New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks America is great but in trouble, and he wants to take steps to preserve American preeminence. He’s right, though not in the way he thinks. In his November 11, 2010, column Brooks argued that we need some sort of National Greatness Agenda; the problem is that his conception of what makes us great is incoherent.
Brooks does identify some real problems: for instance, that competition between the two major parties has become “fratricidal” and theatrical, and that it is creating massive budget deficits that, left unchecked, will prove catastrophic. But his diagnosis of the problem and his proposed solutions are fraught with fallacies.
He thinks that a revived patriotism will “lift people out of their partisan cliques,” yet the current partisan tribalism seems not to be lacking in patriotism. As is often the case, much hangs on how one understands the terms.
What makes a country great? One way to answer this involves claiming that there is something special about the ethnic makeup of the people who comprise it. For Mussolini there was something great, something special, about being Italian; his allies in Germany and Japan had similar theories about their respective nationalities. But that approach won’t quite work for America since it comprises people of many ethnicities.
Another way to understand national greatness is in terms of institutions and operating principles. But institutions and principles can change. What would make a country great on this model would be to have great institutions grounded in great principles. The Declaration of Independence is an example of this approach: Begin with a set of principles (moral equality of all persons, the natural right to live and be free, power only justified by consent) and then appeal to it when creating institutions (limited government of enumerated powers, republican structure with a democratic franchise, church-state separation, citizen militia, free trade). On this model America is great inasmuch as its institutions reflect its principles. A nation that claims to be dedicated to the principles outlined in the Declaration fails to be great when it invades foreign lands, abuses its citizens’ liberties, or forbids the free movement of people and goods.
Brooks’s exhortations reveal a lack of clarity about different senses of greatness, which comes out most clearly in his repeated use of false dichotomies. He asks, for example, “Do you really love your tax deduction more than America’s future greatness?” This alternative presupposes that it is only through higher taxes that a nation can become great. This in turn assumes that national greatness is only measured by things done by the government. What might these be? Scholarly, artistic, and technological greatness might well be better fostered by individuals having more money and freedom.
“Are you really unwilling,” he asks, “to sacrifice your Social Security cost-of-living adjustment at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan?” It’s not clear that solving other countries’ problems is how we measure our own greatness. In any event, this question also reveals a confusion: equating national greatness with government spending. Instead of asking whether Social Security payouts should rise with inflation, we might ask whether we would be better off as a nation of financially independent and responsible people who didn’t look to the political system for retirement income. Instead of wondering how high taxes have to be to fund overseas military campaigns, we might ask whether those campaigns need to be undertaken by the government (as opposed to either being undertaken by privateers or not at all). One way to measure American greatness might be the extent to which we exemplify peace and prosperity. The best way to achieve those ends would be to limit (or even better, eliminate) coercive interference with other people’s lives.
Brooks laments a lost preeminence, but it isn’t clear what he means by that. He might be referring to a late-1940s preeminence, when America, having helped destroy the Nazis and their Japanese allies, led the way in rebuilding those nations and helping them become prosperous liberal democracies. But today’s “nation-building” looks very different. Unlike World War II, which actually ended, the current wars of nation-building seem perpetual, which suggests that a different course of action might have better results.
Or perhaps Brooks is referring to a time when American preeminence was measured in contrast to the privations of the old Soviet Union. In that case, let’s review the lessons of that contrast: Our former adversaries in the communist world were impoverished because tyranny doesn’t work as well as freedom. Besides the soul-crushing dehumanization of a system that doesn’t recognize fundamental liberties, the centrally planned socialist economic system turned out to be incapable of generating an abundance of goods and services. So if Brooks wants to see American preeminence regained, he might do better to promote liberalization of the world’s economic systems, which, again, is best done by example.
Brooks’s general rhetorical approach is to frame the debate between “liberals” and “conservatives” as a stubbornness game in which both sides must yield in order to bring about “a governing philosophy that believes in targeted federal efforts to arouse growth, social mobility and responsibility.” As it happens, the free-enterprise system does precisely these things, but most politicians can’t understand that this requires not action on their part, but inaction. They must stop interfering with people’s lives, not look for new ways to do it; protect liberty not abridge it. Brooks fallaciously conflates subsidies with tax reductions, but this implies that people are not the owners of their property. If the government takes money from Peter and gives it to Paul, that’s a subsidy to Paul. But if the government takes less money from Peter, that’s not a subsidy to Peter, since it’s Peter’s property to begin with. Brooks’s calls to end subsidies are correct, but the word doesn’t mean what he thinks it does.
In a way, then, Brooks is right: America has lost some of its greatness and needs to take steps to regain it.
But the problem isn’t people who want to bring the troops home or keep more of their money. Indeed, bringing the troops home would make it easier for people to keep more of their money. So would ending drug prohibition. So would allowing free trade and free human migration. National greatness, American-style, does not consist of the storied pomp of ancient lands, but rather of the opportunities illuminated by the lamp of liberty.
Aeon J. Skoble is professor of philosophy and chairman of the philosophy department at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.
Copyright © 2011 Foundation for Economic Education. Used with permission.