Commentary Magazine


David Brooks vs. Straw Men

David Brooks is critical of an op-ed by AEI’s Arthur C. Brooks and Rep. Paul Ryan. The Times‘s Brooks is upset that the two conservatives don’t appreciate that there is a tradition of “limited but energetic” government, not simply “limited government.” Brooks is perhaps confusing Paul Ryan with Rand Paul.

Neither Ryan nor Brooks is a libertarian. And their op-ed rejects extreme notions (e.g., abolishing social security). Their sole plea is this:

[F]inding the right level of government for Americans is simply impossible unless we decide which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state. Most Americans believe in assisting those temporarily down on their luck and those who cannot help themselves, as well as a public-private system of pensions for a secure retirement. But a clear majority believes that income redistribution and government care should be the exception and not the rule.

In fact, they make it clear that they are not for “no government”:

Nobody wants to privatize the Army or take away Grandma’s Social Security check. Even Friedrich Hayek in his famous book, “The Road to Serfdom,” reminded us that the state has legitimate—and critical—functions, from rectifying market failures to securing some minimum standard of living.

David Brooks has selected an odd target for his criticism. Ryan is among the most innovative reformers, one who has ideas on everything from education to health care. Is he really the example that Brooks is looking for? Brooks sounds the alarm:

If the current Republican Party regards every new bit of government action as a step on the road to serfdom, then the party will be taking this long, mainstream American tradition and exiling it from the G.O.P.

Well, he may be comforted by reading Ryan’s Roadmap. It strikes me as quite energetic.

Two additional points. Brooks claims that conservatism is supposed to be “nonideological and context driven.” Most modern conservatives believe it certainly is an ideology (although distinct from partisan loyalty). As for context, it is David, not Arthur, Brooks who seems to have lost track of where we are. We have experienced a gigantic spend-a-thon and a spasm of liberal statism. Ryan and Arthur Brooks are calling for a course correction. It seems an exceptionally timely adjustment.