Epstein Critques David Brooks' "The Conservative Mind"

David Brooks, You're Wrong.
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
October 2, 2012

The most important question at election time is also the simplest: Are you better off than you were four years ago? It is simple to state, but devilishly difficult to answer, for the inquiry depends on the interaction between two sources of human satisfaction. The first is income or wealth. The second is culture—the wide set of non-monetizable items related to personal health, family stability, marriage, friendships, hobbies, and religious, social, and charitable arrangements.

In looking at the first of these measures, the United States is not doing well. Average family income is down by over eight percent from four years ago; unemployment rates are stuck over eight percent. The next round of financial stimulus is likely to fail as did the previous attempts. Worse, no one can point to a politically feasible and economically prudent set of reforms to reverse the recent and persistent decline in both employment and residential real estate markets—the two that are most salient to ordinary people.

In the face of this, it is easy to turn our attention to the intangibles of life as David Brooks recently did. Brooks insists that the Republican Party’s folly lies in its excessive emphasis on the generative capacities of markets. Brooks argues that this shortfall is exacerbated by the GOP’s slighting of traditional conservatives—thinkers like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk—to whom social harmony, customary practices, and slow change are foundational to the preservation and success of any social system. For Brooks, the correct balance between economic markets and social tradition is essential.

Richard A. Epstein