Like other liberal readers, I find David Brooks? weekly columns in the New York Times both fascinating and frustrating. They are provocative insofar as Brooks treats timely topics with sophistication and a level of erudition one rarely finds in contemporary American opinion writing. They are exasperating insofar as Brooks stresses the eternal rectitude of a laissez-faire, anti-government approach to economic and social life that flies in the face of so much recent historical evidence.
His June 17, 2010 column on the botched response to the disastrous BP Gulf oil spill is a good case in point. Brooks talks about the legitimate frustration of Gulf Coast residents at the lack of coordination among the federal government, BP, and local officials, who often seem to be left out of the loop entirely. He then invokes this scenario as grist for his mill about the virtues of ?smallness?: states and other large-scale organizations are congenitally myopic; in almost every case, we would do better to trust ?local knowledge,? the common sense knowhow of those on the ground. Brooks? claim sounds plausible–such contentions have been a staple of American conservatism since the 1970s–until one examines them more closely. Local officials and residents possessed neither the resources nor the proficiency to contain the spill on their own. Moreover, the unprecedented extent of this particular environmental catastrophe suggests that the response, even if well coordinated, would have faced major obstacles and setbacks.
In a May 24, 2010 column Brooks contrasts the French with the British Enlightenment. (Brooks erroneously includes the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, as a member of the latter contingent. But one can?t be both a conservative and a progressive at the same time. The notion of a ?conservative philosophe? would be a contradiction in terms.) His understanding of these two currents is Manichean: in Brooks? eyes, the French philosophes can do no right, and their British counterparts (actually, Scots) can do no wrong. Brooks perceives the philosophes, following Descartes? lead, as intellectual and political radicals. They purportedly believed that all traditional institutions were an encumbrance that needed to be swept away in order to make a fresh political start. But this judgment badly needs to be qualified. Politically speaking, the vast majority of the philosophes–Voltaire, Diderot, Baron d?Holbach–mistrusted democracy and subscribed to the theory of Enlightened despotism, or gradual reform from above. And the storming of the Bastille notwithstanding, there was very little that was ?radical? about the French Revolution prior to its Jacobin-Republican phase (1792-94). In fact, the Constitution of 1791 was a paragon of moderation: a blueprint for constitutional monarchy based on the English model.
Brooks celebrates the Scottish Enlightenment?s political restraint. Yet the British had already had their revolution in 1688 and, unlike the French, were dealing with a basically trustworthy political system–a system of constitutional monarchy that has lasted down to the present-day. Brooks lauds the British moralists, as proponents of laissez-faire economics, the virtues of civil society, and ?local knowledge.? His praise is understandable. The problem is that he turns a blind eye to this standpoint?s faults. Within a few decades, the ethos of laissez-faire would metastasize into the Moloch of modern industrialism, so well-exposed by writers like Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. Ironically, what saved the system was the very thing Brooks abhors: political regulation, or state-backed measures that mandated better working conditions, child labor laws, a living wage, social insurance measures, and so forth. Left to its own devices, laissez-faire capitalism was a perpetual horror show. That it became a workable system is attributable to the enlightened political alleviation of its manifest ills.
Today, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, we find ourselves on the horns of a similar dilemma: an under-regulated financial system that, lacking sufficient oversight, veered catastrophically out of control. It?s déjà vu all over again. As with the Great Crash of 1929, untethered capitalism has proven to be a recipe for economic anarchy rather than the rational and sensible accumulation of wealth. Smaller isn?t better. In fact, it isn?t even small. Time and again, the logic of the market has been shown to favor economies of scale and predatory monopolies rather than small producers.
In his June 21 column, Brooks gloats that, to judge by the poll numbers, Americans mistrust the regulatory and economic measures that the Obama administration has put into place: the stimulus package, health care reform, and the recently passed financial reform bill. Brooks concludes that, given the paucity of results to date, political regulation of the market that the Democrats have implemented is a failed strategy. But here, too, he overlooks a different and more plausible possibility: the efforts at political regulation enacted thus far have been too anemic and half-hearted to make the difference needed to remedy this unprecedented crisis.