Friday, September 12, 2008


David Brooks happens to be my favorite New York Times columnist.  Granted, the competition isn't exactly fierce.  You've got Thomas Friedman, who I like to think of as an extremely perceptive five-year old, a handful of crazies in either direction, and a Manhattan cocktail party to reckon with.  

His last article, though, was just horrible.  He's been doing the communitarian thing for some time, which can be good, but which he takes too far.  "The individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong"?  Ignore for a moment that social scientist models are no more vulnerable to this critique than the ideal gas law is to the odd movements of individual molecules; that both deserve to be judged on the basis of empirical predictions, which he does not discuss beyond saying that there was a financial crisis. 

The larger issue is that the case for individualist politics is not predicated on empirical claims about people's autonomy.  But apparently giving people choices and lowering taxes is a mismatch between reality and ideology.  This would be news to Sweden, which has a robust private school system founded on vouchers, or Singapore, which has a healthcare system based on individual choice, or Ireland, which has thrived due to lower taxes.  Individual-friendly policies build healthy communities; collectivist ideas can ignore personal choice.  There's nothing wrong with paying attention to institutions--as he approves of Cameron for doing--and if that's all the argument is then I agree.  

The disturbing part is when Brooks goes on to talk about this in the context of McCain.  The national service, cause greater than yourself bit has, I suspect, been a big part of Brooks' consistent advocacy for McCain.  But where Brooks sees as wellspring of cultural revival, I see a toxic militant nationalism better suited for 300 than a modern democratic polity.  It's also a bit inconsistent with his pro-free trade, supply-side economics stance, but maybe McCain just really believes in the invisible hand.  This is as good a time as any to link to P.J. O'Rourke's brilliant commencement speech.

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