David Brooks Is a Capitalist

And I don't mean that in a good way.

by Ed Sawicki - December 11, 2019

David Brooks wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on December 5, 2019 titled “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.” with the subhead: “Two cheers for capitalism, now and forever.

Brooks had it correct in his first three paragraphs. He should have stopped there.

“My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated.”

It's no wonder that Brooks noticed the world was too complicated. His journalism career was wholly within the United States, except for fours years spent in Brussels, and for mainly conservative employers. He worked for the newspaper industry in Chicago, William Buckley's National Review, Hoover Institute, The Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard. This is hardly the resume of someone qualified to objectively critique socialism.

The world of capitalism and conservatism is complicated out of necessity. You have to ensure that the wealthy and powerful get more than their fair share, especially when there are many rich and powerful competing in the same markets. These people have their underlings in the capitalism hierarchy so they too need to be treated better than the man in the street. They also have their “employees” in Congress who then pass complicated legislation.

Socialism is simpler. The health care industry is a great example of a capitalist system that is far more complicated and expensive than it needs to be.

“I came to realize that capitalism is really good at doing the one thing socialism is really bad at: creating a learning process to help people figure stuff out. If you want to run a rental car company, capitalism has a whole bevy of market and price signals and feedback loops that tell you what kind of cars people want to rent, where to put your locations, how many cars to order. It has a competitive profit-driven process to motivate you to learn and innovate, every single day.”

No. This is not a feature of a capitalist society that cannot exist in a socialist society. The United States is a blend of socialism and capitalism. It has government and non-profit organizations that provide information to the public without charging a fee and seeking profit. A good example is the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides weather forecasting and related services. Some of the public use those services directly. For-profit companies also use those services but monetize it in some way. Recently, Trump appointed the CEO of the company AccuWeather, Barry Myers, to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There's speculation that he will privatize the NWS. That means weather services would no longer be available at no charge from the government.

Canada, another country that is a capitalist/socialist blend, operates a governmental department called Statistics Canada. It provides all of it's citizens, including its corporate citizens, useful information at no cost.

“Socialist planned economies — the common ownership of the means of production — interfere with price and other market signals in a million ways. They suppress or eliminate profit motives that drive people to learn and improve.”

No. That's absurd. Brooks is saying that capitalism is necessary for people to achieve excellence—that money is always the motivator for epistemic curiousity.

Brooks is trying to fool you into believing that once a government has an element of socialism to it, it ruins any capitalist elements that also exist. It doesn't. The democratic socialism being encouraged by progressive candidates now does not forbid the blend of capitalism and socialism that already exists. Democratic socialism aims to reduce the corrupting influence of hyper-capitalism and allow all citizens of the country to flourish - not just the wealthy.

“It doesn’t matter how big your computers are, the socialist can never gather all relevant data, can never construct the right feedback loops. The state cannot even see the local, irregular, context-driven factors that can have exponential effects. The state cannot predict people’s desires, which sometimes change on a whim. Capitalism creates a relentless learning system. Socialism doesn’t.”

Brooks wants you to see government as an evil monolith. Never mind that it's divided into federal, state, and local agencies, most of which help people.

As you read towards the end of the article, Brooks writes a bit more conciliatory towards European socialist governments. Why couldn't he have lead with that instead of his outright attack?


Jacobin: Someone Tell David Brooks Neoliberalism Has Utterly Failed

NY Times: More Socialism, or More Capitalism?

NY Times: Two Cheers for Capitalism

Medium: David Brooks cheers for Capitalism