Brooks versus Brooks

by Henry Farrell on October 5, 2007

I forgot to link to my “Bloggingheads”: with Paul Glastris of the _Washington Monthly_ a couple of days ago; one of the things that we talked about was our frustration with David Brooks’ _NYT_ columns. As Paul said, there’s a good Brooks who seems thoughtful and interesting, and a bad Brooks, who behaves, not to put too fine a point on it, like a party-line hack. To see this Jekyll-and-Hyde act in action, you can start with “today’s Brooks column”: on the failings of Republicanism.

Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds. … Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform … the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism … and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints. …To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the G.O.P. has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots.

This is all _obviously true_ – and speaks to the real insights that certain kinds of conservatism have to offer. But before we get overly congratulatory, we should go back to the distant era of June 2005 to see what David Brooks was “writing then”:

Karl Rove has his theories about what separates liberals from conservatives and I have mine. Mine include the differences between Jeffrey Sachs and George Bush. … The Bush administration has nearly doubled foreign aid, but it will not spend the amounts Sachs wants. The Bush folks, at least when it comes to Africa policy, have learned from centuries of conservative teaching – from Burke to Oakeshott to Hayek – to be skeptical of Sachsian grand plans. Conservatives emphasize that it is a fatal conceit to think we can understand complex societies, or rescue them from above with technocratic planning. …The Bush folks, like most conservatives, tend to emphasize nonmaterial causes of poverty: corrupt governments, perverse incentives, institutions that crush freedom. Conservatives appreciate the crooked timber of humanity – that human beings are not simply organisms within systems, but have minds and inclinations of their own that usually defy planners.

and so on. As I “noted then”:, the “at least when it comes to Africa policy” bit was quite weaselly given everything else that was going on at the time. Brooks-2005 gives an impression of George W. Bush and his administration as people who have learnt the lessons of conservative teaching, who are skeptical of grand plans etc, which can only be described as utterly misleading. It was as obvious then as it is now that the invasion of Iraq, the efforts to remake the Middle East from scratch etc were _not_ conservative in the Burkean sense. Yet Brooks passes over these grand initiatives in silence, telling us instead that what separates conservatives such as George W. Bush from liberals like Jeffrey Sachs is their attention to Burkean complexities. As Brooks-2007 tells us quite straightforwardly, the notion that George W. Bush and his administration are exemplars of Burkean prudence is an utter nonsense. I don’t think that there is any other reasonable explanation of Brooks’ reticence in 2005 (and indeed before and after) than a willingness to shut up for the cause. While it’s all _very nice_ that he’s coming out and saying these things now, it would obviously have been rather more _helpful_ if he had said it, say, back in 2004, when it might conceivably have helped make a difference.