David Brooks is aware there’s some irony in the subject matter of his latest book, which is a hymn to humility, and the importance of acknowledging how little we can ever truly know. As a twice-weekly opinion columnist for the New York Times, and a fixture on US television and radio, he is, in his own words, “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am”. . . . Brooks says he considered calling the new book Humility, with the title in tiny letters and “David Brooks” in huge block capitals. In the event, he called it The Road to Character, which seems unlikely to mollify the army of bloggers who appear to find him insufferably pompous – “the biggest windbag in the western hemisphere”, to quote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. (New York magazine once described Brooks’s role in American life as “public intellectual/punching-bag”.) This is a pity, because it’s a powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin. And the motive for writing it, far from being a pompous desire to sermonise, was at least partly due to a personal crisis: Brooks’s realisation that his own life of well-paid worldly success, plus regular meetings with the president, was missing something essential inside.Brooks started his career thinking that as long as he could work as a writer, he would be happy. Sadly, no.
“I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered. Brooks builds a convincing case that this isn’t just his personal problem but a societal one: that our market-driven meritocracy, even when functioning at its fairest, rewards outer success while discouraging the development of the soul. Though this is inevitably a conservative argument – we have lost a “moral vocabulary” we once possessed, he says – many of the exemplary figures around whom Brooks builds the book were leftists: labour activists, civil rights leaders, anti-poverty campaigners.I agree that America's fundamental problems are moral; it seems to me that this would be true for any society free from starvation and plague. My beef with Brooks is that he writes too much about the moral problems of the poor and not enough those of the rich. He seems a lot more worried about moral collapse among the poor, which he blames largely on the welfare state, than the moral collapse on Wall Street or in the Bush White House. Like many thoughtful conservatives Brooks worries about the breakdown of small towns and coherent neighborhoods once served by locally-owned businesses. But the demise of small towns and neighborhoods has nothing to do with big government; that was the achievement of capitalism. Brooks regularly bemoans the excesses of our meritocratic system, but fails to draw what seems to me the obvious conclusion: the only way to tamp down the race for success is to make success less important. If everybody who works gets a decent life, and nobody gets obscene wealth, then the rat race loses much of its allure. The only way I can think of to do that, within the bounds of capitalism, is by taxing the hell out of the rich and subsidizing the rest of us. Brooks’ conservative bones rebel against such thoughts, so for me his columns always end up back where they started, with him shaking his head and wondering why poor people don't do better for themselves.
I get that these are hard problems, and the reason I keep reading Brooks and responding to him is that he seems interested in finding solutions rather than just reciting talking points. But waiting for the poor to get religion (or capitalism) is not a solution. It is an excuse for not doing all the thing we could do to help them.