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Brooks's policy rules

“The influence of politics and policy,” David Brooks writes, “is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.” True enough. This is why it's hard, for instance, to dramatically improve the outcomes for impoverished children in urban schools by tweaking educational policy, or to dramatically change the rates of chronic disease by making changes to our health-care policy.

But Brooks takes this insight a step further: He believes that policy shouldn't interrupt those other factors.

The first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds, If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

This all sounds fine, but aside from ruling out forced ethnic displacement, it's not clear what it means. What is "basic security?" Does it include health care? Nutritious food? How do you strengthen relationships? Brooks recommends military service, but doesn't that take people from their homes and ship them off to strange, arid lands? Or if he means to strengthen existing relationships, does that mean trying to set policy so that children don't move away to college? Or so that people born in rural areas resist the lure of the city?

And what about when basic security and existing social bonds conflict? That brings up the military draft, again, and the question of whether we should have universal basic security through government programs or patchwork security through voluntary associations based around community ties. Indeed, I could use this paragraph to argue for busing on the grounds that it encourages relationships in much the way military service does and against busing in that it breaks up tribes of people and forces them to interact.

I think Brooks's point is that the power of non-policy factors should inspire modesty among believers in government intervention. And he's right about that. But it goes in reverse, too: The complexity of these outcomes should inspire modesty about the relevance of broad philosophical insights rather than well-designed tests of specific interventions. Brooks's column doesn't favor the conservative's principled belief in less government so much as the technocrat's commitment to voluminous evidence and careful studies.

For more, see Matt Yglesias.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 4, 2010; 3:02 PM ET
 
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Comments

"Brooks recommends military service, but doesn't that take people from their homes and ship them off to strange, arid lands?"

Not necessarily. Vietnam, for example, is a strange, humid land.

Posted by: ostap666 | May 4, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Um, when did Brooks do military service?

Posted by: harold3 | May 4, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Eric seems to be a bit obtuse here - perhaps it's painful to agree with Brooks. If I apply the idea that govt providing economic and physical security could lead to a culture of achievement to inner city areas, it makes a lot of sense to me. And somehow equating the sending of native Americans to reservations with joining the military (voluntarily or otherwise) is just silly.

Posted by: ThomasEllis | May 4, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Ezra seems to be a bit obtuse here - perhaps it's painful to agree with Brooks. If I apply the idea that govt providing economic and physical security could lead to a culture of achievement to inner city areas, it makes a lot of sense to me. And somehow equating the sending of native Americans to reservations with joining the military (voluntarily or otherwise) is just silly.

Posted by: ThomasEllis | May 4, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

"I think Brooks's point is that the power of non-policy factors should inspire modesty among believers in government intervention."

You're being far too kind. Brooks' point is that Gov't money should not be spent helping "those others" because they're doomed, by innate inferiority, from becoming rich commentators like himself. But if he put it that plainly, people might object.

Never forget: the fundamental principle of conservative thought is the search for an ethical/pragmatic justification for "I've got mine, and I'm keeping it."

Posted by: retr2327 | May 4, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

If you've been reading Brooks closely you'll recognize this as a repackaged argument for David Cameron and the English Tories. Brooks has been a cheerleader for Cameron's rhetoric that neighborhood associations are the key to society, so this is an attempt to intellectualize that. Plus he gets to add in some broad sociology, which he'ss never been able to resist.

At the core it's a point that I don't think anyone (save for Ayn Rand) can dispute- strong social networks are good for society. The perplexing thing is that he used this observation to argue that gov't shouldn't do anything.

Posted by: Quant | May 4, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Or to put it in a more prosaic fashion, Brooks is an idiot.

Posted by: ostrogoth | May 4, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

"Strengthen existing relationships" sounds suspiciously to me like "make it harder for women to leave abusive relationships or for CPS to remove children who are being abused from their biological homes." In other words, existing relationships aren't always good ones. But I don't expect a status quo-loving Tory to agree with that.

Posted by: beckya57 | May 4, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Consarnit! Brooks' meaning is as clear as day! Why, we increase the good things, and put a stop to those pernicious bad things...using policies!

It's common sense!

Posted by: antontuffnell | May 4, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

And so we conclude yet another edition of "David Brooks Says Nothing in So Many Words".

Posted by: slag | May 4, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

#1. Noting that Swedes do equally well in America and Sweden doesn't demonstrate that they were not helped by policy. It may simply be a coincidence that they were helped more or less equally by policies in both Sweden and America.

#2. Even if we could prove that policy had nothing to do with Swedish outcomes, we are still left with a conclusion that really only applies to Swedes. It seems illogical to say cultural differences are important but this observation of Swedes applies to all cultures.

#3. Not everyone is doing as well as the Swedes. Brooks doesn't even attempt to address the need to help the less fortunate, or undo the mistakes of past policies.

#4. Not all social bonds are worth preserving. Jim Crow was a form of a social bond. Should the US not have instituted policies to break this social bond?

#5. As Klein notes, a "basic level of physical and economic security" is such a broad definition we could fit any piece of legislation within it.

Posted by: indar20 | May 5, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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