Thursday, September 27, 2012

David Brooks' Conservatism

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times who considers himself a conservative. Perhaps relative to his colleagues at the Times he is, but his conservatism is hard to discern in most of his columns. He recently wrote a piece in which he laments how, in his mind, one branch of conservatism in the Republican party, what might be called traditional values conservatism, has been squeezed out by economic, or free market, conservatism. He begins with this:
When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.

On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.

But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.
Perhaps Brooks thinks this sort of conservative is less familiar because he's not really looking for them. If he were he'd see exactly this sort of conservative in Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. He'd see it in the leaders of most of the conservative grass roots organizations like the Tea Party.

What's happened, however, is that anyone who promotes "traditional values" conservatism is attacked by the liberal media and the message gets diffused as conservatives seek to defend a host of countercultural social positions.

Conservatives have implicitly decided, I think, that for the sake of defeating Barack Obama in November they will train all their fire on his economic failures and put the traditional social issues on the back-burner so as not to be side-tracked by interminable disputes over intractable questions.

Later in his column Brooks says this:
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.

The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. Republicans have very little to say to Hispanic voters, who often come from cultures that place high value on communal solidarity.
This is just silly. Brooks is faulting conservatives for not being liberals. The fact is that conservatives realized long ago that money is not the solution to the problems of the working class and chaotic neighborhoods. You don't change people's character by giving them money. Indeed, throwing money at problems only exacerbates those problems. Since LBJ's Great Society of the 1960s we have spent over six trillion dollars on the sorts of programs that Brooks talks about, and the problems of the poor as deep as ever.

What the denizens of those chaotic neighborhoods need is not more government programs. What they need is economic opportunity which is created by a powerful economy, they need to learn the importance of marriage, and they need strong father figures who can teach them the importance of moral character. None of that can be provided by government, it can only be provided by the mediating institutions of church and civic organizations. Nor is any of it likely to emerge in the cultural cesspool that is modern entertainment. It will only flourish in an environment where the culture promotes messages which reinforce the value of monogamous marriage and family.

I would think someone of Brooks' acumen would see this much more clearly than he evidently does.