David Brooks, The Irrelevant Columnist

The most effective evidence that US conservatives are wrong is a successful “Big-Government” EU making the case that you can have an equitable, wealthy society and have your robust social safety-net, too. With the EU on the verge of formally digressing back into a coalition of loosely (confederate) states, there’s a part of many conservatives that is straight-up giddy. That profligate Greece will suffer it’s comeuppance and the U.S. double-dip into a recession at the onset of an election with a liberal incumbent…? Well that’s just gravy!

David Brooks illustrates yet again his detachment from informed opinion as he tip-toes with ill-concealed giddiness around this issue in arguing that modern times have not seen a “unification of humanity,” something Brooks calls a “secular religion,”:

Old nationalisms would fade away, many people believed. Transportation and communications technologies would unite people. Values would converge. …

Unfortunately, this moral, cultural and political convergence never happened.

You would think that conservatives would prefer to see a convergence as evidence of absolute values, and thereby God. But, no. It’s much more useful to frame cultural evolution in terms of diverging polarity. It satisfies their belief in the culmination of good-versus-evil, and reinforces their reasoning for small, limited government and the virtue of individual freedom to fully enjoy either one’s own success or failure.

Brooks does this by proposing that the current U.S. political polarization and impasse, the Euro crisis of inaction, as well as the European and World Values studies all indicate that more ideological divergence has occurred than convergence. From this he concludes that the EU and U.S. can only be abandoned or restructured, drawing on God to provide the final prophetic summary:

The first step, surely, is abandoning the illusions of convergence and the schemes based upon them. In 1949, Niebuhr questioned the naïve belief that history drives toward unity. He cited the book of Psalms: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”

Besides this naked display of confirmation bias, Brooks has made the common mistake of deciding that national borders have some intrinsic relevance to the statistics that highlight cultural differences between EU nations. People often make the same mistake by trying to conclude too much from comparisons of U.S. states. It’s valid to cite the unique tax policies of Arkansas’ effect on the GDP of that state, but the people of Arkansas are not fundamentally at odds with the people of Vermont merely because surveys find aggregate cultural differences between the two states. Arkansas is made up of individuals, some of which share all their relevant opinions with the mean person of Vermont, and vice versa. Arkansas just happens to have a smaller proportion of liberals to conservatives than Vermont, to pick one dimension of culture difference.

The illusion is revealed when you accept that national and state borders are arbitrary relative to the infinite other possible boundaries – there but for irrelevant history. There are illusory concentrations of people of all social/economic/religious/political dimensions within any arbitrarily drawn boundary – and those arbitrary borders serve to confuse the true patterns, rather than clarify them. If these two pictures illustrated the only concentrations of Conservatives along a border (blue line) of two nations, would there be any meaning in saying that the country on the left has more Conservatives than the country on the right? Of course not. When the border is ignored (right) it is clear that these populations are clustering in a way that shows no clear relation to the national border. If these nations had similar total populations but these dots represented the only Conservatives in each nation, “Left” nation would certainly have more conservative views and policies than “Right” nation, but this apparent national differences would not be meaningful in any absolute sense. Rather, the national boundary itself is the cause of the apparent disparity between the two countries – the differences between the two nations is not evidence at all of diverging human attitudes.

What would be evidence of this, though Brooks doesn’t cite any such evidence, would be a study showing that, for example, conservatives are inherently and necessarily becoming more conservative and/or liberals are inherently and necessarily becoming more liberal, outside of any temporary circumstances, as in how a depressed economy or war can galvanize a particular generation’s cultural outlook.

Contrary to Brook’s, we really are seeing a convergence of all cultures. Who can argue that a random newcomer from, oh, Chile, would be much more likely to feel less alienation visiting the U.S., Europe, or even China in 2012, compared to a Chilean from 1900 (or 1800!) would tend to feel upon visiting the U.S., Europe, or China of 100 or 200 years ago?

Look at the convergence of views on war and human rights. 100 years ago, genocide in Rwanda would be largely characterized by Euro/US citizens in “Out-Group” (and disparaging) terms. Today, only a very small and visibly uninformed segment of the population harbors such views.

There is still a lot of progress to make – and the progress that has been made has not been uniform or steadily forward (Germany was much more friendly 200 – and 10 – years ago than it was 60 years ago), but it is easy to see that in the modern world, nationalism, cultural centrism, and ethnocentrism have all been radically moderated.

Is David Brooks really just innocently wrong here? No, he’s actually placing a strategic argument, despite it’s errors.

Brook’s last column was entitled “The Role of Uncle Sam” and argues the old case for a national government that is as limited in it’s defined powers as it is distant from local voters, and more powerful state governments that vividly and robustly differ from each other, experimenting in different ways of governing in some faux embrace of the scientific method.

Hey, I’m all in favor of meaningful experiments in more effective government. But the purpose of experimentation is to arrive at fundamental understandings of what is true and  what practices are best-practices. Science would be foolish to perform experiments just for the sake of performing more experiments, and government would be foolish to resist legal, procedural, regulatory, and infrastructural standardization simply to embrace variety, just-in-case one of those outlier government models might stumble upon a better way of doing things some day. No – when two or three smaller governments find that a new idea works better than older ideas – even in the face of some voter resistance – it is reasonable for a larger (national) government to adopt those good ideas, too, assuming the circumstances of the larger government parallel the circumstances of the smaller government.

What Brooks is really doing in today’s column is propping up the ideological foundation for why the EU should not create a more integrated – more powerful – central government to solve it’s problems. From the horse’s mouth:

Today’s European economic crisis grows directly out of this segmentation. The euro crisis is not a crisis of debt. Total European debt levels are not that high. It’s a crisis of legitimacy. Debt burdens are divergent across nations, and Europeans with one set of habits and values do not want to bail out Europeans with other habits and values.

(Re-read that paragraph, but substitute “Americans” for “Europeans” and “states” for “nations” and you’ve got the Tea Party interpretation of the US situation…)

The fathers of the European project believed monetary union would bring people together. But when you jam nations with diverging values together, you only end up propelling them apart.

(What diverging values, again? Is Brooks so naive as to think the American colonialists were politically and culturally united in 1776?!?!?)

So we face the likelihood that the euro will crack up. This is not an outcome to be desired.

(Can you just feel how undesirable it is to him? Why do I get the sense Brooks wouldn’t be hooting approval if the EU managed to unite and come out of this intact, as “socialist” as ever?)

The ensuing recession and chaos could be horrible on both sides of the Atlantic. But we should prepare for a crackup because the underlying sense of shared identity required for the euro’s survival is not there.

(For “euro”, substitute “Obamacare,” “Medicare”, “Medicaid”, “Social Security”, “EPA”….)

This is the Tea Party manifesto dressed up in funny-colored currency.

The sad thing is that Greece will exit and the EU may even fall apart – and catastrophe will reward fools.


The first step, surely, is abandoning the illusions of convergence and the schemes based upon them. In 1949, Niebuhr questioned the naïve belief that history drives toward unity. He cited the book of Psalms: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”


About stormculture

In pursuit of reality.
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