The Conservative’s Right Mind: A Reply to David Brooks

Writing about the Republican National Convention in August, New York Times columnist David Brooks fretted that the Republican Party has been captured by a “hyperindividualistic mentality,” and he commended Condoleezza Rice’s celebration of “larger national goals—the long national struggle to extend benefits and to mobilize all human potential.”

Last month Brooks reinforced this claim by exploiting an old debate in American conservatism between what he calls economic conservatives and traditionalist conservatives. Economic conservatives, according to Brooks, “spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty.” As a result, “They upheld freedom as their highest political value.”

Traditional conservatives, on the other hand, “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

But the economic conservatives have captured the Republican Party, Brooks asserts, and have made “shrinking government” its “organizing conservative principle.” “Since they no longer speak in the language of social order,” he writes, “Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country.”

Judging by recent polls, the Romney campaign was certainly failing to communicate conservative principles attractively and persuasively to many people, at least before the first debate with President Obama. But Brooks’s theory of an economic hyperindividualist coup of the GOP is based on a superficial view of conservatism, and does more to reinforce leftist stereotypes than to show the Republican Party a way forward.

In the first place, Brooks completely ignores the current context of Republican anti-government rhetoric. He denounces Republican “hyperindividualism,” but pays no attention to the Democratic alternative, “subsidized hyperindividualism.” It is not enough that the Sandra Flukes of America have access through the market to cheap contraception and abortion on-demand. Other Americans must be compelled against their consciences to pay for these services. It is not enough for one of the oldest religious charity organizations in the United States to provide adoption services for the neediest children; it must place children with same-sex couples or lose its license. It is not enough for a religious charity to assist almost 3,000 victims of sex-trafficking; it must also promote abortion, or lose its funding.

One would hardly call this a “harmonious nestling” of the associations of civil society beneath government. Not many conservatives deny that government should offer a “subtle hand,” as Brooks puts it, where needed. But most conservatives know the difference between a “subtle hand” and a sledgehammer. Commerce does not always have pretty results, but these pale in comparison to the Kulturkampf that the Democratic Party has been waging against religious institutions in America.

It is no accident that the Obama administration has also overseen the largest expansion of the administrative welfare state since the New Deal. The leadership of the Democratic Party is animated by a progressive ideology that pits centralized government power and radical individualism against the primary social institutions of civil society: families, churches, charitable organizations, and businesses.

According to the narrative of that ideology, the “private sector” necessarily stands for individualism, private interests, and egoism, whereas “government” stands for community, public interests, and morality. And in that morality, only good intentions count. It hardly matters if lower taxes on businesses increase employment for the poor, or if private schools teach children better than public schools, or if divorce inflicts measurable harm on individuals and society. Against this kind of a moral backdrop, what chance does a successful “businessman” have against a “community organizer”?

Brooks himself reinforces the progressive narrative when he accuses those who defend economic freedom of “hyperindividualism,” while he calls on Republicans to embrace “larger national [i.e. government] goals.” Brooks implies that concern for “economic liberty” means “individualism,” while concern for “community” means “government.” He overlooks the fact that participation in the plural communities of civil society requires every bit as much commitment, sacrifice, care for others, and public spirit as participation in politics. Nor does he ever acknowledge the many ways in which the government “community,” rather than assisting the plural communities of civil society, often crowds them out and harms them.

At the same time, Brooks completely overlooks the fact that Republican leaders are not proposing to dismantle the existing welfare state, but to preserve and improve it by making it sustainable. As he must know, it is very unlikely (thankfully) that the Republican Party leadership has been taken over by libertarians, who would oppose the Ryan budget as much as the Left, though for very different reasons.

If one wants an intelligible framework that best reflects the Republican Party’s current public policy, the place to look is neither libertarianism nor traditionalism, but classical liberalism. This is a strain of conservatism that Brooks never mentions because it complicates the simplified story he wants to tell. Classical liberalism, with some important additions from the natural-law and natural-rights traditions, is in fact the underlying public philosophy of the American founders and the ground of its constitutional order. These, and not Brooks’s amorphous “great national projects” and “larger national visions,” are what Abraham Lincoln strove to preserve, and what American conservatism exists to conserve.

The leading intellectuals of classical liberalism include Edmund Burke (a Whig), Adam Smith (the founder of “classical economics”), Alexis de Tocqueville (the most prescient critic of American democracy), and F. A. Hayek, who brought all of the earlier thinkers to bear on the totalitarian threats of the twentieth century. The Romney campaign and Republican leaders would do well to articulate their objections to the Obama entitlement state in a more classically liberal way.

Classical liberals affirm nearly all of the principles that underlie Catholic social teaching: solidarity, subsidiarity, and duties of society to ensure that the poor are cared for. They were also the earliest defenders of the free market. But their case did not rest on hyperindividualism, social Darwinism, or meritocratic views of desert. To the contrary, it rested on the fact that human beings are by nature dependent social animals that require mutual assistance for their development and flourishing. Commercial exchanges are not fundamentally exploitative, classical liberals argued; they are cooperative ventures that ordinarily make all parties better off.

For classical liberals there is no such thing as a separate and independent “economic motive.” Economic choices just are the means by which human beings pursue higher, non-economic goods. For this reason, control of the economy must also entail control of the other choices human beings make in pursuing goods. Classical liberals would not have been surprised by the contraception mandate. Economic control is inseparable from social control.

Classical liberals showed how the impulse for central economic planning grows out of a false rationalism that F. A. Hayek called “constructivism.” Constructivism assumes that all human practices and institutions, because they are in some sense made by human beings, can therefore be remade or improved by a priori, top-down direction and control.

But classical liberals pointed out how spontaneously grown institutions and practices are forms of knowledge that could never be achieved in the constructivist way. Language itself is a paradigmatic instance of such a spontaneously grown practice, and is indeed the precondition for all other forms of human cooperation. The price system in a free market is another example of spontaneous order: Only it can coordinate the widely dispersed circumstantial knowledge of time and place upon which the best use of resources depends, Hayek argued. Excepting exceptional cases, that coordination works to the advantage of every human being—the poor as well as the rich.

As John Tomasi points out in his excellent recent book Free Market Fairness, classical liberals, like the American Founders (and like most conservative Republicans) were not economic-liberty absolutists. They understood that commerce alone is not a sufficient means of achieving the common good, and that some forms of commerce are a threat to the common good. Therefore they advocated a limited though necessary role for political authority in protecting the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public, and in supporting public goods (roads, schools, care for the poor, and so on) that could not or would not adequately be provided by the market.

This does not mean they necessarily would have supported corporate capitalism, which involves a particular legal structuring of economic relations and incentives that presents its own problems for the common good. (See, for example, Robert Miller’s recent piece for Public Discourse). Nor does it mean they would have celebrated consumerism. And as for crony capitalism and corporate welfare, these are things that every conservative should oppose. But any critique of commerce that does not include a full and fair acknowledgment of the goods it provides, and the real social costs of the economic restrictions of the Obama entitlement state, merely feeds dangerous utopian urges without moving us any closer to a just social order.

Brooks is correct that “the GOP has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition,” but it is not the ammunition that Brooks has in mind. Republicans should not downplay economic liberty or back off warning against the encroaching statism of the Democratic Party. No, they must do a better job of showing how economic liberty is necessary for achieving the real, non-economic goods of individuals and associations in civil society. It is not the collectivist “we” conspicuously on display at the Democratic National Convention, but the many “we’s” of civil society, which are the true ground of a just, and good, society.

This article first appeared October 9, 2012 in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and is reprinted with permission.

Nathan Schlueter


Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College, where he teaches courses in literature, politics, and philosophy. He is the author of One Dream or Two? Justice in America and in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lexington Books, 2002) and editor (with Mark Mitchell) of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (ISI Books, 2011).

  • liberty

    Ron Paul is today’s Classical liberal

  • Angsgar

    let me say, that I am not ordinarily a fan of David Brooks. Still his fundamental
    argument here is not incorrect. American conservatism has done very little for
    traditionalism despite having great electoral success this past half century.
    The most evident example of this is abortion. Then we have other figures like
    Mitch Daniels calling for a “cease fire” on social issues so we can tackle the “real
    issues”, like the budget and taxes- but you can’t have a cease fire when there
    was no fight to begin with!

    This article contains many poor arguments and out right historical
    inaccuracies. First that it was somehow big government alone which has led to a
    “subsidized individualism.” The author cites approvingly of the usual line up
    of classical liberal thinkers. The truth is that social libertine individualism
    DID flow (and quite naturally) out of economic individualism. Some classical
    liberals are more honest in this regard if still wrong- (See Murray Rothbard on
    children). The voluntary associations of
    Burke, Tocqueville and Rep. Ryan are not equivalent to medieval Catholic
    institutions i.e. what Pope Leo XIII had in mind in Rerum Novarum. As Robert Nisbet brilliantly showed these modern
    liberal associations lack the teeth their predecessors had. There are in sense
    little more than social clubs, and as such are wholly ill-equipped in the
    current climate.

    His most grievous mistake is the notion that classical
    liberalism is somehow reconcilable with Catholic
    Social Teaching. In fact it was classical liberalism which put the nails in the
    coffin of the Christian Social order which had preceded it. Classical
    liberalism at every turn stood opposed to the rights and dignity of the Church.
    It also opposed the necessity of guilds (or in their modern reincarnation unions)
    largely on principal. The Church now is more or less subservient to the
    dominate liberal order (largely through its own choice) and as the saying goes­
    – how’s that working out for ya!?

    • MarkRutledge

      You confuse classical liberalism with 20th century liberalism (which is in turn a different beast from post-McGovern liberalism), which today the former is the heart of conservatism. It is when men abandon conservative/classical liberal philosophy – and usually do so in part rather than the whole – that they fail to deliver. Take the example you presented, abortion. It is not the modern conservative/classical liberal philosophy that is found wanting, but the lack of numbers of those holding that philosophy with the backbone to pursue public policy accordingly.
      Brooks is all wrong, and I appluad Mr. Schlueter for his fine article. Mr. Brooks first mistake is presuming social conservatives and economic conservatives are different people. Most conservatives are both, else our governing philosophy is self-contradictory.

      • Angsgar

        No I am afraid you are wrong as well as very confused. Historically virtually every classical liberal thinker was deeply hostile to traditional Western culture and the Catholic Church inparticular, be it Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Hume, Jefferson,Rothbard and Von Mises. Liberalism’s emphasis on individualism is a common strain between its modern and 18th century version. This type of thinking is clearly evident in cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas. The idea that the individual’s rights ought to be paramount and protected by the state comes right out of the Lockean/Hobbesian milieu.

        individual should be able to pursue his rights free from any traditional
        constraint (be it social or economic) with the state acting as the institution guaranteeingthe individual’s rights. In the 18th century this was in the economic sense,with the state first seizing Church property and abolishing intermediary worker bodies. In the 20th liberalism moved on to sexual ethics. What is self-contradictory is embracing economic liberalism (an ideology which Pope Pius IX said was sprung from a poisoned well) and any kind of social conservatism.

        Sticking with abortion we can thank “Ike” for appointing Justice
        Blackmun who wrote the majority opinion on Roe. Ronald Reagan signed into law
        one of the most liberal state abortion laws in 1968. Reagan and Bush I gave us
        several moderate Supreme Court justices who would help to uphold Roe, in
        Planned Parenthood v. Casey and after the Healthcare fiasco does anyone think
        Robert’s is reliable? But even the so-called “traditional Catholic”
        Scalia has publically stated that if the Americans voted for abortion he would
        have no problem with the procedure. This is the fruits of
        “conservatism” in America. It would appear then that by your own metric
        every major US president in these past 50 yrs. and most high profile
        conservatives are abject failures. Can’t say I disagree.

        • It is unfortunate that the late (he passed away in 2011) Otto von Habsburg , the last Crown Prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire is not still alive for you to explain all this to. As one of the modern world’s greatest Catholic classical liberals–who hobnobed and supported the work of heathens like Ludwig von Mises, he would have been interested. Your biggest historical error is combining Hobbes and Locke–a fusion appropriate to talk about with modern liberalism but not classical liberalism. Initially classical liberalism was solely concerned with liberating society and individuals from enslavement by the state. But with the French Revolution and later propelled by John Stuart Mill, the attention of liberalism began to change drastically. Liberals started to turn on society and its institutions (particularly the church) which they saw as enemies of the individual. In fact, this is where Hobbes became relevant –they started to actually ally themselves with the state in the effort to liberate individuals from societal repression. As far as classical liberal thought and Catholic Social Doctrine, you might like to consider this article by the late James A. Sadowsky, S.J. Father Sadowsky was part of Rothbard’s circle and known as the “philosopher of freedom.” The article is “Capitalism, Ethics and Classical Catholic Social Doctrine”

  • hombre111

    A thoughtful, balanced article. America’s moral struggle in general is with hyper-individualism. We see it on the liberal side with the abortion crowd and their inability to admit any moment when the decision for an abortion is morally repulsive. We also see it in the liberal attitude that we are free to end marriages over a whim. And are free to pollute our bodies with any substance we can breathe, inject, or swallow. On the conservative side, the inability to really see the poor as real people, instead of “the takers.” My final, most tragic example I saw in my sister only a few months before her death. CBS News ran a story about a child with a horrible birth defect brought to the United States for medical treatment. “Well,” she said in anger and disgust, “Who is paying for that?” And I wonder what virus caused her to mutate away from her compassionate, humanitarian family. Oh, and one thing more. Her family votes democrat. She always voted Republican. But why I still stay with the Democrats is another story.

  • Gerard

    Angsgar is spot on with his comment, and I can’t add much to it. I will say that I’m constantly amazed at how “Catholics” can laud Classical Liberalism when it is completely antithetical to Catholic teaching. One would have to ignore the infallible Magisterium of the Church (including every papal encyclical on social justice since Leo XIII) to subscribe to Classical Liberalism–even the moderate form.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Hegel gave the traditional conservative answer to Classic Liberalism, when he wrote “If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.” G W Hegel, “Philosophy of Right” 258