David Brooks, one of the two (sort of) center-right voices on The New York Times editorial page, was famously wooed and won by then-Sen. Barak Obama back in 2006. Among the qualities that appealed to Brooks was Obama's urbane intelligence, personified in his "perfectly creased pant." Brooks did not suspect that the dapper exterior harbored the soul of a bully, of which the Health and Human Services birth-control mandate is only the most recent example.
Since then, Brooks has fallen off the Obama bandwagon (mostly), but seems a bit wistful for the Camelot that wasn't. A column from earlier this month, "The Materialist Fallacy," betrays some confusion about the role of a chief executive. His springboard subject is Charles Murray's Coming Apart, an examination of America's cultural drift. Murray contends that Americans are dividing into a two-class society, with the upper level by and large demonstrating the behaviors that lead to prosperity, while the lower level has settled into dysfunctional family patterns-divorce and illegitimacy-that tend to perpetuate themselves. Worse, members of the middle class are sliding into those same patterns.
Acknowledging the problem, Brooks reviews three standard responses. Liberals say it's all about the economy-lack of jobs has led to destabilization of the family and other dismal consequences. Libertarians blame the government for making laziness profitable. Neo-conservatives blame the '60s for making irresponsibility neutral.
This is all too crude for the columnist; the factors of social decline can't be reduced to slogans. He cites "recent research" from the last 25 years showing that dysfunctional families tend to perpetuate themselves: "The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It's not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities."
Too true, so how do we go about that? Brooks' column, which was making sense, suddenly goes wobbly as he rolls out "organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly … and yes, sometimes using government to do so."
The same day I read this column, the story of the miscreant North Carolina sack lunch broke. For those who weren't listening to talk radio or trolling conservative blogs, late last month a preschooler's home-packed lunch was confiscated because an U.S. Department of Agriculture agent deemed it not healthy enough. The child was given a school lunch instead; she ate the chicken nuggets and ditched the healthy part. Just for the sake of argument, is this not an example of trying to "induce people to behave responsibly"? Responsibility is not the default mode of most of us-providing free lunches (not to mention birth control) encourages just the opposite, while loading more responsibility onto the body politic, funded by us.
Which seems to be exactly what Obama wants. The social fabric is a weave of individuals and community, not "organizations and structures." While pondering the sharp crease in the future president's pants, Brooks missed seeing another metaphor-a knife slicing constitutional liberty, and ultimately society itself.