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.
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