Friday, September 12, 2008

David Brooks on The Social Animal

In an interesting column David Brooks criticizes what he sees as the Republican dependence on individual self-reliance.
What emerges is not a picture of self-creating individuals gloriously free from one another, but of autonomous creatures deeply interconnected with one another. Recent Republican Party doctrine has emphasized the power of the individual, but underestimates the importance of connections, relationships, institutions and social filaments that organize personal choices and make individuals what they are. …

The latest example of the mismatch between ideology and reality is the housing crisis. The party’s individualist model cannot explain the social contagion that caused hundreds of thousands of individuals to make bad decisions in the same direction at the same time. A Republican administration intervened gigantically in the market to handle the Bear Stearns, Freddie and Fannie debacles. But it has no conservative rationale to explain its action, no language about the importance of social equilibrium it might use to justify itself.

The irony, of course, is that, in pre-Goldwater days, conservatives were incredibly sophisticated about the value of networks, institutions and invisible social bonds. You don’t have to go back to Edmund Burke and Adam Smith (though it helps) to find conservatives who understood that people are socially embedded creatures and that government has a role (though not a dominant one) in nurturing the institutions in which they are embedded.

That language of community, institutions and social fabric has been lost, and now we hear only distant echoes — when social conservatives talk about family bonds or when John McCain talks at a forum about national service.
Interestingly, Brooks is calling on the Republicans to support exactly the sort of perspective that Jonathan Haidt spoke of as the reason people vote for them, namely a concern for maintaining the strength of the community! It's amazing how positions seem to twist around. They want (and often seem to succeed in claiming) both sides of the big-government/small-government coin: small government that doesn't interfere with individuals (and businesses)—the Republican libertarian side—and strong government that keeps everyone in line—the Republican moralist and fascist side.

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