31 May 2012

The national interest and the common good: Dionne and Brooks debate American history

Republican columnist David Brooks and Democratic columnist E. J. Dionne get together to chat one a week on National Public Radio. This week they've expanded their conversation into the pages of their respective columns, both of which are inspired by Dionne's new book, Our Divided Political Heart. In an argument Brooks generously calls "engrossing," Dionne describes a degeneration of the American conservative tradition from communitarianism to dogmatic individualism. Dionne condenses his thesis for a Washington Post column, noting a Whig-Republican tradition of government action for the "common good" that seems to have been repudiated by the Tea Party era GOP.  That tradition encompasses everything from protective tariffs to veterans' pensions, but seems incompatible with a modern ideology that presumes a fundamental antagonism between government and liberty. Writing in the New York Times, Brooks agrees with Dionne that anti-government ideology has grown excessive, but argues that the phenomenon is a reaction to excesses on the part of government. While conceding that the modern attitude is to some extent an overreaction, he criticizes a century of liberal-progressive "overreach" that provoked the overreaction. In doing so, Brooks attempts to clarify Dionne's picture of the country's "communitarian" past. To the extent that Alexander Hamilton was a forefather of American conservatism -- conservatives and liberals alike often claim the legacies of both Hamilton and his great antagonists, Jefferson and Madison -- Brooks echoes Dionne by emphasizing Hamilton's "economic nationalism." As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton sought to enrich the nation, not just certain individuals (as Jefferson's faction charged), but Brooks contends that Hamilton's idea of the "common good" differed from the ideal of 21st century liberals.

[Hamilton's] primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal. This version of economic nationalism meant that he and the people who followed in his path — the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives — focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now. They had their sights on the horizon, building the infrastructure, education and research facilities required for future greatness. This nationalism also led generations of leaders to assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor. People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots. Finally, this nationalism meant that policy emphasized dynamism, and opportunity more than security, equality and comfort.

Some of the distinctions Brooks makes are probably anachronistic. Hamilton most likely never had to make a choice for or against "jobs right now," for instance. But the distinction tells us a lot about Brooks's own position.  "Jobs right now" apparently belongs alongside "security, equality and comfort" in a category of misjudged priorities. They all seem to strike Brooks as short-term thinking, if not as pandering. In his account, old-fashioned American economic nationalism wasn't the same sort of communitarianism Dionne apparently advocates. It was not about taking care of every single person's security or comfort, much less their equality. Brooks can imagine the national interest being compromised by too much attention to the short-term needs of individual workers. That's his main objection to the New Deal legacy. FDR was right to "energetically respond" to the Great Depression, Brooks writes, but "the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive."

What can Brooks mean by this provocative, almost sinister-sounding statement? Is he opposed to people eating every day? Perhaps not, but he appears to think that national economic policy -- and as a moderate conservative he does believe in such a thing -- should have a higher, more long-term priority than making sure people eat every day.  The problem with that thought is the implicit assumption of a contradiction between people eating every day -- in economic terms we might translate this as "full employment" -- and long-term economic development. Why should these goals contradict each other? Brooks envisions contradiction because he advocates a capitalism whose most important characteristic, as he explained in his recent defense of Bain Capital, is "creative destruction." Creative destruction will always meet resistance from those whose immediate interests are threatened by it, but Brooks can't imagine an economy evolving any other way. As a result, he can sincerely affirm a national interest and defend what he hopes will be short-term adversity for the casualties of creative destruction on the communitarian ground that the nation's interest outweighs the interests of those individuals whose jobs have been destroyed in the name of progress.

All of this proves that, as ever, and despite what Dionne might argue, liberals remain the ultimate individualists. How did I reach that conclusion? In this way: while liberals are supposedly collectivists compared to conservatives, their collectivism is grounded in a belief that everybody counts. Capitalists are more collectivist by that standard because they can stand the individual suffering caused by capitalist creative destruction and justify it by appealing to some higher good. Individualism isn't the problem with today's Republicans, but the worst of them aren't capitalist collectivists in the manner of David Brooks, either. The problem with 21st century Republicanism is egoism. A moderate Republican like Brooks can rationalize individual misery through his faith that the collective will benefit in the long run. Too many other Republicans don't seem to care whether anyone suffers from economic upheaval, or whether the national interest justifies adversity or austerity, because their notion of individual liberty means that only they count -- for each one, only he counts. When you call that egoism rather than individualism, it loses a lot of its moral glamor. That's my rhetorical hint for the day; please make the most of it.


Anonymous said...

"creative destruction" This term represents a good deal of what is wrong with proponents of capitalism. Look up the definitions of both of those words in the dictionary and you will find they are mutually exclusive. One can create or one can destroy, but one cannot "creatively destroy". The notion of creative destruction is nothing more than another lie, a "misdirection" if you will, to keep the average person clueless as to the truth and true motives behind capitalism, which is to give wealth and power to a privileged few while the rest of us become economic peasants.

Samuel Wilson said...

I suppose you could draw an analogy with replacing a tenement with a skyscraper, or think of "creative destruction" as a regime of perpetual revolution rather than the cumulative revolutions of Marxism. The presumption is, of course, fundamentally opposed to any "conservative" mindset, since creative destruction presumes that whatever's in the way of progress must be destroyed, while the conservative should be the one who asks why or says no. Some do oppose the idea when its expressed in the form of "eminent domain," but that opposition exposes a double standard. Most proponents seem to believe that some people or groups have a right to destroy while other people or groups (e.g. the state) don't. Of course, they wouldn't characterize it as a "right" to destroy, since they presume a competitive order in which the destroyer can be defeated, but you could just as easily describe "competitive order" (a synonym for the libertarians' "spontaneous order") as another self-serving, misdirecting oxymoron.