Brooks on Santorum

Brooks’ op-ed from Friday is so thoroughly an illustration of the quasi-sympathy that my quasi-liberal friends have with the kind of quasi-conservatism that I believe in that it…well, it got to me.

Brooks is commenting on Sanorum’s communitarianism, and thinks he gets something about its implications that Santorum himself doesn’t quite understand.  “He is,” writes Brooks, “far closer to developing a new 21st-century philosophy of government than most leaders out there…[He] understands that a nation isn’t just an agglomeration of individuals; it’s a fabric of social relationships…He presents an extended argument against radical individualism.”  Brooks quotes approvingly from Santorum: “Just as original sin is man’s inclination to try to walk alone without God, individualism is man’s inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows.”

Brooks has done his homework: “His political philosophy,” he writes, “is built around the Catholic concept of subsidiarity– [the idea] that everything should be done at the lowest [i.e. localest] level possible. That produces a limited role for Washington, but still an important one.” This comforts Brooks, rightly: there’s a non-ideological localism in subsidiarity, a localism that doesn’t utterly reject the national government (or the nation-state), that is less rigid than the localism of the anarcho-libertarian right.

Brooks notes that Santorum “seems to understand that simply cutting is not enough to build a healthy society…Santorum understands that we need to fuse economics talk and values talk.”  But Santorum, claims Brooks, doesn’t really understand the implications of his own thinking: “he hasn’t appreciated that the biggest challenge to stable families, healthy communities, and the other seedbeds of virtue is not coastal elites.  It’s technological change; it’s globalization; it’s personal mobility and expanded opportunity; it’s an information-age economy built on self-transformation and perpetual rebranding instead of fixed inner character.”  Santorum, claims Brooks, doesn’t realize that he should be more radical than he is; he “doesn’t yet see that once you start thinking about how to foster an economic system that would nurture our virtues, you wind up with an agenda far more drastic and transformational.”  Brooks seems to call for public works programs as a means of job-creation: “If you believe in the dignity of labor, it makes sense to support an infrastructure program that allows more people to practice the habits of industry… If you want capitalists thinking of the long term… you have to encourage companies to be more deeply rooted in local communities rather than just free-floating instruments of capital markets.”  Most astonishingly, he writes that “If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable. ”  Glory hallelujah, somebody buy Allan Carlson a drink, because David Brooks raised in the pages of the New York Times the concept of the family wage for men.

Whether or not Brooks is right that Santorum doesn’t understand the implications of his ideas, the tragedy at the heart of this editorial is the fact  that Brooks doesn’t understand the implications of his own.  Because before launching on his moderately pro-Santorum, really quite consistent communitarian commentary, Brooks notes that he is “to Rick Santorum’s left on most social issues.”  Like, he explains, abortion.  And there, in the first sentence, he surrenders his right to criticize Santorum for inconsistency.  How can Brooks– how can all my quasi-liberal friends– be so clear-sighted about the insanity of sacrificing communities on the altar of economic liberty, and so blind to the corollary truth about abortion?  If it’s appropriate for government to step in to curtail what right-libertartians would call freedom of contract, when that freedom of contract would operate against the integrity of society, how much clearer is it that it’s appropriate for government to prevent what left-libertarians call freedom of choice, when that freedom operates against the integrity of the very bodies of children?  I read Brooks, and I agree, and I agree, and I disagree a bit but I see what he’s saying, and I agree, and then– it’s like hitting a wall.  I remember believing the way he believes about abortion.  But I don’t remember how.   

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One response to “Brooks on Santorum

  1. What makes Brooks so inauthentic, along with Santorum and most self-proclaimed conservatives, is that even when they claim to subscribe to some notion of subsidiarity it is simply too thin to warrant serious consideration. Any reasonable discussion of subsidiarity, from a Catholic or even a nominally Christian perspective, would include the elimination of most of our federal apparatus, leaving the country resembling the republic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Notice, though, Brooks does not entertain the idea of subsidiarity as a political concept, meaning that he still thinks that we should have a national government where several hundred or thousand men decide the fate of 300 million people. Without seriously addressing the questions of what counts as real community, who gets to decide from whom, where should proper authority lie, etc., all of the talk about the centrality of the family, as heartening as it might sound to a traditional conservative, will merely culminate in further centralization of power.

    Great blog, by the way.

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