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Gather round, ducklings, for David Brooks would like to commence his Tuesday lesson: “When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ by Edmund Burke. I loathed the book.” You’ll never believe this, but later in life, he grew to like the book. This bears all the trappings of a trenchant political column.

Brooks read books by other people, too.

These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

Before long, Brooks was no longer a liberal.

Before long, I was no longer a liberal.

Barack Obama, the current president, is a liberal, as are his aides.

Readers of this column know that I am a great admirer of Barack Obama and those around him. And yet the gap between my epistemological modesty and their liberal worldviews has been evident over the past few weeks.

They verb David Brooks’ metaphor.


They set off my Burkean alarm bells.

To conclude.

All in all, I can see why the markets are nervous and dropping. And it’s also clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited. We will know that highly trained government experts are capable of quickly designing and executing top-down transformational change. If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity.

David Brooks thanks you for listening. You are now free to return to Planet Earth, where the all of the biggest banks are insolvent and where serious people are trying to solve this.

The Big Test [NYT]

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