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Someone Tell David Brooks Neoliberalism Has Utterly Failed

To make the case against socialism, David Brooks reached into his timeworn bag of anti-radical clichés: humanity is too flawed, bureaucrats can’t get anything right, and the market’s efficiency is unmatched. Has he paid any attention to the last 30 years of neoliberalism?

Political commentator David Brooks speaks on stage at Income Inequality with David Brooks, Jacob Hacker, and Nelini Stamp Moderated by George Packer at the New Yorker Festival 2014 on October 19, 2014 in New York City. Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for The New Yorker

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, David Brooks offers a characteristic dismissal of socialist politics entitled “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.”

As its title suggests, the piece (an adapted version of remarks Brooks gave at the Munk Debates in Toronto last week) is framed as a story of grown-up hardheadedness prevailing over the naive idealism of youth. Channeling the famous, unbearably smug quote erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill, Brooks presents his own political evolution as the triumph of head over heart; a slow coming to terms with the world as it really is rather than how we think it ought to be.

This biographical garnish mostly matters because the assumed binary between socialist naivete and capitalist realism heavily informs the more substantial parts of Brooks’s argument (more on those in a moment). But it’s also relevant because the definition of socialism Brooks gives himself as an intellectual sparring partner is so unforgivably thin: “The best version of socialism,” he writes, “is defined by Michael Walzer’s phrase ‘what touches all should be decided by all.’”

As a basic ethical principle this isn’t bad, except it turns out that what Brooks means in practice is an incredibly straw-manned version of mid-century statism characterized by technocratic economic planning. In the opening stanzas, he tells us he was a socialist in college who once read the Nation and old issues of the New Masses (a publication associated with the Communist Party USA that stopped circulating some thirteen years before he was born). Aside from this rather anecdotal claim, it’s unclear in what sense Brooks was ever seriously engaged with socialist thought, let alone activism. He tells us that a youthful, socialist version of himself once debated Milton Friedman, though the bespectacled twenty-two-year-old who appears in the clip was already employed at the Wall Street Journal (by twenty-four, he’d moved to the National Review) and can be heard making arguments against excessive state regulation and complaining about the FDA.

It’s hardly the stuff of Phil Ochs songs, which perhaps explains why Brooks’s understanding of socialism seems so narrow: if you’ve never really held or practiced a political ideology, you’re liable to give it less of a fair hearing than someone who has, even if they’ve eventually abandoned it. In any case, whether we take Brooks at his word or not, his espoused biography turns out to be a fragile skeleton for the arguments that follow — which have less to do with an intellectual critique of socialism as such than with a quasi-spiritual faith in the superiority of capitalism.

For our purposes, it’s worth isolating the separate, though interwoven, dimensions of Brooks’s piece: the first, a series of fairly basic historical and theoretical claims; the second, a set of deep structural assumptions about politics and what might crudely be called human nature. Whatever one thinks of Brooks as a thinker or stylist, he does have a knack for making the logic of conservatism legible and intuitively appealing to his audience. In this respect, the piece is a useful illustration of how one of America’s most influential public intellectuals thinks about politics, and the flawed worldview it ultimately reflects.

Brooks’s most tangible point (in many ways the fulcrum of his entire argument) is stated plainly enough: socialism, whatever its laudable humanitarian commitments might be in the abstract, simply doesn’t work for technical reasons:

My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated. I came to realize that capitalism is really good at doing the one thing socialism is really bad at: creating a learning process to help people figure stuff out . . . It has a competitive profit-driven process to motivate you to learn and innovate, every single day.

This assessment makes a certain degree of sense if we limit our definition of socialism to state bureaucrats doing things and, even then, the argument has some obvious problems. The state-managed utilities created in many countries after the Second World War had an observably better track record than the market versions that emerged following the privatization mania of the 1980s and ’90s. Some elements of a modern industrial society are natural monopolies in the sense that they serve their original purpose better when owned and managed by a single actor (in this case, the public sector). If you want to see how badly the introduction of so-called market dynamism into former public utilities has really gone, look no further than Britain’s rail system or Auckland’s subways.

Which brings us to a second issue with Brooks’s argument from efficiency, namely that capitalism tends toward private monopoly in a way that renders claims about learning or risk deeply troubled at best. “Competition” is a ludicrous concept when applied to corporate giants like Amazon or Google, who are incidentally involved in large-scale economic planning of their own: a modern capitalist economy is one structured around highly concentrated ownership far more than dynamic competition; of largely socialized risk and privatized gain. It’s also a wretched notion to apply to basic human needs like health care: sick people don’t need a system that gives investors the biggest return on the lowest investment, they need a doctor. Furthermore, the absurdity of venture capital schemes like WeWork and Theranos should have everyone asking serious questions about how efficiently modern capitalism allocates resources. Invoke the specter of Soviet planning all you want, but don’t call the economic model that gave us the Fyre Festival and financial derivatives “efficient.”

Much as the rest of the piece descends from this basic premise, Brooks’s real argument has more to do with a kind of capitalist fatalism than any serious critique of the socialist project or engagement with the highly varied institutional configurations socialists have advocated or defended as necessary extensions of its core egalitarian concerns (configurations that simply aren’t reducible to “state bureaucrats running the whole economy”). The piece’s subheading reads, “Two cheers for capitalism, now and forever,” which is a much clearer distillation of its actual thesis than anything the author has to say about government inefficiency or market incentives. In heart and mind, Brooks believes that inequality is an indelible fact of life that cannot be undone by human agency. He tells us as much when he asks the following rhetorical questions:

Why do we have to live with such poverty and inequality? Why can’t we put people over profits? What is the best life in the most just society? Socialism is the most compelling secular religion of all time. It gives you an egalitarian ideal to sacrifice and live for.

Faced with all of the obvious flaws and injustices of capitalist societies, Brooks opts to casually acknowledge them while insisting they leave the glass half full rather than half empty. The implicit assumption that human nature is so immutably flawed that the best we can hope for is the least bad of universally imperfect alternatives is an animating feature of modern conservatism (and one expressed to Brooks by none other than Milton Friedman during their debate in the 1980s), as is the related idea that all attempts to meaningfully transform human societies represent a naive utopianism doomed to fail.

In the case of Brooks’s op-ed, we repeatedly find this fatalism at work masquerading as hardheaded intellectual maturity, and we needn’t embrace an overly sentimental view or reductive conception of “human nature” to think otherwise.

Far from being a dogmatic commitment to a particular set of institutional arrangements or an irrational faith in the sorcery of bureaucrats, the socialist analysis merely holds that inequality is neither a natural nor an inevitable reality of life but rather the product of identifiable contradictions in the structures of economy and society. Even in the richest nations today, millions are denied the opportunity to realize their full potential as human beings not because they’re intrinsically weaker, less intelligent, or less hardworking than others, but because capital forces them to be its unwilling instruments. Denying power and agency to the many while accruing them to a wealthy few, it ravenously commodifies everything it can about our daily lives — from our time and energy to our opportunities to be educated and even to reproduce — while enriching a gilded minority whose only imperative is to enrich itself still further.

Believing there’s an alternative isn’t fanciful, and it certainly isn’t utopian, as Brooks would have us believe, and the seeds of this revelation are contained in his very argument courtesy of a rhetorical sleight of hand that finds him praising Scandinavia. Though Brooks tries to cover for himself by making the agitated claim that Scandinavian social democracy would never work in America for cultural reasons, he nevertheless gives us a clear example (among many others throughout the world) of injustice undone by human agency.

Compare the social outcomes in countries like Finland or Denmark to those of the United States, thanks to decidedly non-capitalist institutions of the kind a conservative like Brooks invariably opposes in practice, and ask where they came from. Generations of Swedish trade unionists didn’t fight for collective ownership of wealth, robust welfare institutions, or the right to be represented at work in order to make themselves into “better capitalists” (as Brooks so absurdly puts it), but because they knew the poverty and immiseration the once dominated their societies was no more natural than feudalism and could similarly be undone.

This, more than anything else, is what being a socialist is fundamentally about: embracing and recognizing the injustices owed to hierarchy and exploitation, rejecting the fatalism of those who insist they are inevitable, and working together with your fellow human beings until they’re undone for good.