The Marcus Aurelius Fetish

David Brooks’ article, The Establishment Lives!, caught my eye this morning (see the attention its getting on Memeorandum here).  Kathy posts the full article below here.  The first thing I think is that Brooks is being a bit dishonest in writing this as a descriptive piece rather than a prescriptive one.  That is, he acts like he is simply telling us what is and will happen rather than telling us that this is what he really favors happening.  It’s as if he can anticipate the criticism of this approach as “outrageous” (again, see Kathy’s post below) and wants a way out if that criticism becomes the consensus.  Future Brooks: “I never said I favored it.  I only said what I thought was happening.”

Second, and most important, I don’t see the idea of “a small coterie of policy makers” with “nearly unlimited authority” and outside “any system of checks and balances” as a “new center” or “new establishment.”  Instead, this is the type of decision making that has long been favored by, dare I say it, Brooksian moderate righties.  It’s also a terrible idea.

I’ve run across a lot of moderate righties throughout the years.  They make up David Brooks’ base.  They’re generally not social conservatives, but are typically anti the moderate economic interventions favored by Democrats and liberals.  Most vote Republican though a significant portion support Libertarians or the likes of a Ross Perot.

As a form of governance, many in this intellectual sphere will tell you privately that they prefer that decisions be made by  a small group of wise men or a benevolent dictator, often citing Marcus Aurelius, as an example.  Aurelius’ Meditations is a mainstay on their bookshelves; typically, a battered copy from their College days.

The problem they have – which they are well aware of – is that this view is anti democratic.  They simply believe that the majority of decisions necessary to good governance are beyond the intellectual capacity of a voting public.

Therein lies the rub.  Arguing this position in an intellectually honest fashion is not likely to be popular with the voting public.  Most, including myself, believe that, while democratic decision making (here, we’re talking accountability and checks and balances) isn’t perfect, it is better than the “benevolent dictator” model.  The latter will inevitably yield decisions which aren’t truly benevolent in doing what’s best for the country as a whole.

Hank Paulson, one of the wise men cited by Brooks, is a great example.  He has proposed a bailout plan which is being rightfully derided as a bailout for all the Hank Paulsons on Wall Street without distinction for culpability.  For homeowners who were snookered into terrible mortgages destined to collapse, Paulson offers nothing other than the general fare that making it better for the Wall Streeters will trickle down to the Main Streeters.

This isn’t a new way of thinking.  Brooks is simply seeking to capitalize on this economic crisis to push forth a pet idea that he and many in the “moderate” right have long held in their back pocket.

4 Responses to “The Marcus Aurelius Fetish”

  1. Kathy says:

    Glenn Greenwald has a post up now about the Brooks column, and as usual, it’s well-worth reading.

  2. Mark says:

    “They’re generally not social conservatives, but are typically anti the moderate economic interventions favored by Democrats and liberals. Most vote Republican though a significant portion support Libertarians or the likes of a Ross Perot.”

    I don’t know of a single libertarian who supports increased centralization of power amongst a group of, in essence, “philosopher kings.” Such a view of government is antithetical to libertarianism in every respect and flies directly in the face of everything Hayek (or, for that matter, Rand) ever wrote – there is nothing we fear more than the two words “central planning.” That’s not to say that we can’t be anti-democratic…just that we view centralization of power amongst a small coterie of individuals as even worse than pure democratic majoritarianism.

  3. Macswain says:


    Your point is well taken. I purposefully chose the words “support Libertarians.”

    I had also listed Ron Paul in my initial draft of this post, but yanked the reference when I actually considered that of the numerous people who I have heard from regarding rule by a civic-minded coterie or benevolent dictator, I could not recall one having ever professed support for Ron Paul.

    I am not claiming that either Ron Paul or philosophically consistent Libertarians support the “benevolent dictator” model.

    How ’bout your thoughts on Brooks’ piece?

  4. Mark says:


    Understood – thanks for the clarification. I got a little bit into my thoughts on Brooks’ column in Kathy’s post, but I haven’t had the time to do a full commentary on it. The bottom line is that the way in which this whole fiasco is being approached sounds like a chapter from Atlas Shrugged, with Paulson playing the role of Wesley Mooch (I know you’re probably far from an Ayn Rand fan, and I will be the first to acknowledge that she suffered from her share of logical flaws, but that doesn’t mean she was without her share of outstanding insights). Brooks’ column, meanwhile, with its celebration of the “politics of pull,” could have come straight out of the mouth of James Taggart.

    I do, however, see a somewhat interesting silver lining in this mess, at least as long as you think that meaningful change can be brought about within the existing political structure. That is that I think the fallout from this mess will accelerate the inevitable coalition of liberals and (small-l) libertarians that I’ve been predicting for awhile. I’ve been struck by the near-unanimity of opinion opposing the Paulson plan amongst both libertarian economists (like Tyler Cowen, for instance) and liberal economists like Krugman. Even on the issue of preferable policies, there is a striking amount of agreement between those two groups (by no means are their preferences identical, but they’re also not particularly far apart). I also think (though I can’t prove) the fiasco has led a lot of rank-and-file libertarians to question the wisdom of viewing social welfare programs and (certain) business regulations as equally worth fighting as corporate welfare and other programs that allow businesses to become “too big to fail.”

    While Kevin Carson hardly speaks for most other libertarians (FWIW, I think he is always worth listening to), I would highly recommend you check out his arguments distinguishing between what he calls “structural forms of state intervention” (e.g., licensing requirements) and “secondary” or “ameliorative” interventions (such as social welfare and various safety regulations) . The premise behind the argument is that libertarian attacks on the latter types of interventions only wind up worsening the effects of the former types of interventions. In essence, while we may ultimately be opposed to the secondary interventions, it does more harm than good to attack them without first having first destroyed the primary interventions.

    In any event, what is interesting about this particular argument isn’t so much that it is a libertarian making it (Carson is, as I say, outside the libertarian mainstream and has long made similar arguments). Rather, what is interesting is that, if you read this post at H&R and its comments, an awful lot of libertarians are receptive to it.

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