The New York Times’ David Brooks is a compassionate conservative. I’m not being sarcastic: in contrast to many of his brethren on the right, who are neither compassionate nor conservative but mean-spirited and reactionary, Brooks really does care about people, including people who are less fortunate than himself. Unlike the radical reactionaries that dominate today’s Republican Party, he acknowledges that there are major public problems in the United States whose solutions involve something other than reducing the role of government. And yet, even at his most compassionate, Brooks demonstrates the social myopia that typically limits conservatives’ understanding of the world.
In his column today Brooks invokes an ancient parable to illustrate his social policy outlook. It is the parable of the prodigal son. Brooks recounts that after the prodigal took his share of his sizable inheritance early and blew it on high living, he was welcomed back joyously by his father, who forgave all. The father’s generous attitude contrasted with that of the elder brother, who resented the old man’s indulgence of the prodigal. Similarly, Brooks tells us, we need to be understanding and forgiving of the prodigals among us:
We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self righteously lecturing the poor: ‘You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.’
If you read Brooks with any regularity, it’s not hard to catch on that when he talks about “we in the elder brother class” who want to lecture the poor, he’s talking about himself and his fellow right-wingers, who tend to see the problems of the less fortunate classes as the results of cultural and moral deficits that impede success in our highly competitive society. So, you can easily read this column as a mea culpa and an admonishment to other right-wingers. But the mea culpa isn’t for harboring judgmental or paternalistic attitudes toward the childlike poor; it’s for advertising those attitudes too crassly.
In any case, there are problems with Brooks’ analogy. The prodigal son was not wanting in material means or opportunity. He enjoyed wealth and he blew it in self-indulgence. His misfortune was inarguably self-inflicted. Most of the people mired in long-term unemployment and poverty in the United States lack the opportunity the prodigal son enjoyed. Their cultural and moral deficits, while often real, reflect material conditions, some with deep historic roots. Those conditions can only be remedied through public policies that tackle structural economic change, joblessness and inequality; in other words, through the kind of Big Government programs that are so anathema to the right. If the solution is unacceptable, the problem has to be invisible, or at best only dimly perceived. (That is also why right-wingers tend to deny climate change—not only do the necessary policy solutions threaten powerful vested interests dear to the right; they are ideologically repugnant.) Brooks’ failure to see the obvious inapplicability of his parable to contemporary problems reflects the self-induced myopia that characterizes his conservative perspective.