Saturday, January 31, 2009

David Brooks shadows forth a conservative Obama

As part of his Big Thoughts Boiled Down series, David Brooks gives us Hugh Heclo's On Thinking Institutionally:
As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Funny that Brooks did not relate his paean to institutional norms to the current state of the union. He was writing just a week after a new President took office promising to "restore science to its rightful place," to judge each Federal program by a standard of "whether it works," and to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" while prosecuting war and anti-terror measures -- while tapping into the New Testament for his moral underpinnings.

Nor did Brooks mention the Bush Administration's wholesale assault on the precious norms of government built up over two centuries -- such as prosecutors eschewing political concerns in their investigations, armed forces eschewing torture, industrial policymakers respecting science, and Presidents obeying the law.

An "institutionalist" as defined by Heclo is conservative in the best sense, saving the acquired wisdom that institutions are designed to capture. In these terms, Obama is conservative and Bush is a scorched-earth radical.

I guess this was one of Brooks's "apolitical" columns. Why?

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