The New York Times keeps columnist David Brooks on hand to provide readers with occasional insights into the “conservative mind.” For the paper’s readers, conservatives are apparently a far-away people of whom they know comparatively little.
“When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984,” Brooks wrote recently, “the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.”
On the one side were the “economic conservatives.” These were the children of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and F.A. Hayek, the ones who “worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.”
Yet for Brooks, that was only half the story. Next to the economic folks were the “traditional conservatives,” the heirs of “Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching.” These were the guys for whom society was more than a “battleground between government and the private sector”; it was a place where the different “layers” of society were “nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”
In the “conservative mind” imagined by David Brooks, the modern-day Right has ventured too far into economics and forgotten its traditional roots. Rather than see government as a working partner in the larger mission of a free and healthy society, conservatives now see it through a lens of distrust. Sure, in the old days, “the two conservative tendencies lived in tension. But together they embodied a truth,” Brooks claims, “that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.”
But you might want to hold off a moment before deciding to get “nestled up” with your nearest public official.
The great problem with Brooks’ understanding of conservatism is that, when called to elaborate on what the movement is missing, he goes on to cite Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles.”
Not the Constitution. Not the Federalist Papers. Not the Declaration of Independence. Not Jefferson’s First Inaugural, nor Lincoln’s Second. Not Frederick Douglass’ “Self-Made Men,” and not Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the Declaration’s 150th anniversary.
No. Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”.
This is not meant to marginalize Kirk entirely. His list makes many good and useful points: for instance, the belief in an “enduring moral order,” the guidance of prudence, and the close link between freedom and the ability to possess private property.
But the distinction that he does not make, and the distinction Brooks fails to make as well, is the difference between an American conservative and conservatives generally.
The world has seen its fair share of cultures and traditions. Great civilizations rise and fall, reminding us of the old Persian reprimand against the prideful: “This too shall pass.” One can be sure that each had their fair share of conservatives — all trying to hold on to the old ways in life, trying to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Americans, however, were something new. Sure, we had our peculiar work ethic, our sense of family and community, and our faiths (protected by the Constitution); but above all, we became ourselves in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
With that, Americans were no longer conserving a mere way of life, but the eternal and self-evident truth that is the rights of Man. We were accountable to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” not to self-appointed kings and nobles.
So yes, Brooks is right about the narrow vision of many “conservative” politicians — the rhetoric is often too economic, while the policies too rarely live up to expectations.
But for him to turn around and recommend an increase in taxes, “mobility programs” that lift up a people who supposedly cannot help themselves without government, and an active, government intervention into our very own neighborhoods?
It’s all been tried, and has all failed spectacularly. And there’s nothing worth conserving in that.