David Brooks has it backwards

As a rule I like David Brooks, often find myself saying that he speaks (writes) for me. But this time, in a NYTimes op ed piece, The New Humanism, he’s terribly off base. Most of all in this piece he’s not in command of his subject, as if he were writing about an idea he hadn’t fully digested or understood himself.

His idea is that our policy failures, of which there are certainly many, the mediocre achievement of our public schools, our stalled and costly military presence in the Middle East, our failure to recognize and appropriately manage bubbles, especially that in the housing market in 2006/07, our annual trillion dollar budget deficits, that these and other failures all stem from an “overly simplistic view of human nature,” one in which reason was to be trusted and emotions considered suspect.

But, as it seemed to me while reading Brooks, couldn’t one just as easily have said that in all these instances of policy failures we had too much trusted our emotions and set reason aside?

Closing the achievement gaps between different groups of our student populations; narrowing the widening income gaps between the upper, middle, and lower classes; attempting to help the Arab and Muslim peoples of the Middle East establish democratic governments; lowering mortgage rates and thereby extending home ownership to as many of our people as possible, thinking that this will make them more responsible and more productive citizens….

And most of all not wanting to take away from large numbers of our citizens any of the health, old age and other benefits that we had earlier given them and that they had come to depend upon, (and thereby creating the envisioned and now much talked about but still not reasonably addressed inevitable budget deficits for our children).

In all these cases we acted from our feelings, from our feeling about what was right. In all these cases we acted unreasonably, from how we wanted things to be, and not from an understanding of what was the nature of the problem, and not at all how, by well reasoned initiatives, we might have in fact changed things for the better.

We acted most of all out of generosity. From a desire to help ourselves, yes, but no less from a desire to help other peoples to better their lives. And in what we did we were not trusting our reason, rather our hearts.

For reason if listened to in any of these instances might have told us what was possible, and what was not possible, and we would have done things differently from what we’re now doing, swayed as we are by our affective side.

In other words, Brooks seems to have it just backwards. In a sense there has been too much “humanism,” new or old, and what we need more of is clear and yes, cold, reason.

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