Brooks's policy rules
“The influence of politics and policy,” David Brooks writes, “is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.” True enough. This is why it's hard, for instance, to dramatically improve the outcomes for impoverished children in urban schools by tweaking educational policy, or to dramatically change the rates of chronic disease by making changes to our health-care policy.
But Brooks takes this insight a step further: He believes that policy shouldn't interrupt those other factors.
The first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds, If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.
This all sounds fine, but aside from ruling out forced ethnic displacement, it's not clear what it means. What is "basic security?" Does it include health care? Nutritious food? How do you strengthen relationships? Brooks recommends military service, but doesn't that take people from their homes and ship them off to strange, arid lands? Or if he means to strengthen existing relationships, does that mean trying to set policy so that children don't move away to college? Or so that people born in rural areas resist the lure of the city?
And what about when basic security and existing social bonds conflict? That brings up the military draft, again, and the question of whether we should have universal basic security through government programs or patchwork security through voluntary associations based around community ties. Indeed, I could use this paragraph to argue for busing on the grounds that it encourages relationships in much the way military service does and against busing in that it breaks up tribes of people and forces them to interact.
I think Brooks's point is that the power of non-policy factors should inspire modesty among believers in government intervention. And he's right about that. But it goes in reverse, too: The complexity of these outcomes should inspire modesty about the relevance of broad philosophical insights rather than well-designed tests of specific interventions. Brooks's column doesn't favor the conservative's principled belief in less government so much as the technocrat's commitment to voluminous evidence and careful studies.
For more, see Matt Yglesias.