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The Radical in David Brooks

On Monday, David Brooks wrote about his friends Bentham and Hume. Bentham was sort of a Peter Orszag on steroids: Give him a policy problem and he'd return with a solution tailored to the realities of the political moment and the difficulties of the issue. He's got ideas for "a superempowered Medicare commission to rewrite regulations and hold down costs," and a plan to "require utilities to contribute $1 billion a year to a Carbon Storage Research Consortium."

Hume, on the other hand, is a more of a big-picture guy. Ask him about climate change and he'll say that it's too difficult to micromanage and we need "a simple cap-and-trade system — with no special-interest favorites — and let entrepreneurs figure out how to bring down emissions." Ask him about health-care reform and he'll say something that makes no sense, but that I think was supposed to gesture at Wyden-Bennett.

The point of the parable is clear enough: Hume favors modest, simple proposals that respect the complexity of the modern world and simply organize the free market to discover solutions on its own time. Bentham is an ambitious, meddlesome liberal who thinks he can micromanage progress.

But that's not actually the point of the parable, because Brooks left out a crucial paragraph. Somewhere along the way, Hume appears to have abolished not only the United States Senate, with its supermajority requirement, but also the House of Representatives, with its relentless advantaging of parochial concerns. That was a smart move by Hume, but it's not exactly modest. It is, however, why Hume is able to propose a bunch of first-best plans that brook no compromise and would attract few votes, while Bentham is stuck in the land of second-best policies that take into account the concerns of individual districts and the inanities of the modern legislative process.

Brooks would like you to believe that this column represents a philosophical dispute between the two parties, or at least two types of people. But it doesn't. Bentham's policies do not closely reflect his principles. They reflect his necessary compromises. Hume's policies, conversely, exist in a world run by dictators, rather than legislators. There is a radical lurking in Brooks's column, but it is not the one he says it is.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 7, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Comments

Ezra, that conclusion was stupid. You have superimposed your own fixation with the traditions of the senate onto what is a smart column by David Brooks. He isn't saying to do this by dictatorship. He is saying that that is the political discussion that should be occuring within the current legislative system. You have gone way too far in your analysis of Brooks on this one.

Posted by: lancediverson | October 7, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I thought you'd like Hume's health care plan--since it was basically Wyden-Bennett. Other than that I agree it was a false dichotomy and the strained Bentham/Hume metaphor confused the heck out of me.

Posted by: bmull | October 7, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, if you read to the end of the column, Brooks admits that Hume's policies would never pass in Congress. It's a hypothetical of what he thinks should happen.

Posted by: jfcarro | October 7, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice if Brooks acknowledged this at the end of his column. But that final disclaimer is disingenuous. It says that Bentham's way is loved by lobbyists. But that's not the sole problem here: the problem is that it's also preferred by coal miners who don't want to lose their jobs, and centrist senators who don't want to make big changes, and on, and on.

Brooks says, explicitly, that this is a debate about how best to incentivize innovation. That's incorrect. There is no one arguing the other side of his debate. There is no bentham who simply wants complicated policies. Brooks is simply caricaturing his position, and in doing, obscuring this debate.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | October 7, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Brooks also neglects to note that "Bentham's" proposed reform is composed almost entirely of Republican ideas past. http://tinyurl.com/ye9bufx

Posted by: sprung4 | October 7, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Brooks also has a terrible read of David Hume. If you contrast David Hume to most state of nature theorists of the early modern period. For Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau the fundamental political question is how to limit the egotistic, atomistic individual. However, for David Hume this completely misses the central political question. We are not fundamentally atomistic individuals, but fundamentally partial. We are born not into a state of nature, but rather into a series of partial sympathies. The problem is not one of limitation, but rather of “inequality of affection.” The political question becomes how do we create institutions that extend our partial sympathies. Hume's political project is entirely liberal/progressive, devoted to the creation of institutions.

Posted by: thescuspeaks | October 7, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Brooks is too stupid to see the radical within himself (or Hume). While he would be perfectly happy to be oblivious with a dictatorial conservative Republican administration, he'd howl at the moon of even a relatively conservative Democratic administration walked down the path of his inner radicalism.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | October 7, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Good Lord, more and more people are calling the bluff of Brooks.

He comes on nerves. I want to accuse him that he is intellectually lazy (and reluctant to be honest in acknowledging his mistakes - ref. Greenwald criticism about his Iraq war position). He goes into Philosophy because he can avoid doing the serious homework needed to criticize correctly any particular policy.

I am sick and tired of these columnists who want to obliquely criticize and want to take such an arm chair approach that there is hardly anything substantive and useful for American People. If he has a problem with Orszag, man come straight put your points and let Orszag reply. Why this non-sense?

He has got concoction of Psychology, Philosophy and Policy all mixed up in his head and more than half of the time he is unable to be specific, focused and useful where he separates wheat from chaff. If he wants to do some serious Philosophy, NYT Columns is not the place. Go write your treaty of Wittgenstein in Mind Journal. Richard Rorty from Palo Alto did some fantastic Philosophy and none of that was in newspapers. He wrote polemical books with solid defense which people are still studying for decades. John Rawls is another name he can make honest efforts to follow.

May be Brooks want to play safe and does not have guts to state his positions in clear terms and take honors or shoes accordingly.

This is the exact type of 'punditry' which is least useful for America or American political discourse.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 7, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Bentham and Hume are both historical characters, well known in the history of philosophy - though Hume, who died in 1776, was the earlier, being around more than half a century before Bentham. Brooks seems to be thinking of two great slogans, Bentham's 'greatest good of the greatest number' and Hume's doubts over whether 'the future will resemble the past'.
I would be pleased to think that political representatives and lobbyists were genuinely Benthamite, really looking for the greatest good all round. What Brooks seems to be doing is attempting to discredit the idea of seeking the greatest good by linking it to one of its opposites, the lobbyists' search for the greater good of whatever minority pays them. A mere sleight of hand.
Hume, in Brooks' view, seems to be someone who is painfully aware of how difficult it is to predict results, since the future may not resemble the past. So he just 'organises the free market to discover solutions on its own time'. (This 'organising of what is free' would be something of a paradox, though I'm not sure that Brooks himself adopts it.) In fact putting one's trust in the free market is just as much an expectation that the future will resemble the past as is any other plan. So if Brooks is looking for a justification of his preferred policies in terms of philosophical theories of knowledge he is looking for something that's not there. And being rather pretentious into the bargain.
The real Hume in his Essays (1742) thought that the concentration of wealth into very few hands was socially dangerous and that the principle of 'no new taxes' was a threat to liberty.

Posted by: MHughes976 | October 7, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Brooks: what a twit.

Posted by: blah1 | October 7, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

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