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David Brooks's Revisionist History

I've admired David Brooks's writing for a long time, and as far as I'm concerned he's easily the most interesting and engaging columnist currently writing for the New York Times. (Paul Krugman is very good at what he does, but he's far too much of a doctrinaire liberal for me.) I've especially liked Brooks's recent columns about the early days of the Obama administration, which have combined unideological admiration for the new president's intelligence and ambition with concern about whether he can possibly accomplish everything he's setting out to do. That's pretty much where I am at the moment as well.

Brooks's column from February 24 was particularly powerful, expressing worries about presidential overreach by way of an autobiographical sketch that explains how he came to embrace "epistemological modesty." In college during the late 70s and early 80s, Brooks was a democratic socialist who thought he had nothing to learn from the conservative writings of Edmund Burke, which counseled caution and moderation. But as the years passed, Brooks came to see that Burke had a point.

The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

In other words, Brooks was mugged by the reality of life in post-60s America. And this experience inspired him (like so many others) to migrate away from liberalism and 

toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

And so Brooks became a neocon in the mold of the thinkers surrounding the Public Interest during the 1970s -- figures who disdained ideology and preached skepticism about what politics can and should try to accomplish. In a word, he simply could no longer accept liberal assumptions about "the government’s ability to execute transformational change." 

Sounds perfectly reasonable. Except for one small problem: Long after graduating college, Brooks worked at The Weekly Standard, where along with such second-generation neocons as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, he championed an ideology that had little if anything in common with the epistemological modesty of the early neocons, let alone Burke. In a 1997 manifesto for this ideology, for example, Brooks immodestly argued that Republicans should propose to lead the country on a "national mission." What would be the goal of this mission? Remarkably, Brooks didn't care.

It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation. . . . [E]nergetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project. It allows each generation to join the work of their parents. The quest for national greatness defines the word 'American' and makes it new for every generation.

There are many words to describe a passage like this, but "modest" is not one of them. The same could be said of Brooks's Times columns leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, which he viewed as precisely the kind of ennobling national mission he had called for during the previous decade. As far as Brooks was concerned, the events of September 11, 2001, had transformed George W. Bush into an agent of American national greatness, and that was good for the United States at home and abroad, good for the Iraqi people, good for the Muslim Middle East, and good for the world. Skeptical questions about how we would accomplish our goals in Iraq were beside the point.

Now, I'm not suggesting that in his recent columns Brooks has deliberately sought to misrepresent his intellectual autobiography. As someone who's done a fair amount of ideological migration over the years, I understand how challenging it can be to weave a coherent and accurate personal narrative of one's own intellectual development. Still, facts are facts -- and the undeniable fact is that as recently as five years ago Brooks was very far from being a champion of epistemological modesty in politics. If today he considers himself a Burkean or Oakeshottian conservative, it's because he was mugged by the reality of Bush administration ineptitude. 

I know the feeling.