Thursday, February 26, 2009

David Brooks Rediscovers His Burkean Epistemological Modesty Six Years After Supporting The Iraq War

Now I love David Brooks' writing as much as anyone, but surely no one can possibly be this self-unaware. The level of unintentional irony dripping in his latest op-ed is hard to express.

Let's begin at the beginning. First, Brooks tells us he read Burke in college:
When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke. I loathed the book. Burke argued that each individual’s private stock of reason is small and that political decisions should be guided by the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Change is necessary, Burke continued, but it should be gradual, not disruptive.

Excellent. So Brooks read Burke in college.

Next, we're told that social engineering projects - those that rely on quick and non-gradual change - have a terrible historical record:
Over the years, I have come to see that Burke had a point. The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

Ok, I'm with you there. Unintended consequences and all that.

Next, Brooks waxes eloquent about the virtues of doubt and epistemological modesty; how important it is, in other words, to know how little we know:
These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

Finally, Brooks brings the circle to a close by telling us how wary he remains of Barack Obama's agenda of wholesale change:
Readers of this column know that I am a great admirer of Barack Obama and those around him. And yet the gap between my epistemological modesty and their liberal worldviews has been evident over the past few weeks. The people in the administration are surrounded by a galaxy of unknowns, and yet they see this economic crisis as an opportunity to expand their reach, to take bigger risks and, as Obama said on Saturday, to tackle every major problem at once.

Ok, so to recap: doubt good, wholesale societal change bad.

What a difference six years makes, eh? Let's see what David Brooks had to say about those who had doubt about, um, a scheme to reorganize society from the top down:
The American commentariat is gravely concerned. Over the past week, George W. Bush has shown a disturbing tendency not to waffle when it comes to Iraq. There has been an appalling clarity and coherence to his position. There has been a reckless tendency not to be murky, hesitant, or evasive. Naturally, questions are being raised about President Bush's leadership skills.

Meanwhile, among the smart set, Hamlet-like indecision has become the intellectual fashion.[...]

In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion -- that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed--but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis.

As far as I gather, if Brooks is correct, it is important to be held back by Burkean doubt when (a) the society being reorganized is American, and (b) the person doing the reorganizing is Barack Obama. On the other hand, doubt and indecision is to be mercilessly mocked when (a) the society being reorganized is Iraqi, and (b) the person doing the reorganizing is George W. Bush.

Put differently, if you actually have a mandate and support for reorganization ("Change"), then you should not pursue that reorganization. But if you have no legal, moral, or strategic reason to reorganize ("War in Iraq"), then you should pursue that reorganization.

Have I missed something?


pat1755 said...

"David Brooks" and "modesty" in the same sentence is always a dicey proposition.

Clovis said...

I do believe you have missed something.
The fact that the man's position and opinions are open to change, and there's nothing wrong with that.
David Brooks over these years has moved away from his support of the Bush government, and, in more recent columns has directed strong criticism at the policies and decisions during those eight years. He has also been a very vocal supporter of the Obama presidency in his column. I mean if the man has moved from one position to the other, as many Americans did when they realized just how absurd their Iraq adventure had been, there is nothing wrong with that. He himself has told his readers, in this column that he has changed his positions in the past, moving from socialist to anti-liberal and all. If today he has moved from embracing dangerous simplistic adventurism ala Bush to cautious and critical approval of the grand plans of the Obama presidency, I see more reason to be glad that he has made that change, rather than label him inconsistent because of his past position. I don't think the change has anything to do with supporting Bush and not Obama, I just think, the Bush years have taught him and America to be a little more cautious now. Lets not forget, Bush, had by far the biggest mandate in recorded American political history,thanks to 9-11, and look what he did with it. I can't blame Brooks for now being concerned as to what Obama thinks he can do with his mandate. I'd say the man's learned his lesson. It's a good thing.

Rabia said...

this is an awesome post! Although to be devil's advocate for a sec -- Burke saw society as an organic whole that should be changed gradually, right? But it is unlikely that he would have seen every society like that, only societies that that he approved of the general nature of. So that makes me wonder what a Burkean approach to a society like Iraq would be... since clearly incremental change from a Baathist regime is probably not going to get you anywhere. I am guessing that Burke's approach really does only apply to your own society and one that you agree with the basic structure of to begin with. I guess that would explain why he was largely against colonialism.

Ahsan said...


I think you are being much too kind to Brooks. If this were simply a case of a man changing his opinions from experience, then I would completely agree with you: there's nothing wrong with that--if anything, it is to be commended.

Unfortunately, I don't think this is simply a case of Brooks learning from his mistakes. He maintains that he was a Burkean conservative after college. Then why did he have no doubts about the Iraq war? To this day, conservatives of Brooks' ilk argue not that the Iraq war was a foolish idea, but that it was a smart idea executed badly by Rumsfeld et al. In other words, the logic for supporting the war is sound, and therefore, he cannot be faulted. It's all Rummy's fault.

Don't you think it very convenient that the self-proclaimed Burkean conservative forgot about his epistemological modesty during the Bush years and suddenly seems to have regained it during the first six weeks of the most progressive administration in the US in generations?

I thoroughly enjoy Brooks' writing to be sure, but I am not a fan of selective principles--if that is not an oxymoron.


You're right, he was against colonialism, and he supported American independence as far as I know, so I'm pretty sure his reading of Iraq would have been: leave it the fuck alone, it'll figure itself out at some point.

Majaz said...


Shouldn't y'all be blogging about the travesty that is Pakistani politics? And the new game of idiocies they're playing?

Was hoping I'd see something cutting and analytical about PPP's shady head and PML-N's outraged body.

Rabia said...

yea, neo-cons should stick to de tocqueville he's a better example... liberal at home, asshole abroad.

Anonymous said...

a great post on fiverupees after quite some time. love the spot-on analysis!

Ahsan said...

Talk about a back-handed compliment!

Anonymous said...

I too hated Edmund Burke during my freshman class because I was able to identify more with Thomas Paine's views that 'people always have the right to change the government' than with Burke who was opposed to change (French Revolution)and advocated monarchy.

"The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly".I couldn't help but to notice that Brooks has omitted Iraq war among his social engineering projects or was it another of admitting that he is ashamed of his earlier pro- war stand.

Bruno said...

I don't know enough about Brooks' position on the Iraq war, but based on the quote here, it seems he justified it on the grounds of Saddam Hussein being "a menace that needs to be disarmed", i.e. Saddam's alleged WMDs. Now, whatever we think of that argument, it is no contradiction to his Burkean scepticism about societal transformation. Things would be different if he had made the argument of triggering the democratization of the entire middle east, but as far as I can see, he didn't.

Of course, I might be wrong and he actually did make that argument at some point, so I'll happily stand corrected.

Ahsan said...


You're absolutely right there in that this excerpt technically doesn't contradict his Burkean leanings. But I do recall Brooks (and most neocons generally) claiming that democratizing Iraq would be easy, and that the US would leave a free and open society in its wake. Unfortunately, the Weekly Standard doesn't have easily available archives, so I can't provide links.