fact, its manifest failure may consign conservatism to the political wilderness for a generation - and has deeply increased the security dangers America now faces.

The party is going to have to make another run at it. As it does, it will have to shift mentalities. The 'security leads to freedom' paradigm doesn't end debate between left and right, it just engages on different ground. It is oriented less toward negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back?) and more toward positive liberty (Can I choose how to lead my life?).

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they're not models for the future.

And Bush and Cheney are? I know who I'd pick. Until the GOP thoroughly purges itself of the impulses of the Bush era - impulses enabled and supported by Brooks - they're finished. And they deserve to be.