David Brooks on Western Movies and Conservatism:

I don't read the New York Times, but my local newspaper (The Falls Church News-Press) republishes some of the columns each week (why, I don't know, but that's a topic for another day). Anyway, this means that I am usually about a week behind everyone else when it comes to NYT columns.

Most of you have probably already seen David Brooks's column this week on Republicans and western movies. I'm a Republican and a fan of western movies (although I've been much more enthusiastic about being the latter than the former in recent years). I will leave aside discussion of the quality of Brooks's appraisal of western movies, a topic that others (such as James Bowman) have discussed much better than I could.

Instead, I'll accept for the sake of argument that Brooks has correctly identified the lesson of western movies.

Instead, I'll focus on what he sees as the lessons for Republicans and conservatives:

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

But the Republican Party has mis-learned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

Now his policy proposals don't seem to follow from the core values he claims to be recognizing such as the value of neighborhoods, orderliness, and personal responsibility. Swings in energy costs? Public debt? Health care costs? All these are surely important issues--but they are all basically economic issues, not issues about neighborhood stability and community values.

It seems more plausible that the menu of values that would follow from his diagnosis of the problem would be the very same social and cultural issues that provided the core of the traditionalist wing of the conservative movement for thirty years: crime, divorce, single-parenting, faith. Local control over schools and cultural values. National security and concerns about terrorism. Fears about the coarsening of American culture. Stricter regulations on pornography and violence. Don't all of these issues--these social and cultural issues--seem much more to be what Brooks is describing when he describes the lessons to be drawn from Western movies?

Instead, Brooks seems to have adopted what is more of a liberal interpretation of social instability and disorder--that it is caused by economic factors like inequality and energy costs. Perhaps that is a correct diagnosis of the problem--but it sure doesn't seem to me to be one that follows in any way from the lesson of Western movies.

Having said all that, I think there is a core point here that should not be lost. Charles Murray's challenging speech at the AEI banquet this year illuminated a point that I have been thinking about. For the longest time, the trump card in the ideological battles has been that free markets "deliver the goods." This utilitarian argument seemed to have won the war of ideas in favor of free markets and limited government.

But what happens now, when people lose faith that the free market really "delivers the goods"? I think that's the more profound question raised by Murray (as well as by John Allison, who I've recently heard speak on these topics). Libertarians have surrendered the moral high ground on the intrinsic value and goodness of a free society. In the days of Communism, there was a constant reminder that freedom was both a superior moral order as well as economic order to totalitarianism. Brooks does raise the point well, I think:

The Republicans talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. They take things like tax cuts, which are tactics that are good in some circumstances, and elevate them to holy principle, to be pursued in all circumstances.

Finally, there is a sense here in which the true disorderliness that really used to threaten American families is no longer as pressing. Terrorism and crime have receded as a major concern of many Americans. The very same concerns about equality and the segmentation of society that Brooks bemoans has enabled many families to escape the day-to-day concerns of safe schools and safe streets. In many ways, through technology (Tivo, dvd's, etc.) families can wall themselves off from the coarseness of modern culture better than ever before (although, of course, there are new threats such as the Internet). Neighborhoods seem to have become more homogeneous over time, enabling communities to wall themselves off from the rest of the world.

In some sense then I wonder if Brooks's ability to try to redefine orderliness and community in term of largely economic values reflects that fact that in many ways Americans have taken many of the formerly pressing concerns about orderliness off the table by essentially mooting them out through public policy and private initiative. If we were still facing regular threats of terrorism at home do we think we'd be thinking of all of these issues in the same way?

Big picture, though, what strikes me is that libertarians and conservatives need to construct an intellectual and spiritual vision of a free society that speaks to its coherence with man's nature and the conditions necessary for human flourishing. Obama seems to have tapped into this spiritual void, especially among American youth (in a way that is sort of creepy to me, to tell the truth, but that's for another day).

This vein of thought of the moral virtue of freedom has always been there, of course. It has just been subordinated for the past couple of decades. But it seems to me that it is time to revisit this well and think about an intellectual defense of freedom that is more than "it delivers the goods."