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Fresh Start Conservatism

David Brooks is the columnist who passes for a pro-capitalist on the New York Times. A column by Mr. Brooks on February 15th is so utterly wrong, in so many different directions that I’d like to–but can’t–believe it was written while he was “tripping” on LSD. His theme is that conservatism needs a “fresh start.”

How to achieve it? “Doing that would . . . mean stealing ideas from both the right and the left.”

How will we know which ideas to take from which camp? Well, we take the good ones from each, leaving aside the bad.

How do we determine which ideas are good and which bad, when we are deliberately avoiding such principles as individual rights and a standard of morality? His implicit answer is: “Just ask me, I’ll tell you.”

For instance, from the left, we take the idea that government should be more heavily involved in education and in preparing children more generally for a successful life. From the right, we take the idea that the two-parent family is important. Put them together and you get this astonishing statement: “There could be nurse-home visits for children in chaotic homes so that they have some authority in their lives.”

Mind you, this is to be a “policy”–i.e., a government program. So, presumably, the government is going to send its agents into every home to determine if little Jason and Jennifer are running around yelling too much. If they are, then the government will dispatch Nurse Ratched, from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” to institute order. And the reason why this needs to be done, is so that Jason and Jennifer can learn to submit to authority. The Hitler Youth was nothing compared to this.

From both left and right we take the moral code of altruism, which we implement, for example, in the idea of enslaving young people at the time when they would otherwise start out on their careers: “National service should be a rite of passage for 20-somethings.” What service? To “mentor students through high school and college years.” So instead of going to law school, taking a first job with Apple, or simply learning a trade, the “20-something” is going to be helping high-school students learn trigonometry–or, more likely today, drilling them on the size of different industries’ “carbon footprints.”

This, you see, is the fusion of the left’s idea that developing “human capital” is too important to be left up to the choice of the humans who constitute the capital and the right’s idea that “a healthy moral culture” is a crucial determinant of such “human capital” development. Since it is obvious to both liberals and conservatives that morality consists of sacrificial service, we get this proposal for sabotaging the formative years of our youth.

The opening of the article shows Mr. Brook’s distance from reality:

“In the 19th century, industrialization swept the world. Many European nations expanded their welfare states but kept their education systems exclusive. The U.S. tried the opposite approach. American leaders expanded education and created the highest quality work force on the planet. That quality work force was the single biggest reason the U.S. emerged as the economic superpower of the 20th century. Generation after generation, American workers were better educated, more industrious and more innovative than the ones that came before. That progress stopped about 30 years ago.”

Back on planet Earth, there are a few facts that everyone, even Mr. Brooks, must know.

1. The industrialization of the 19th century did not sweep the world. It appeared in Britain and America, the two almost laissez- faire capitalist societies. It spread, in a diminished form, to France and Germany. The rest of the world (even countries like Italy and Spain, let alone India, Peru, or China) did not become industrialized, though they benefited from the capitalist or semi- capitalist countries’ industrialization.

2. America in the 19th century did not have the world’s best educational system. European education has always been better than American education.

3. The decline of American education (from whatever quality it had previously) did not begin 30 years ago, but 100 years ago. About 35 years ago, when I was teaching college, it was common among my colleagues to bemoan the unpreparedness and startling ignorance of their students. And they were entirely right; I could see it myself.

And, in fact, everyone in the culture could see it. Even 45 to 50 years ago, there were commissions issuing report after report on the decline in education. The best-seller “Why Johnny Can’t Read” came out in . . . wait for it . . . 1955. The most important error is not one that everyone knows, but every Objectivist knows it: the cause of America’s prosperity was not some “quality work force” produced by education; the cause was freedom.

But Mr. Brooks has nothing but a sneer for freedom, referring to those “who have tended to imagine that if you build a free market, a quality labor force would magically appear.”

Yes, Mr. Brooks, it would appear–not by “magic” but by the law of causality. A free-market in business and in education would unleash the very things that he pays lip service to: incentives and innovation. If an educated work force has a payoff in productivity– and his whole article is arguing that it does–then there is profit to be made in supplying it. In a free market, the opportunity to profit causes men to take action to seize that opportunity and realize that profit.

Contrariwise, government education will always fail in just the same way and for the same reason that government provision of any other good or service fails. Government is the agency that wields force; it is essentially a gun. Pointing a gun at people’s heads is not the way to achieve any value, least of all the development of a human mind (“human capital”).

But Mr. Brooks concludes his flight of fancy with an opposite view of government and freedom: “positive government can help prepare people for the rigors of competition.”

“Positive government” is a sneaky way of referring to the initiation of physical force. That’s not just my guess. There’s a well known literature in political theory on “positive and negative freedom.” “Negative freedom” is a derogatory term for what freedom actually is: the absence of coercion. “Positive freedom” is a euphemism to whitewash government coercion: you have “positive freedom” when you are “free” to use government to loot your neighbor. You know the saying, “A hungry man is not free.” The idea is that the hungry man may have the “negative freedom” of political liberty, but he lacks the “positive freedom” to eat (without earning his meal).

Mr. Brooks centers his entire column on the need for quality education without one word about the content of that education, the ideas that are being fed into young minds. Nothing about the indoctrination into statism, racism, environmentalism.

In accordance with the Kantian substitution of the “how” for the “what,” Mr. Brooks is concerned only with “nurse-home visits,” radically expanding preschool, “accountability programs,” and merit pay–not with what the children are being taught. How are we to get a “quality work force” when schools are teaching students about alleged crimes against Native Americans, the need to restrict industry to prevent global warming, and Intelligent Design?

So now you know the kind of mind that the New York Times thinks is an acceptable alternative to its steady diet of leftist rants. It’s a “conservative” who blithely presents non-facts in support of altruism and collectivism.