Thursday, February 26, 2009

What's the matter with David Brooks?

I've long considered myself a big fan of David Brooks. While I don't always agree with him, he usually raises interesting arguments and ideas that you don't find elsewhere. His columns reveal Brooks to be a thoughtful and erudite individual. He's a true intellectual and there is a reason I have him linked among my sidebar of favorite columnists.

But I've started to wonder. The first indication that he has gone astray was his column earlier this week in which he voiced unease that the Obama Administration is in way over its heads. It is dealing with forces it can't possibly fully understand and attempting a radical effort at overhauling the country that may have profoundly negative consequences. With this I am in full agreement.

But he also said some things that disturbed me, namely his conclusion:
It’s also clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited. We will know that highly trained government experts are capable of quickly designing and executing top-down transformational change. If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity.

It’ll be interesting to see who’s right. But I can’t even root for my own vindication. The costs are too high. I have to go to the keyboard each morning hoping Barack Obama is going to prove me wrong.
It's almost as though this learned man knows nothing of the last 50 years. We already know that high trained government experts are incapable of quickly designing and implementing transformational change -- at least change that is positive. History books are certainly littered with governments that destroyed their own countries through supposedly scientific central planning.

The only times that governments have used vast overhauls to unleash prosperity are through the liberalization and expansion of markets. Really, go through the history books and try to prove me wrong. This isn't a grand new experiment, it's a repeat of failed policies. There is no excuse for it.

Lastly, why on earth would Brooks want this to succeed? Where government expands liberty and freedom must yield. This is an immutable law. Why would Brooks want to be on the opposite side of freedom? Obama's approach should be rejected not only from a utilitarian perspective, but it is morally offensive as well.

Then, after Bobby Jindal's response Brooks offered up this assessment:
You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician, and I opposed the stimulus package - I thought it was poorly drafted - but to come up at this moment in history with a stale, "government is the problem...we can't trust the government"'s just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic, now. They may not like the way the Congress passed the stimulus bill. The idea that government is going to have no role in a moment where only the Federal government is big enough to do just ignore all that and say government's the problem...corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending -- it's just a form of nihilism.

It's just not where the country is, it's not where the future of the country is. There's an intra-Republican debate: some people say the Republican party lost its way because it got too moderate, some people say they got too weird or too conservative. He thinks they got too moderate, and he's making that case. I think it's insane. I think it's a disaster for the party. I just think it's unfortunate right now.
I am not even sure where to begin. So the government must act because the country is in a panic? The voices that ought to direct us are those of the panicked? Shouldn't we opt to heed those whose voices and steady and calm amidst the hysteria?

Right now the federal government is thrashing about like the brainless giant it frequently is. It is throwing money around in every direction to no discernible effect -- and this is a good thing?

In any case Brooks is employing a strawman. Few are saying that the government ought to do nothing. I think the argument that many Republicans are instead employing is that the government, rather than lead the charge, ought to yield to the vastly smarter and more resourceful private sector to promote recovery. Rather than the government spend the money we should leave it to the private sector. Instead of promoting new rules and regulations we should re-examine the existing ones to make sure that they don't stifle our citizen's creative energies.

Barack Obama himself said that the answer to the crisis does not lie in government:
The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and our universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.
But maybe he is just a nihilist.

Update: Even while I bash Brooks, let's take a look back at some rather prescient words of his from last October about the Obama Administration:
What we’re going to see, in short, is the Gingrich revolution in reverse and on steroids. There will be a big increase in spending and deficits. In normal times, moderates could have restrained the zeal on the left. In an economic crisis, not a chance. The over-reach is coming. The backlash is next.

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