David Brooks, Edmund Burke Wannabe
Tibor R. Machan
In America we have two kinds of conservatives: Those who basically insist that it's vital to preserve the basic precepts of the American political tradition, the ideals of the American founders. Two of them are the very visible William F. Buckley, Jr., and George F. Will, both highly educated pundits. These wish to conserve the central tenets of the Declaration of Independence, which are in fact radical ideas about basic unalienable individual rights, freedom, strictly limited government and so forth.
The second kind have a different purpose: To promote the idea that human beings are not up to the task of self-government. Individual sovereignty, for such conservatives, is trumped by group think, which includes people’s instincts or unconscious beliefs. Among these conservatives are David Brooks, the NYT pundit, and such earlier figures as Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind (1953), a book that contains endless intellectual assaults upon human reason and much support for the view that people are basically, well, corrupt. For these the proper approach to public policy, as well as social mores, is to defer to tradition, to the implicit, tacit judgments of the collective (meaning those who speak for them).
In the mid-20th century the two carried out a pretty open debate about which is on sound footing. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) had experienced serious upheavals, as a result. Frank S. Meyer, Frank Chodorov, and Buckley himself had ruminated extensively about how the two strains might be fused into one movement but no fusion ever materialized—Barry Goldwater came closest to achieving it, for example in his book Conscience of a Conservative (1960).
The two conservatisms are still represented in public discussions, mainly by Will, who has lately drifted more and more toward the individualist, American conservative camp, and by David Brooks, who is promoting the Burkean wing. His arguments are different, however.
Brooks has been laying out the same conclusions as Edmund Burke but now based on certain alleged scientific findings. Burke said, based on his understanding of history and community life, that,
“...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely.…”
And he taught, also, that
“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages”
David Brooks, in turn, has been saying something pretty close to this but in modern jargon:
“There is no central executive zone in the brain where all information is gathered and decisions are made. There is no little homunculus up there watching reality on a screen and then deciding how to proceed. In fact, the mind is a series of parallel processes and loops, bidding for urgency.”
Furthermore, continues Brooks,
“We're not primarily deciders. We're primarily perceivers. The body receives huge amounts of information from the world, and what we primarily do is turn that data into a series of generalizations, stereotypes and theories that we can use to navigate our way through life. Once we've perceived a situation and construed it so that it fits one of the patterns we carry in our memory, we've pretty much rigged how we're going to react, even though we haven't consciously sat down to make a decision.”
Burkean conservatives, currently represented by Brooks, embrace a paradox. Their ideas are themselves thought up by individuals—e. g., before by Burke and now by Brooks. But though in less Draconian ways they embrace the philosophies of the Fascists, the Nazis, and the Communists, all of whom demean the capacities of individuals to decide about their lives. Human beings only take in ideas, by osmosis, and then implement them practically unconsciously.
So, then, not only in their conclusions but also in their premises Left and Right tend to be united against the freedom of the individual.