David Brooks: Know Your Betters

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Yesterday David Brooks wrote a scathing and wicked caricature of David Brooks. Except of course he was serious. At least I think he was serious. Is David Brooks ever not serious?

Anyway, the column is really something to behold.

Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following.

Then it gets really good.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

You know, 1925-1955. The good ole’ days. Back when we still had important institutions like segregation. And lynching. When our elites gave us alcohol prohibition. And when we banned marijuana because the pillars of American society warned us that the drug was helping black jazz musicians take sexual liberties with white women. It was a time when we still sterilized society’s undesirables, when we imprisoned Americans of Asian descent simply because of their heritage. Those were also the days when the U.S. government conducted covert medical experiments and biological warfare testing on its own citizens. Yes, it’s good we were less willing to question our government back then.

None of these ideas—the contempt for individualism, the deference to authority, the yearning for mass conformity in pursuit of some Great Cause,  the Internet as warning of our coming dystopia, the unabashed elitism—are particularly new from Brooks. But he isn’t generally so comically explicit about them. Here’s his closer:

To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

I’m going to treat this nonsense with far more respect than it deserves.

Let’s set aside Brooks’ contempt for individualism for a moment. Let’s just look at his fondness for elites and “just authority.” Both of these assume that our elites and political leaders get to become elites and political leaders because of merit. For Brooks, this rises out a Burkean fondness for tradition and institutions—we should defer to the elites our institutions produce because our institutions were built and shaped by the wisdom and experience of those who came before us.

The problem of course is that it’s far from given that those who came before us were all that wise. There’s a reason why we’ve abandoned institutions like the divine right of kings, slavery, Jim Crow, colonialism, and the subjugation of women. The people who came before us also built into our modern institutions perverse incentives that make “questioning authority” not only permissible, but obligatory.

Brooks himself, for example, recently wrote that anyone who has read the New Yorker story on Cameron Todd Willingham should question the wisdom of the death penalty. But if the criminal justice system—an institution we’ve been shaping and molding since the birth of the country, and one that (allegedly) rests on the pretty fundamental values of fairness and equality before the law—can still produce such unjust results, after 236 years of opportunity for fine-tuning, and in the very cases where one would think it would be most cautious; if it continues to produce leadership like the district attorneys who keep pursuing these cases, and who keep fighting to keep exonorees in prison—these would all be strong indications that maybe this particular institution and those like it ought to be questioned. As should the leaders it produces. Why is it that prosecutors are rewarded for putting people in prison, but rarely punished for abusing their authority? Why do even the “good” cops lie and cover up for the bad ones? It’s rather absurd to think that institutions loaded with bad incentives and that produce bad outcomes far too often for comfort will somehow also produce good leaders that needn’t be scrutinzed.

And that’s merely the institution with which I’m most familiar. We could also look to our religious institutions. There’s Catholicism, the largest religion in the world—and also the one where the church’s leaders and elites spent decades covering up the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children, despicable acts also committed . . . by the church’s leadership. We could look to the never-ending scandals on the protestant side, from religious leaders stealing from their flocks, to the perennial virulently anti-gay church leader caught with his pants down. I’m not attacking any particular religion or religion in general, here. I’m just pointing out the absurdity of Brooks’ notion that we should defer to elites and authority figures simply by virtue of the fact that they are elites and authority figures.

In this particular column Brooks specifically calls for allegiance to our political leaders. This makes me wonder if Brooks owns a television or regularly reads a newspaper. Our politicians are clownish, ridiculous people. Even if you’re the die-hardest of die-hard blue- or red-staters, in your most honest moments you have to concede that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are absurd human beings. If they didn’t hold positions of power, you’d want nothing to do with these people.

Politics—the quest for power because you’re sure that you, more than others, know what’s best for everyone else—has always been a profession worth ridiculing, going back to the satirists who found plenty to ridicule in the earliest democratic institutions in Rome and Greece. But here in America we have a political process—another institution subject to 236 years of fine-tuning—that’s particularly cartoonish. The set of skills it takes to get elected and achieve success in politics are not only the sorts of traits you’d never want in the people who govern you, they’re actually character flaws. They’re the sorts of traits decent people try to teach out of their children. To be successful at politics, you need to be deceitful, manipulative, conniving, and mostly devoid of principle. (Principled politicians are rarely remembered as “great legislators.” And historians bestow greatness on the presidents most willing to wage war, accumulate power, and exceed their constitutional authority.) The most successful politicians sell voters on their strong convictions and principles, and then, once elected, they do as they’re told, in order to accumulate power and status within the party.

So those of us who question authority do so not because we’re vain or think we’re better than everyone else. On the contrary. We question authority because we recognize that human beings, ourselves included, are flawed. And we’ll always be flawed. Which means that we will build flawed institutions and produce flawed leaders. We question authority because we recognize that not only is authority (another word for power) inherently corrupting, but also because we recognize the perverse values, priorities, and notions of merit upon which authority is generally granted.

People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God. (But only if we get out of their way!) He thinks people achieve political power because they exemplify the best in us. We “bad followers” recognize that they usually embody the worst. We don’t buy the idea that people who have the power to tell other people what to do are inherently worth obeying simply because they’ve managed to get themselves into a position where they get to tell other people what to do. In fact, we think there’s good reason to believe the institutions that confer telling-people-what-to-do authority grant that authority to all the wrong people, and for all the wrong reasons.

Individualism is of course worth embracing and championing for its own sake. But celebrating and promoting individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing. When a flawed individual (and that would be all of us) makes mistakes, he affects only himself and the people who associate with him. When a flawed political leader (and that would be all of them) makes mistakes, we’re all affected, whether we chose to associate with that leader or not. And the more we conform, follow, and entrust our political leaders with power, the more susceptible and vulnerable we are to their flaws and mistakes.

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129 Responses to “David Brooks: Know Your Betters”

  1. #1 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    And yet you want to give the corporate elites unparalleled power over people, Radley.

    @86 – Because that’s worked so well in third world countries, where the companies had LESS power than you’d grant them. The evidence you don’t believe in illustrates the consequences perfectly.

  2. #2 |  The problem isn’t followers, it’s leaders. | The Thinker | 

    […] Balko politely but firmly takes David Brooks to task for his recent op-ed piece, wherein Brooks tries to shift some blame for our country’s […]

  3. #3 |  Other Sean | 

    Leon #96,

    There are no third world countries that have tried anything like what I was talking about in comment #86, certainly not today, nor really in the past.

    The project is to build extreme minarchy or anarchy among people with at least a semblance of rationalism and libertarian values. Third world shit-holes that crawled backwards from Soviet sponsored statism into medieval superstition a few years ago don’t count…for what should be very obvious reasons.

  4. #4 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Leon: “And yet you want to give the corporate elites unparalleled power over people, Radley.”

    I’ve never heard Radley advocate that, Leon. Look, I know where you’re coming from, so I am more sympathetic to your concerns than some of the other commenters. I was a pretty consistent Progressive/Democratic Socialist for several years after college. I had the same suspicions about libertarians that you are expressing now. But I think you are looking at this the wrong way.

    The state is not and never has been a friend to working people. Actually the state is a tool used to keep us in our place. The welfare state, I found to my grave disappointment, is largely used to keep people compliant and dependent on politicians and bureaucracies. And all too often, government intervention in the economy only helps keep the corporate elite at the commanding heights. The system called “capitalism” has always been reliant on state intervention excercised on behalf of favored industries. If the state did not intervene in the economy as much as it does (or at all), it would likely be much harder for corporate elites to excercise power over workers. Recall that corporations are creations of the state.

    I’m still figuring this out myself, Leon. I do still have disagreements with libertarians over economic issues and I don’t have a blue print. But I do think the libertarians as corporate apologist theme is getting a bit played out. Though it may be correct in some cases, I don’t think Radley qualifies for such a designation.

  5. #5 |  Know Your Betters | Western Rifle Shooters Association | 

    […] Venlet links to this Radley Balko evisceration of pundit/stooge David […]

  6. #6 |  CyniCAl | 

    Great job Radley. Your march toward anarchism (true political equality) continues.

  7. #7 |  Alex the Lesser | 

    I think Mr. Brooks is misunderstanding his own point. The leaders of the past made for great monuments because they were great leaders, and we haven’t had one of those in decades. Brooks shoots himself down with the Eisenhower quote – “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” I don’t think one can honestly ascribe those characteristics to a statistically significant portion of America’s current ruling caste. All that our modern leaders do better than their underlings is self-promote.

  8. #8 |  Steve Verdon | 

    People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God.

    To quote somebody not as moronic as David Brooks,

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”–John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

    Brooks is an authoritarian asshole, much like Thomas Friedman who is in love with Communist China.

  9. #9 |  Some guy | 

    I did not know David Brooks had less testosterone than Maureen Dowd.

  10. #10 |  The Hell? | 

    @ 75

    So Brooks, a longtime hack Republican mouthpiece and favorite object of ire for liberals, is somehow secretly stumping for Obama over his wet dream candidate Romney? And he did this by writing one of the most loathed columns in recent memory, which has been savagely ripped apart by pretty much every blog in the English speaking internet?

    Your logic is positively Brooksian…

  11. #11 |  Calion | 

    This is awesome. But you neglect to mention that our political institutions, unlike those of other nations, were specifically and explicitly designed for a populace that questioned authority, that did not have faith in its leaders, and works badly without that basic skepticism.

  12. #12 |  JB Andrews | 

    “…people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.”

  13. #13 |  Medicine Man | 

    Brooks is quite a creature isn’t he. He has this whole “kiss up, spit down”-shtick learned to the point of being a motor reflex. Anyhow, thanks for writing such a detailed and methodical take-down of his drivel. I only wonder if Brooks is self-aware enough to appreciate how badly he’s being reamed.

  14. #14 |  Matt Strictland | 

    I’ll gladly follow if someone is worthy of it. I haven’t seen that in any of the ruling class.

  15. #15 |  Patches Ohoulihan | 

    Plus, Lance Armstrong has the BEST. CAMEO. EVER. in Dodgeball

    Remember the five D’s: dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge.

  16. #16 |  Patches Ohoulihan | 

    Oops – wrong blog.

  17. #17 |  Articles for Friday » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] Radley Balko: David Brooks: Know Your Betters […]

  18. #18 |  Sheldon Richman | 

    Excellent! Brooks is insufferable.

  19. #19 |  Dedicated_Dad | 

    @Aresen (#58) Ron Paul.

  20. #20 |  Held Prisoner To Tradition? | The Penn Ave Post | 

    […] Prisoner To Tradition? Posted at 3:45 on June 17, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan Radley Balko questions the theory that we should defer to the status quo "because our institutions were built and […]

  21. #21 |  fursnake7 | 

    Off topic, but:
    Sorry, Ghost #37 and OtherSean #38, we DO need regulation against things like toxic waste, not just information and enforcement of property rights. Business leaders are personally rewarded by producing short-term profits. Running their businesses cleanly and responsibly will always be more expensive and less profitable than dumping. Corrupt and/or oblivious politicians will always help these businesses by 1.) Helping hide the damage until the offenders have collected their booty and escaped, and 2.) Socializing the cost of cleaning up among the rest of us, thereby ensuring that future businessmen will see the profit in polluting. I’m not “anti-business”; I just wish that businesses would truly have to pay for the damage that they do, as a cost of doing business, before calculating their profits or paying their taxes.

  22. #22 |  Ian MacLeod | 

    There are a few people I’d call my “betters” – in some things. There is no one I’ve ever met I’d call my better in every way, and not that many I’d call an equal. And there is NO “authority” that I will trust blindly, ESPECIALLY a government authority.


  23. #23 |  Sancho | 


  24. #24 |  Joe | 

    Sounds to me like Mr. Brooks is suffering from sour grapes. He’s one of the people “in charge”, but isn’t getting the respect he thinks he deserves from what he calls the “Great Unwashed Masses”………well, because, we just don’t know our place. Brooks is one of those people who would insist that we all should be living like the Unabomber in a one-room shack while he and his fellow “superiors” get to live in mansions which burn enough energy to power a small town………..because, well, they are just “better” than rest of us. Hey Brooks: I wave my private parts at your aunties, I blow my nose at you! You’re mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!

  25. #25 |  Josh | 

    “Even if you’re the die-hardest of die-hard blue- or red-staters, in your most honest moments you have to concede that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are absurd human beings.”

    Epic. Though to be truly accurate one would have to note that Nancy Pelosi (et al, but her especially) has no hope of (or, I suspect, interest in) ever approaching anything nearly as benign as absurdity. I believe pathological preposterousness to be essentially the Clark Kent to her Superman.. her condescending preformance-art critique of the average voter. Deep down, she’s all hate and destruction.

    To torture the metaphor further, she’s a clown.. who stabs you in the back, between phoning in sub-par balloon animals.

  26. #26 |  Authoritarianism or Self-Determination » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] too caught up in their emotional enmeshment with the State to understand that it is they who think they’re better than everyone […]

  27. #27 |  JOR | 

    #63, Questioning authority badly is better than deferring to it. Anti-vaxxers are less objectionable than historical fruits of scientific authority (coercive psychiatry, eugenics, colonialism, genocide, etc.)

    Yeah. OT. Brooks is a flaghumping, badgelicking victim of intellectual self-castration. May he have an ‘encounter’ with the authority he loves so much.

    #104, One way I like to explain it is that government is the One Big Corporation. Or, in other terms, it’s a union for the capitalist elite.

  28. #28 |  JOR | 

    “we DO need regulation against things like toxic waste, not just information and enforcement of property rights. Business leaders are personally rewarded by producing short-term profits. Running their businesses cleanly and responsibly will always be more expensive and less profitable than dumping.”

    Well, sure, other things equal it’s cheaper to be cheap. But so what? When libertarians say that we should deal with pollution by enforcing property rights, what they basically mean is that it should be a crime to pollute other peoples’ stuff (or even their commons – there’s nothing unlibertarian about commons, and they generally work fine until some state comes along to confiscate them for use by capitalists). That’s… basically what people who insist we need “regulations” are talking about, right? When libertarians rail against ‘regulations’ what they’re really railing against are ‘victimless crimes’, or what they perceive to be such.*

    “Corrupt and/or oblivious politicians will always help these businesses . . . ”

    Well shucks, it’s almost like you’re saying statism isn’t a solution.

    *Of course there might be cases where they’re wrong on the substance, and of course sometimes libertarians go into Capitalist Tool mode and rail against critiques of the capitalist/business elite as such (because such critiques often carry ‘leftist’ cultural markers that libertarians are emotionally averse to), and against any perceived regulation that might serve to protect people from them (because, sadly, a lot of self-declared libertarians are just apologists for capitalist plutocrats).

  29. #29 |  Anton Sherwood | 

    “If they didn’t hold positions of power, you’d want nothing to do with these people.”

    If they didn’t hold positions of power, they’d be very different people.