America, David Brooks, and the Enlightenment Thinkers

Should we be heirs to the French or the British model of political change?

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On Sunday, David Brooks discussed theories of the French and Scottish Enlightenments and their relevance to contemporary American politics. In his definitions, he lumped Edmund Burke with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and David Hume, calling the lot the "British Enlightenment," and included Descartes in the French Enlightenment. In his telling, the British Enlightenment differed from the French Enlightenment by emphasizing the "limits" of reason.

People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.

The twin Enlightenments led to two models of political change: Thomas Paine's, which favored radical transformations in which "revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths...and then designed a new society to fit them," and Burke's, which shrank from purely reason-based ruptures with the past. The central question in America, argues Brooks, is "whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment." He decides that though "the children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat," ultimately "the Scots were right" about human nature. Political changes should occur in a style "that emphasizes modesty, gradualism, and balance."

  • 'Skepticism about Big Radical Ideas' Harvard economist Greg Mankiw thinks Brooks "offers a good explanation" of this. He says it "made [him] feel better about [his] watered-down variety" of libertarianism.
  • An Important Topic Right Now Commentary's Peter Wehner posits that these matters are "triply important today, since the debates we are currently engaged in are about political first principles."

  • It Has Its Moments National Review's Jonathan Adler thinks Brooks "overlooks some key aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment," namely its skepticism of big government and enthusiasm for "the spontaneous order that arises from organic social institutions, including those in the marketplace." He suggests the "institutions" Brooks might defend "bear no resemblance to the organic institutions Burke sought to protect."
  • Let's Get Our Facts Right "There weren't no 'British Enlightenment,'" writes UCLA professor Mark Keliman at The Reality-Based Community. "There was a Scottish Enlightenment, led by Hume and Adam Smith." Also, he adds, "Descartes misses being an Enlightenment thinker by a century and change. The French Enlightenment thinkers admired Descartes, but his rationalism had nothing to do with politics." Nor was Burke "an Englightenment thinker at all, except chronologically."
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