September 13, 2005

David Brooks on conservatism's evolution over the last decade

The NYT op-edster describes what he has learned in the 10 years since the founding of the Weekly Standard.

The best description of conservatism's evolution comes from David Willetts, the Tory MP. He tells the tale as a personal journey, but it really applies to Anglo-Saxon conservatism as a whole:

"You start by making your own way in the world and what appeals to you above all is the language of flexibility, mobility, opportunity. It is the economically liberal bit which brings many people to Conservatism . . . .

"Then you get more tolerant as you begin to realize people don't always behave as you expect. You recognize how wide is the range of human motivation and how much knowledge and wisdom is dispersed. You see the market as one way in which all this diversity can be respected. Perhaps you become more tolerant and open-minded. That's the social liberalism.

"Then you have children and you start thinking about the environment in which they will grow up. You worry about how to transmit your values to the next generation. It can feel as if you are fighting a battle against not so much the state as an incredibly crude commercial culture that tells them there is no more to life but consumption. You begin to discover that there are deep ties and obligations across the generations. You notice that your friends who understand this best and live up to it are the ones with the most fulfilled and satisfied lives. In fact they are much more satisfied than the people who are just following the thin freedoms of mobility and choice."

The obvious thing Willetts is saying is that the Burke and Oakeshott side of conservatism is just as important as the libertarian, free market side, if not more so. This thought has obviously occurred to a lot of people all at once. (Read Rick Santorum's book, which treats the family, not the individual, as the basic unit of society.)

But the underlying point is that conservative writers are now spending a lot more time trying to understand the substratum of human behavior. Rather than treating human beings as economic actors and lauding the entrepreneur as conservatism's paragon, they are discussing the values, assumptions, and mental landscapes that are passed down unconsciously from generation to generation. Why do some groups succeed and others fail? Why are some people raised in environments that transmit one set of values while others are raised in environments that transmit another set of values? This is what Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Samuel Huntington, and even Bernard Lewis, in their different ways, have been writing about.

Everybody knew the complicated and politically treacherous subject of inherited group traits was always down there. Now it is pretty much unavoidable.

Well said.

I imagine Brooks's reference to "inherited group traits" was carefully crafted to preserve plausible deniability -- "I was only talking about 'values, assumptions, and mental landscapes,' not genes, honest, Officer!" -- while hinting to the brave (by mentioning Murray) that the ice has started to crack about talking heredity and race. Honestly, reading big time pundits on race can be like watching POW Jeremiah Denton blink out "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" when his North Vietnamese captors put him on TV.

Still, look at his list of intellectuals: At age 60, Murray is the young buck of the bunch. Sowell is 75, Huntington 78, and Bernard Lewis is ... 89. That does not speak well for conservatism's current intellectual vigor and courage.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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