David R. Henderson  

Ed Crane on David Brooks

A Libertarian One-Liner... When Are We the Bad Guys?...

David Brooks wrote what I thought of as one of his strangest editorials last month and I didn't get around to commenting on it. Titled "A Case of Mental Courage," it led off with a gruesome story about a woman about 200 years ago having a mastectomy without anesthesia. When I started the article, I thought he was going to go from that to how good health care is today, even for poor people. But noooo. He somehow gets from that to Larry Summers being virtuous in some way. I've read the article a couple of times and I still don't get it.

But Ed Crane, the president of the Cato Institute had a great response last week. I think he understood Brooks better than I did. His piece is short. Here's the last paragraph:

We should celebrate the fact that the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit -- something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism. Some years back, Brooks wrote, "ultimately American purpose can find its voice only in Washington...individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project." That philosophy, of course, was tried a couple of times in the 20th century and found a bit wanting. Especially if you count the tens of millions of human beings who died because of it. On the other hand, they did suffer.

The whole thing is worth reading.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Chris Koresko writes:

@David Henderson: I think the point Brooks is trying to make is that modern culture is mentally lazy and self-satisfied compared to what it was in the early 19th century. Few moderns, he claims, bother to reflect on the potential weakness of arguments upon which we base our conclusions. Brooks points to the tribalism that characterizes a lot of modern political commentary -- the willingness of many people to accept claims that fit comfortably with their world-view and avoid thinking about those which do not -- as evidence. He ends by claiming that this laziness is at the root of a lot of our modern problems.

Unfortunately I don't think the article was written well, or maybe it just suffers from poor editing. Too much text went into the mastectomy narrative, which made it look like more than a point of contrast.

And of course Brooks throws in a couple of barbs at conservatives, like the bit about Obama being a Muslim (which is actually true if I understand correctly, by Muslim law at least).

Ed Crane: "...the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit -- something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism."


One of the principal tenets of conservatism is that the individual has the right and duty to manage his own life and is typically competent to do so.

Crane seems to insinuate in the text you quote that the abuses of 20th-century militant Progressives are to be blamed on conservatives. Am I misreading him? If not, it seems a rather bizarre claim.

Craig Bardo writes:

That we may not agree that we should yield to the judgements of our betters' (he among them) is prima facie evidence that we are to be controlled for the greater good. Isn't it obvious that Larry Summers embodies the dialectical synthesis between a sawed off breast and the tea party's Manichean insistence on market organization of economic activity?

Scott Sumner writes:

After the intro, I thought Brooks was going to argue that a person living today at the low end of the income distribution has a quality of life that is much higher than the average person from 1810. I'm not sure that would have been a particularly insightful editorial, but what he did write seems just awful. He seems to be claiming that people in the 1800s were more willing to re-evaluate their own views on key public policy issues in an open-minded way. I very much doubt that's true, and wonder why he thinks it is.

And Larry Summers?!? Isn't he known for blocking access to the President from those with dissenting views? Or did he get a bad rap in the press?

Pandaemoni writes:

I agree that Brooks's editorial was not well written. That said, his point seemed to me to be a not terribly controversial (or new) addition to the old Socratic saw "an unexamined life is not worth living."

His point was that we need to dedicate more of efforts to re-examining our own positions, giving fair weight to arguments and facts that we find uncomfortable and which we might otherwise prefer to avoid because they are contrary to our present states of self-satisfaction or happiness.

I have no idea if Americans in the 19th century were better able to do that or not. I have heard others, any I myself at times have thought that there is an "echo chamber" that keeps certain people from seriously considering counterarguments to their preferred positions. (I concede, though, that I do not know that that perception is accurate, or, if accurate, that it is a terribly new phenomenon.)

From your own description, I was rather expecting more than a mere parenthetical aside about Larry Summers. The praise seems more comprehensible to me than perhaps it does to you, as I assume the point was "Summers forces himself to face uncomfortable counter arguments to his own positions head on." I again wouldn't comment on whether that is true of Mr. Summers, but I take it Brooks thinks it so.

lukas writes:

Chris, Crane's point is that neoconservatism (especially as served up by Brooks) is deeply progressive, and not very conservative at all.

Colin K writes:

Mortification of the flesh seems perennially popular to me. Whether it's fitness, sustainability, He's Just Not That Into You, or Deepak Chopra, modern life seems not lacking in movements founded on various forms of denial and self-criticism. All that has changed is the vocabulary.

Reading Mark Twain and other more contemporary accounts leads me to suspect that the 19th-century practitioners of these mantras were no less narcissistic and sanctimonious than their modern heirs. I am reminded again of Glenn Loury's wonderful dictum that "human nature has no history."

Paul writes:

If Brooks' column is bad, Crane's is worse. The comment by Pandaemoni above is all you need to read about this.

Crane's ridiculous post, and David's posting of it, flows from their deep loathing of Brooks and neoconservatism.

Brooks writes a piece about the difficulty and the necessity of challenging our own assumptions and Crane uses it to launch an overly personal attack on Brooks and neoconservatism, as if David's column is about expanding the welfare state or invading Iraq.

He takes a quote by Brooks on individual ambition and somehow holds it up as evidence of David's supporting Soviet collectivism. I guess if you hate someone enough you can convince yourself of such tortured reasoning.

Crane doesn't like Brooks. Fine. But Brooks' column has nothing to do with the size or intrusiveness of government, or the use of an aggressive foreign policy.

We all need to challenge our own ideas, and that includes Libertarian's dogmatic, militant pacifism, and - in Crane's case - their deep-seated and distorting hatred of anyone whom they label a neocon.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Scott Sumner,
You make a good point. But that's only if you judge Brooks's column in isolation. Ed Crane, is saying, IMO, that if Brooks thinks so highly of people who question their own views, when has Brooks questioned his own belief in "national greatness" in which the individual is a means to a government's bigger end. Maybe Brooks has--I don't read him a lot--but I haven't seen it. Moreover, I think you overstated it. I've know Ed since 1972--I met him my second month in these United States--and I've never found him to hate people. He hates ideas that are behind the oppression of people.

Yancey Ward writes:

The problem with Brooks' column is that the intro really doesn't support his assertion about the ability of people today versus those of yesteryear to question their own positions (and is actually weirdly irrelevant). The literature of today is chock full of people describing in exquisite detail the painful moments of their lives, but this is a qualitatively different type of mental courage than examining one's priors. If Brooks had elucidated what he was referring to in regard to Summers, then maybe he would have had a better column.

Colin K writes:

The more I think about it, the more I feel like the central plot device in Brooks's column violates some junior corollary of Godwin's Law. I feel like if you're going to use such an absurdly gruesome anecdote, it needs to be especially relevant to your point, otherwise it's a sort of rhetorical fallacy that acts to stupefy the reader into a sort of stunned unquestioning acceptance of what follows. I wouldn't have published this back when I was editing my college newspaper.

Thucydides writes:

I thought Brooks's piece was terrific, and I don't generally care for his neocon beliefs. The term "metacognition deficit" is a good one; we fail to realize we are fallible creatures, and need to constantly be thinking about where our ideas might stand on shaky foundations.

We live in an age of shallow optimistic creeds, and are blind to our limitations. But nobody wants to be reminded of this, since it would undermine our cherished hopes that we can enter into a comprehensive rational management of our affairs so as to ward off tragedy and contingency from our lives. This is our replacement eschatology, and we cling desperately to it.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Yancey Ward and Colin K,
You both put your finger on what bothered me and what I had been unable to articulate. Thanks.

kurt writes:

"There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized."

And how will David Brook's 'national greatness' religion move us forward? More wars? Americans getting killed in faraway countries with corrupt governments, while David Brooks only has to suffer the disgrace of writing for such rag as The New York Times?

Miguel Madeira writes:

Chris: One of the principal tenets of conservatism is that the individual has the right and duty to manage his own life and is typically competent to do so.

Rusel Kirk - Ten Conservative Principles:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues.

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built.

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy.

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world.

Where you find "the individual has the right and duty to manage his own life and is typically competent to do so"? (perhaps in 8º point, but this seems more a defense of the small community than a defense of the individual)

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