I used to pay a subscription to the New York Times so that I could read David Brooks’ twice-weekly column. The NYT recently ended subscriber-only access – so there’s nothing stopping you from now bookmarking him! His always-thoughtful column now appears every Tuesday and Friday.
Friday's column warned the Republican Party that it was becoming too ideological. Beliefs in the transformational power of democracy and the importance of individual freedom were, he wrote, trampling on other conservative understandings; the importance of process and the unseen value of complex institutions, for example. He contrasts Republicanism as currently practiced with Burkean conservatism. I’ve talked of the tension between substantive versus dispositional conservatism.
The graphic below summarises the two forms of conservatism as applied to five themes. The words are all direct quotations from Mr Brooks’ column. I’ve always been much more of a substantive conservative than a dispositional conservative but the most important observation that David Brooks makes is at the end of his column: “conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is restrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.”
That’s surely right in most circumstances but I remain of the view that the Republican hawks have been more right than wrong in how they have pursued the war on terror. While it’s true that there has been insufficient study of hostile nations’ cultures and there have been inadequate troop deployments, the threats to civilisation posed by Islamic fundamentalism are so great that it has largely been right to act pre-emptively and in ways that have sometimes met the disapproval of more cautious conservatives. What we will never know now is what would have happened if the radical doctrine of pre-emption had never been pursued. Dispositional conservatives can point to the current difficulties in Iraq in a 'told-you-so' kind of way but what would the world have looked like if Saddam had remained in power?