David Brooks says that "politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun." This is because political change is inherently a "slow trudge", and so government should limit its goals and oriented itself around "essential but mundane tasks" mostly concerned with maintaining a "background order".
Brooks has done this trick before where he purports to advocate a limited government defined by a few modest tasks, but when he lists those tasks we find they encompass the entirety of human experience.
Today, his boring, mundane, and gradual government should only do things like "keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility." Though the pursuit of these modest goals should not "deliver meaning" to the pursuer. All of this is nuts.
First, his list of non-political pursuits is a lot more political than he thinks. Enjoying family and friends does indeed sound like more fun than obsessing about politics. But what if you can’t even create the family you want to subsequently enjoy because you’re gay and your government severely limits your family-formation options? And in decades past, what if your preferred romantic arrangement didn’t conform with the majority culture and there was no legal right to live how you liked? To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you.
Similarly, consuming and thinking about culture is indeed something I love to do: but how much vital art and culture is borne of political strife, struggles for justice, etc? And it’s hard to separate the story of cultural expression from the fight to strike down puritan obscenity and decency laws, not to mention racial segregation. Again, politics is interested in you.
As to his list of proper government functions which should not "deliver meaning": "Keeping the peace" is in fact very meaningful if your urban neighborhood, say Chicago, is wracked with gang violence. It might also intersect with the political system through complimentary issues like racial discrimination, education policy, and local labor market conditions. And do drone deaths of civilians in Pakistan "keep the peace"? Does TSA? Do our current gun laws? In each case, are there better ways to "keep the peace"? Tough questions! Should I concern myself with them? Or would that indicate misaligned priorities?
And maybe Brooks thinks the proper pace of promoting justice should be set at "boring, gradual, orderly", but I bet those on the receiving end of systemic injustice may prefer a more vigorous pace. Fair enough, that’s a difference of opinion on the way forward! If only there were some outlet, some communal process, by which we could argue and adjudicate those viewpoints and a lawful resolution could be found? I know, how about politics?
Finally, Brooks wants to task the government with "creating a background setting for mobility." Well "mobility" can be a rather expansive concept. I think even a modest definition would encompass tax policy, issues regarding the pace and scale of redistribution, the provision of social insurance and public services, student loan and housing policy, and a big-but-boring one, the efficiency and effectiveness of government bureaucracy itself.
It really depends on where you stand whether you believe any of these issues belong in the "background setting" or the foreground setting of your life, and subsequently, how much time you want to devote to learning about these things and trying to effect change. And again, the venue where we decide the relative priority levels is the political process!
What about Brooks’s list of government inadequacies and limitations? I have a problem with those too:
[Government] is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down.
Now of course there is some truth to these critiques. Bureaucratic in-fighting and status-quo bias are indeed features of large organizations like governments, and employee protections can be distorting. But here he’s engaging in the very fatalism he rejects earlier in the piece. This is mistaken for two reasons. First, some governments are better than others. Some are more nimble and adapt to failure better than others. Some bureaucracies are more efficient and less corrupt than others. Some governments enact policies that lead to more successful outcomes for citizens than other governments. Right here in the U.S. there are fifty state governments making all kinds of different decisions on a range of policies: education, health, housing, etc. Some states seem to perform better than others. Residents of low-performing states shouldn’t just give up on politics because, oh well, government sucks; they should push for change to more optimal policies! Likewise, around the globe we find that East Asian countries have phenomenally successful education systems. And Scandinavian countries have amazingly efficient bureaucracies. In response, should Americans permanently downgrade the importance of politics in their lives and read more philosophy with friends? Well, I guess they can. But they can also try and make our bureaucracies, schools, etc, better!
Second, throughout the piece Brooks equates "politics" with "government action", and that’s myopic, particularly for a self-identifying conservative. Though government is the primary vessel for the manifestation of collective political action, it’s not the only vessel. Our civil society is rich with venues for political expression and impact: non-profits, charities, local associations and guilds. Is it okay with Brooks if people derive meaning from these pursuits, and spend more than 10% of their attention to non-governmental political action?
If you don’t care about any of the above policy issues, fine. But don’t let David Brooks rationalize your willful ignorance by saying that it doesn’t matter anyway, and perversely, that to be disengaged is what it means to be a "good citizen". It’s nonsense.