David Brooks on Conservatism

He writes,

American conservatism has three-part roots. Morally, it is rooted in the biblical metaphysic. Conservatives have an appreciation for the sinful nature of men and women and hence a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, and there are people involved, you should be ready for the possibility that it will.

Philosophically, conservatism goes back to the epistemological modesty of Edmund Burke. The world is a complex place. The power of reason is bounded. Be skeptical of those who think they can grasp the complexities of reality and reorganize it through rational planning.

Economically, American conservatism differs from European conservatism because it goes back to the governing philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, to the belief in social mobility, immigrant possibility, and the idea that, in limited but energetic ways, government can help give people the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.

Today’s conservatism is estranged from these roots. Today’s conservatism is more properly called Freedomism. It is the elevation of freedom as the ultimate political good.

Run this through the filter of the three-axes model. “an appreciation for the sinful nature of men and women” sounds to me like the civilization-barbarism axis. The complaint about “the elevation of freedom as the ultimate political good” sounds to me like a concern with focusing on the freedom-coercion axis.

David Brooks is probably my favorite columnist, in part because he tends to be more charitable than others to those with whom he disagrees. However, I often do not share his prescriptions, and this is one such instance.

5 thoughts on “David Brooks on Conservatism

  1. When he introduced his label “Rhino Wing” I seriously began to consider that the whole piece was satire, and he was alluding to the “Republican In Name Only” trope from the election. He also didn’t provide any specific examples of “Freedomism” in speeches, bills, or writings by leading conservatives; he just said “listen to any speech at the Republican convention or during the primary season.”

    Freedomism (nee Liberalism), may not comport with American interpretation of the Old Testament, but it is the ultimate in epistemological modesty; and it could be argued that freedom is the key ingredient to “social mobility, immigrant possibility,” and “compet[ition] in a capitalistic society.”

  2. Conservatism may be estranged from its roots but that’s at least partly because we’re so far down the freedom-coercion axis towards coercion that we can no longer access those roots.

    This is an example of where I think Kling’s axis metaphor is misleading. The axis are NOT orthogonal. Coercion and barbarism and oppression have a lot of overlap.

  3. I like David Brooks as well, but I think he is too embedded in the Bobo culture he’s written so much about. In this instance, I agree neither with his diagnosis or his prescription. The game has changed a bit since Hamilton’s day, as he may have noticed in other contexts. There was this pesky little weed of an ideology called “progressivism” that sprouted up sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century and proposed to use the state as a tool to reshape society in some pretty radical ways. Viewed as a reaction to the numerous excesses of the progressives, “freedomism” was a pretty logical turn for traditional conservatism. If he’s concerned about it (freedomism) trampling the “Hamiltonian agenda,” I think he misunderstands its roots and, ultimately its aims.

  4. Ha, if “freedomism” is so rampant, why did Ron Paul do so poorly in this “freedom party?” Why did Gary Johnson not even get invited to most of the debates? All the GOP is nowadays is Democrat lite, with an extra emphasis on religion. To suggest that it has anything to do with freedom is laughable. If only freedom were its break from his original conservatism, the GOP has gone far, far afield from that original vision.

    It strikes me that he is writing for a very liberal audience at the NYT and would like to pin the blame for the GOP’s “extremism”- as denounced by the “balanced” Obama, who would pile trillions of debt if nobody were to get in the way of his spendthrift “balance”- on the libertarians. It is true that the libertarians are the only ones even talking about spending cuts, but that’s because his beloved conservatives have absolutely no policy: look at how Romney promised everyone more spending, particularly on medicare and “defense,” that’s what the “economically conservative” party has become.

  5. He uses the words ‘metaphysic’ and ‘epistemological’ in a subtly odd way (ie, not quite how Aristotle of Kant might have used them).