Man, the state, and the error of David Brooks

posted at 7:16 pm on May 21, 2012 by J.E. Dyer

In an opinion piece on Thursday, David Brooks, “conservative” columnist for the New York Times, opened with sentences of such remarkable wrongness that it is imperative to call them out.

Brooks’s thesis is that the selfish nature of man, in spite of “checks” placed on democratic government, has created the monstrous public debt in the West.  The wrongness starts with this opening volley:

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

Unfortunately, the very first words require correction.  We don’t have democracy in either Europe or the United States.  The reasons for that are different in each place, and they matter to the discussion that follows in the Brooks piece.

Democracy and the West

The ancient Greeks endowed us with the word “democracy,” which they pioneered more than 2400 years ago, before the main influences on the modern West had had their day: the Roman Republic and Empire, the rise of Christianity, the ascendancy of Old Testament Law as our common idea of law and the right; the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the rise of the nation-state.

In the period between the Golden Age of Athens and the founding of the United States, the West’s ideas had been refined considerably.  “Democracy” was about participation in government.  Philosophers might debate the proper scope, purpose, methodology, and outcome of government (see Plato and Aristotle), but the ancient Greeks did not have a comprehensive ideology (like socialism) to define and insist on those elements.

Their practical contribution to the Western idea of man and the state was a concept of responsible participation in one’s government.  They were unusually willing (to their peril) to let government’s effects be whatever the participants came up with.  Regarding the nature of man and why he needs government, their legacy to us is theory and debate.  It has been the work of succeeding centuries to institutionalize “answers” on that head.

To call what the Western peoples have today “democracy” is to fatally elide 24 centuries of transformation in our ideas.  Granted, this is done all the time in public dialogue, where “democracy” is used as a shorthand for various other concepts.  But if we’re going to discuss how our perceptions of human nature relate to our arrangements for government, as Brooks does, it is essential to use the right terminology.

The American philosophy of government

Brooks gets it exactly wrong as regards the Framers of the US Constitution.  They didn’t see democracy as desirable, if requiring a check on people’s tendency to vote benefits for themselves.  Using the example of ancient Athens, they argued that democracy was itself the problem: it was a unique accelerator for this evil tendency, and was unsustainable precisely for that reason.

Their priority in any case was liberty; it was not endowing as many of the people as possible with the maximum possible influence over their government.  That’s why the Framers gave us – in the famous words of Benjamin Franklin – a republic: a government that was participatory, but representative and constitutional.

The power they intended to check was the power of government.  The American philosophy of government combines constitutional limitations with separation of powers; checks and balances among the elements of government, including the people as well as the three branches; and the division of government into levels of authority – federal, state, and local.

The kind of republican government the Framers gave us is properly described as limited, constitutional, and federal.  If you remember these three foundational words, you have memorized everything important about the American theory of government.

“Limited” government derives, first and foremost, from the Framers’ idea that our individual rights are endowed by the Creator, that government’s purpose is to respect and secure them, and that government’s scope must not be enlarged to interfere with them.  But the Framers also explicitly saw limited government as government that would not become, in today’s metaphor, a 24-hour ATM for those who like to vote themselves benefits.

The Framers’ precaution against benefits-voting was a limited federal government – government that had no charter to perform the highly corruptible function.  Remember that.  The Framers’ precaution against benefits-voting was limited government.  This concept is the opposite of Brooks’s thesis, so repeat as necessary.

That is why constitutional government is so important.  What the government is not chartered to do, it may not do.  It has to stick to the Constitution.  The Constitution can be amended by the people, but it is intended to be a bulwark against the dangerous enlargement of government’s scope by benefits-voters and other invidious interests.  Our Constitution was written to make it harder to achieve what the Framers called “transient majorities,” which ram things through – like entitlements, ObamaCare, and the EPA – that the nation will come to regret.  The separation of powers and checks and balances are intended to discourage incessant lawmaking, government-enlarging, and benefits-voting.

Federalism is the third and coequal characteristic of American government.  The Framers’ concept was that lawmaking intended to cultivate morality in the people and produce specified social outcomes belonged at the lowest possible level of government.  If the people are going to vote money out of their fellow citizens’ pockets, for things other than national defense and a few federal salaries, they should do face to face with both the beneficiaries and the taxed.  The Framers recognized that government typically ends up doing more than the US federal government is empowered to do by the Constitution; their concept was that state and local governments, with their inherently limited scope, would be the ones doing such things.

Ultimately, the American idea of both man and the state is directly antithetical to Brooks’s formulation.  The Framers’ philosophy was that men and women of character and education would do well with a limited government, which would minimize the temptations of big government for the evil aspects of our nature.  The Framers didn’t despair at all of men’s ability to be responsible and accountable in their lives – they attributed the capacity to having, in the words of John Adams, a “religious and moral” character.  They didn’t frame government to repress a tide of selfish irresponsibility in the people; they framed it to refrain from creating one.

The Framers knew it was a risk to make government as if men could prosper with very little of it – but they regarded it as a lesson of history that more government did not make men or their society better, but typically made them worse.  Contra Brooks, government was seen not as the warden of an incontinent species, but as the servant of a responsible, self-motivating, and self-restraining one.

The European difference

Over in Europe, meanwhile, the Western idea developed along a separate and distinct path.  The very English ideas of restraining government, respecting rights in the people, and dissociating government from apocalypticism were not the main shapers of the continent.  As the Enlightenment began to arm itself and burrow into the culture, divine-right monarchy collided with the rise of comprehensive secular ideologies, from the eerily modern Napoleonic Code to Marxism, communism, Soviet socialism, Fascism, National Socialism (or Nazism), and today’s “democratic socialism.”

Treading a centrist path meant putting new names on old practices.  Where once a king had provided for his people in the name of Jesus Christ, now the modern welfare state provided for the people in the name of enlightened national interest, “fairness,” or “economic justice.”  The governments operating on this premise have run the gamut from Bismarck’s Germany to the Scandinavian monarchies, the French Fifth Republic, and the disaster of present-day socialist Greece.  Europe has fielded parties named “Christian Socialist” as well as “Communist”; the modern continent has governed itself with a mishmash of legacy paternalism and bureaucratic radicalism, an approach that until the past three years was alien to the political consciousness of the United States.

The adjective “democratic” was added to signify that the people were to vote – a refinement adopted partly on the understanding that voting was a way to decide how much would come to a citizen from the state.  It is laughably wrong to suggest, as Brooks does, that modern European governments were set up to restrain the people from voting themselves benefits.  Voting benefits for the people has been the governmental zeitgeist of Europe for the last 150 years.

Classical liberals believing in smaller government and more liberty for the people were always a minority in continental European politics.  There is much to admire and be grateful for in the legacy of Europe, such as the idea of the independent yeoman – a free and responsible actor who has not existed in any other culture – and the idea of government that does not oppress the people, but has an obligation to prioritize their welfare.  The concepts of social mobility, and “capital” that anyone can amass and wield, arose there.  Europe gave the world the enduring model of “middle class man”: man who was neither a serf-lord nor a serf: man who could make of himself what he would, rather than being condemned for life to a single social stratum.

But Europe did not start its modern political run from the same place as the United States.  The essential difference between the continents boils down to the importance to each of dictated outcomes.  The modern, post-Napoleonic European approach to government was social-outcomes-oriented from the beginning and has become steadily more so.  The American mindset is skeptical of government’s efficacy for producing desired social outcomes.  In the distinctively American mindset, the danger of giving government more power to shape and trim the people far outweighs the potential benefit.

It is essential to understand these things.  In America, we still have not bought into the premise of the European welfare-state concept – and the political force of our trademark libertarianism remains powerful.  In his thesis, Brooks posits an ahistorical amalgam of diverse and even opposing political ideas, implying that the US and Europe have been sort of intending and doing the same thing all along – when in fact, that has not been the case.  The reasons matter, and they influence how we vote today.  There is a significant portion of the US voting population that rejects the idea of man and the state on which the welfare state is predicated, and in doing so, traces its roots to America’s unique founding idea.

The American idea and today

Man can govern himself.  He has to do it it carefully and sparingly.  It is outside of the ministrations of government that he develops character and self-discipline.  The less he is governed from without, the better he does in terms of work, saving, providing for himself and his family, using ingenuity, showing compassion to those in distress, and uniting with his fellows in the community to make it better.

Will everyone do exactly this, and in exactly the way each and every one of us would like, if the burden of government is light?  Of course not.  But the great majority of people will perform admirably, and will be free to help those who don’t.  The Framers believed that, and so do I.  And if America’s history demonstrates anything, it is that we are right.

The Framers’ pessimism about human nature was different from that posited by David Brooks.  It affirmed that containing the scope of men’s selfishness is best accomplished with less government, not more.  It did not fear to limit the charter of government on that principle.

The Framers’ solution is the correct one:  have less government.  Walk back from it step by step, if necessary.  Protect the vulnerable who would be hurt if it were done carelessly (e.g., seniors relying on the entitlement programs).  But get it done.  This, right here, is the argument we need to be having.  The answer is right before the noses of the American people.  But we do need “conservatives” who know how to frame the question.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


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Comments

Wrong again, schmuck.

Moose Drool on May 21, 2012 at 7:19 PM

The Framers’ concept was that lawmaking intended to cultivate morality in the people and produce specified social outcomes belonged at the lowest possible level of government.

J.E. Dyer

.
At the very least.

Better yet, NOT AT ALL.

listens2glenn on May 21, 2012 at 7:26 PM

Brooks… if the NY Slimes likes him, he must be an idiot…

Sorry, I don’t want to have a beer with you either… Lightweight…

Khun Joe on May 21, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Outstanding. Watch these videos as well.

BigGator5 on May 21, 2012 at 7:29 PM

Man, the state, and the error of David Brooks

The NYT says he is a conservative, when even he admits in his own wiki he is a moderate.

upinak on May 21, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Man, the state, and the error of David Brooks

……..Fluke David Brooks!
…must be the air he breathes!

KOOLAID2 on May 21, 2012 at 7:31 PM

David Brooks, “conservative” columnist

Hahahahahahaha!!!!! Gasp! Wheeze! Yer killin’ me!

GarandFan on May 21, 2012 at 7:39 PM

Can we get a real conservative at the NYTimes?

SouthernGent on May 21, 2012 at 7:39 PM

Good stuff J.E.

I would recommend the Hillsdale College “Consitution 101” online course to everyone – video lectures (only slightly sleep inducing), selected source readings, and a few quizzes. Learned a lot.

peski on May 21, 2012 at 7:43 PM

“The Framers’ solution is the correct one: have less government.”

Uhm, I seem to recall a famous saying from one of the Framers was,

“Government that governs by Healthcare Mandates and Environmental Decrees governs best.”

But, I could have gotten it wrong I suppose.

Varchild on May 21, 2012 at 7:44 PM

David Brooks didn’t get any of this wrong because he was ignorant. He got it wrong on purpose, because he is a Marxist and he is attempting to shape public perception and thinking on the concept of the legitimacy of America’s traditional Constitutional Republic.

Like America’s traditional Constitutional Republic, the Marxist dream of a Utopian government is also a form of Republic. Where the Marxist Utopia fundamentally diverges from America’s Constitutional Republic is the nature of the Marxist Constitutional Republic.

Under the Marxist Constitutional Republic, it is the citizen’s who are constrained by the constitution rather than the Government. In a Marxist Constitutional Republic, all of the citizens right’s and privileges are grant’s of privilege from the Government, subject to being revoked at any time according to the will and whim of the party oligarchy.

What David Brooks is attempting to do in his article is plant that idea in the heads of his readers, that the founding fathers of the United States had actually intended for America’s Constitution to be a Marxist/Socialist Constitution limiting not the government, but the right’s and privileges of the Citizens.

This is what indoctrination looks like, David Brooks is attempting to as he alluded to in his article, evolve the American Constitutional Republic into a Marxist/Socialist Constitutional Republic.

SWalker on May 21, 2012 at 7:48 PM

Elide? Invidious?
Wow J.E., you uze them big werds wayyyyy bettor than Bruks.

Uh, huh. And, you’ll need to dumb this excellent article down if you want our Congresscritters to comprehend.

bettycooper on May 21, 2012 at 7:48 PM

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” -Benjamin Franklin


Mr. Dwyer, you’ve got the theory spot on. This is not supposed to be a democracy, and we better get back to our roots fast, or we are going to be the lamb.

Democracy was considered to be a dangerous thing. Too much of it, uncontrolled, could be like too much oxygen, or nitroglycerin. But no democracy was tyranny. So you had to craft a pragmatic system that had serious checks on both tyranny and democracy.

Problem is that most of the checks on democracy, such as property qualifications for voting to hinder efforts to redistribute property, have been tossed out.

And don’t think that the constitution will matter, when soon in the future a new majority emerges consistent with the new demographics, that will socialize this country, and redistribute the assets to them.

And once they get control, they will clamp down on free speech and freedom and democracy wherever those things no longer suit their needs. So show some courage now. Stand up, or we’re done.

anotherJoe on May 21, 2012 at 7:49 PM

Bravo J.E. Dyer! I’m sending this eloquent and elegantly framed article to everyone I know. Well said and well done. Thank you.

thatsafactjack on May 21, 2012 at 7:50 PM

“Brooks’s thesis is that the selfish nature of man, in spite of “checks” placed on democratic government, has created the monstrous public debt in the West…”

Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, no…

… Selfish nature of politicians, yes.

You can actually trace some of it back to specific events, and even more importantly, name names…

“At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties.”

Seven Percent Solution on May 21, 2012 at 7:57 PM

Democracy is mob rule.

A Republic is a rule of laws.

We live in the latter.

Which is why we remain relatively free.

A First Amendment and Second to back it up are the groundwork of Liberty.

profitsbeard on May 21, 2012 at 7:59 PM

A brilliant few paragraphs Ms. Deyer….not in the sense of anything new, but in summarizing what has made us different and great and is in all too much danger of disappearing from the national dialogue.
Thank you!

camaraderie on May 21, 2012 at 8:03 PM

J.E. Dyer, I think you’re one of the best bloggers here, but cataloging the inanities in a David Brooks column is the swiftest route to TLDR territory.

Lawdawg86 on May 21, 2012 at 8:04 PM

I was interrupted from reading all of this post in the middle of my first comment.

I’ve since finished reading it.

Mr Dyer, very well stated. : )

listens2glenn on May 21, 2012 at 8:09 PM

J.E. Dyer’s little write-up is very nice and crushes Brooks’ simpleton statement. Brooks is a conservative like Pelosi is to logic.
For a broader examination of what Dyer is saying get a copy of Ameritopia by Levin. Bits and pieces from Socrates forward and a nice refresher to explain how we got this far. I must investigate this Heritage Foundation course. Bet it will be time well spent.

Missilengr on May 21, 2012 at 8:11 PM

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” -Benjamin Franklin

Barely a day goes by when I am not awed by the prescient awareness of those men. You will never be able to convince me that there wasn’t a bit of a divine hand pushing things then.

98ZJUSMC on May 21, 2012 at 8:17 PM

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

Taken by itself, the last sentence is accurate. But, yeah….put that whole thing together and let the facepalming begin.

98ZJUSMC on May 21, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Mr Ms Dyer, very well stated. : )

listens2glenn on May 21, 2012 at 8:09 PM

.
FIFM.

How embarrassing (blush).

listens2glenn on May 21, 2012 at 8:21 PM

Walk back from it step by step, if necessary.

I doubt that the political will exists to do that. I pray that I am wrong.

98ZJUSMC on May 21, 2012 at 8:23 PM

Great read well done.

I mean of course you left out Religion. But now days no one is allowed to talk about the fact that Thomas Jefferson sent missionaries to teach the gospel to the Indians and paid all their expenses and salaries from the US Treasury. Or that the founders were all Christian or Jews and GOD was necessary for law to work. For a foundation of law.

Unfortunately in 1947 Hugo Black took GOD out of Government with his horrible miss reading of Thomas Jeffersons letter to a Baptist Minister assuring him that the Government could never tell him what to do or preach in his church. Twisting this 180 degrees and saying that Baptist Minister had no right to talk to the Government and influence it. This is why we are no longer Exceptional.

Steveangell on May 21, 2012 at 8:30 PM

Beautiful, JE.

mockmook on May 21, 2012 at 8:34 PM

Mmm-mm, I love the smell of a good fisking!! Terrific job, JE, thoroughly excellent.

DeepWheat on May 21, 2012 at 8:51 PM

Not another ‘a Repblic is not a Democracy’ article. This red herring fixation overshadows the important message of limited government. The US is a constitutional indirect/representative democracy without a monarch. Sigh…

NORUK on May 21, 2012 at 9:11 PM

J.E. Dyer, that was absolutely sublime.

Kevin R on May 21, 2012 at 9:39 PM

Well, this certainly makes up for the other articles on HotAir tonight.

Refreshing read.

Cleombrotus on May 21, 2012 at 10:40 PM

Excellent post! A “what she said” moment. Sometimes you just can improve on another person’s statement.

archer52 on May 22, 2012 at 4:37 AM

Not another ‘a Repblic is not a Democracy’ article. This red herring fixation overshadows the important message of limited government. The US is a constitutional indirect/representative democracy without a monarch. Sigh…

NORUK on May 21, 2012 at 9:11 PM

Pompous much? The article is well written and timely for the current political atmosphere in America.
I find your comment to be ostentatious and as such pointless beyond self gratification.

Skwor on May 22, 2012 at 8:28 AM

The article isn’t well written if it puts up a straw-man image of other democracies, half pretending that only the US has a constitutional indirect democracy with a balance of powers between the branches. It simply ain’t true.

Skwor, yes you make some powerful arguments…

NORUK on May 22, 2012 at 8:50 AM

His ignorance is exceeded only by his arrogance.

Ward Cleaver on May 22, 2012 at 9:50 AM

The US is a constitutional indirect/representative democracy without a monarch. Sigh…

NORUK on May 21, 2012 at 9:11 PM

No it’s not. Words have meanings, learn to use them. As Ben Franklin replied when asked what type of government the 1787 Constitutional Convention had constructed… “A Republic, if you can keep it.

dominigan on May 22, 2012 at 10:28 AM

Great article, Mr. Dyer! Too bad most of those posting here don’t read it all. The key is on a quote

“Man can govern himself. He has to do it it carefully and sparingly. It is outside of the ministrations of government that he develops character and self-discipline. The less he is governed from without, the better he does in terms of work, saving, providing for himself and his family, using ingenuity, showing compassion to those in distress, and uniting with his fellows in the community to make it better.

And yes, I agree that we need to move back from our current’central government’ system, step by step, to try to avoid unintendened harm. We don’t need anarchy or total rebuilding from the ashes to do this.

dahni on May 22, 2012 at 11:44 AM

39 comments, zero creases?

Really?

pain train on May 22, 2012 at 12:39 PM

Exactly words have meanings, the american republic is a type of democracy one cannot say I rather want a republic than a democracy. Instead of ad hominem attacks, how about providing some…evidence?

NORUK on May 22, 2012 at 4:25 PM

Boy, Dyer, you sure can write a lot of clap trap about a concept that you apparently did not grasp for Brooks article. While I do not endorse Brooks, I thought he did a respectable job there. So what if you want to nit pick the difference between democracy and republic or the other obtrusive names you came up with, I suppose to try to show how witty you are. But I think a lot of us saw through that.
What I read as the point of Brooks article was that one of the basic instincts of humans is selfishness in the form of greed. Get all you can while doing the least for it you have to. And that certainly proves itself by the welfare rolls. And in a democracy/republic that has strayed far, far from the original Constitution this concept has certainly been born out. And none of you clap tray can refute Brook’s actual point.

boogieboy on May 22, 2012 at 5:24 PM