The Corner

David Brooks on the Conservative Mind

David Brooks’s latest column includes this thought: “Conservatism has lost the balance between economic and traditional conservatism. The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.” I think there’s something to this. Republicans are very good about talking about how government regulations and taxes hold back entrepreneurs. They haven’t always been as good about talking about how misguided government policies get in the way of people who aren’t necessarily entrepreneurs but are trying to arrange for health care for their families, provide for their own retirements, and so on.

Brooks takes the thought in a different direction, though. “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,” he complains. “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.” He seems to suggest that National Review, in particular, has fallen away from a “traditional conservatism” that blessed this sort of government activism.

I’m pretty skeptical about these ideas–although it’s hard to know what to make of “actively interven[ing] in chaotic neighborhoods” absent more information. It’s one thing to say that too many conservatives think in unrealistically individualistic terms about society. (That’s also the message of liberal columnist E. J. Dionne Jr.’s latest book.) It’s another to leap from that idea to support for all kinds of government intervention. (I don’t think NR historically was prone to doing that, either.)

That’s the mistake liberals make when they refer to government as simply “a name for what we do together.” (Is shutting down kids’ lemonade stands something we do together?) Yuval Levin has written insightfully about this subject for NR:


The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting. . . .


To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.

It may be that Brooks would agree with all of that. If he does, though, he needs to stop moving from the need for community and social order directly to support for government activism.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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