Economics, Free Enterprise

Why David Brooks can look forward to old age

New York Times Columnit David Brooks

Photo Credit: Miller_Center (CC BY 2.0) (Flickr)

David Brooks has delivered his take on the “you didn’t build that” conversation with this as his thesis: As a practical matter, it is useful for young people on their way up to think that their future success is up to them. But as we reach old age, we understand how little we have accomplished independently of all the forces acting on our lives.

But I have the advantage actually being old, whereas David is, through no fault of his own, still a whippersnapper. So I am in a position to correct him. As you get to be a codger, David, you will actually be able to see more and more clearly what has been a matter of luck and what you can legitimately take credit for, and the latter will give you a great deal of satisfaction.

At least that’s the way it has worked out for me. I understand completely that talent is pure luck of the draw. For example, I will never, ever, be able to come up with a sentence as acute and witty as this: “Ambition, like promiscuity, is most pleasant when experienced vicariously.” It’s one of half a dozen such bon mots in this column alone, and they are possible only because of the bundle of skills that David Brooks is lucky enough to possess and he did nothing to deserve.

But what makes those sentences possible for him to write does not make them come into existence. And that is the basis for the credit that people can legitimately take in their own achievements. Speaking for myself, I know that some of the things I have written were easy for me, because of the bundle of skills I was given, and they are no big deal to me. I also recognize that other things I have written took enormous effort. They exist because of continuing acts of will on my part, sometimes extending over long periods of time. Those give me increasing satisfaction as I grow older, not less. I am proud of my younger self—at a remove, as if I were thinking about another person; almost the same way that I am proud of my children.

Continuing acts of will are associated with every kind of major success, including those that arise from family, community, and faith. They also are associated with major success in business, the law, the sciences, or the arts. That’s why studies of greatness in all of those fields have one finding in common: The greats in all of those fields worked incredibly hard. See Human Accomplishment for details.

At this point, dreary people will try to push us into the “Oh, but your ability to make those acts of will was because of factors over which you have no control” line of argument. But that argument works only theoretically. We certainly know that other forces have made a big difference, but as we get older we have a pretty good sense of what they have been (in my case, my wife standing above all others). But we all know from our inner history the many times that we had the choice to exert an act of will and failed to do so along with the times that we did. We experience in our hearts the reality of free will. Knowing that, it’s okay to take credit for the times we sucked it up and did the right thing. Those things, we built.

73 thoughts on “Why David Brooks can look forward to old age

  1. I think liberals really underestimate the anger of entrepreneurs like myself who have built our businesses ourselves – cold call by cold call – in the face of immense risk. If they understand how I make a living, then it would be easier for them to see how absurd it is to suggest that the pavement in front of my office has anything to do with my success. Meanwhile, Obama’s comments are a chilling insight into his anti-American point of view.

    • You specifically mention building your business with phone calls.

      Your comments are especially revealing to me because I make my living as an engineer of telephone systems, including cell phones and switching systems.

      I’ve alsways been proud of my my work because it not only “brings people together” in the emotional sense, it also facilitates other people’s businesses and livelihood.

      But honestly, however much use you have made of telephones over the years, if you fail to recognize how roads, bridges, and general public safety have benefitted you, I would say you are simply ignoring reality.

  2. When I look back on my life, I don’t remember the government being a helpful, nurturing force at all. Mostly, what comes to my attention is all the “damage” that our collective American infrastructure did to me. As a young man, I was kicked around by affirmative action programs that are now illegal in CA. It is difficult for me to understand how all the government policies that held me back and harmed my career were somehow secretly doing me a favor.

  3. Al this wringing of hands over whether or not we give enough credit to government. . .baloney. . .government is supposed to be like the umpire in baseball or the officials in football. . . you don’t go to the game to watch them. . they have a job to do and it is to facilitate the game. . in fact. ..when it becomes about them. . something is seriously wrong. The game is about the players. . the nation is about the citizens, we. .the people. . remember us David Brooks? Obama and apologists like Brooks are confusing “government” with the “nation”. . .we owe our nation. . .we have reverence for our nation, patriots die for the nation. .the nation. …NOT the government.

    • The point of living in a democracy is that the government is us! So we have reverential monuments like the Mall in DC, or Mt. Rushmore. Aren’t all those dead presidents also “government officials?”

      Doesn’t any one here recognize a concept such as public service or contribution? I’m glad to see Kevin mention patriots dying for the nation, that’s one clear example of public service. Soldiers aren’t (only) joking when they call themselves GI’s.

      I’m really hoping to reach out here, since Brooks is often seen as a moderate figure in left vs. right debates.

      Does anyone in this discussion see some moderate point, a “right size” for government?

      • “The point of living in a democracy is that the government is us! ” WRONG!!! Very wrong!! First of all there is no “us” as a blanket group! The society is comprised of individuals who have each their own mind, their own choices and their own priorities. Second of all the government is a bunch of people the majority of the people in a given democratic country elect (read temporarily hire) to oversee the responsibilities that the constitution of that country has assigned to their offices. It is a job like any other, only if the office is really high the responsibilities are higher than usual. That’s all. The point that Kevin made is much more accurate. Their role is much like an umpire. They should ensure that the rules are observed and the playing field is safe and in good condition. It is a fallacy and mistake on the part of the Left that thinks we Constitutional Conservatives don’t want any government at all! We are not anarchists. But the “right size” of the government in our opinion is NOTHING WHAT SO EVER near the size that the Left imagines. We think your view of the role of the government is unconstitutional and totally out of whack with what is efficient, productive, and least likely to produce corruption.

        • This reply actually has much I agree with, primarily the idea that elected officials are temporary employees. But perhaps even more important is the principle that avoiding corruption & maximizing efficiency are critical goals of government.

          I think there are two different aspects to the “size” of government. One is the intrusiveness of regulations, and the other is the cash flow through government services incuding infrastructure investment, social insurance, maintaining the army, etc. The first category is the “umpire” type of function. The second category is “redistribution”. Some persons might put defense into a special category (which makes sense) but I’m simplifying.

          My point is that simply saying “smaller smaller smaller” doesn’t work in either of these domains. There are some infrastructure projects that just plain cost a fortune, like the Interstate system. On the other hand, I’ll grant that private enterprise often does brilliantly at providing infrastructure – like railroads and power plants.

          Same with regulations. Many industries have spectacular success at specifying their own standards & practices. The Internet is probably the best example, but inter-operation is a feature of auto parts, building supplies, and many other fields. On the other hand, there have been huge public disasters from industrial irresponsibility – black lung, Bhopal, etc.

          Corruption is my greatest concern, and maybe that is where we can agree. Small adjustments in investment strategy, or in regulatory regime can create large changes in capital flows.

          I’m not going to offer a solution to the problem of corruption, I’m just hoping we can agree that it is the problem.

          • Again, when I look over my life, the attacks on my prosperity have come from government – unfair taxes, excessive regulation, affirmative action, greedy public employee unions and so on. All in all, corporations have been good to me. If I don’t like their services, then I just use a different company. (I fire them.) I have not been able to as easily escape mistreatment at the hands of government. To suggest I should be grateful for what government has done to me over the course of my life strikes me as absurd…and even dangerous…because it is a line of thought that justifies greater growth in the very government that has harmed me and taken advantage of me over the course of my life. It would take many years of changed behavior for me to ever assert that it is wise to trust my prosperity to governments.

          • You said in the end of your comment “I’m just hoping we can agree that it is the problem.” I am not sure if I understood it right, but I am guessing that you mean that “corruption is our problem, not the size of government. If only the government officials were not so corrupt even a big size government would have been fine. So we should try to put better people in office rather than reduce the size of the government.”

            Now that is huge assumption on my part and forgive me if I am putting words in your mouth and you can correct me if I am wrong, but this is an argument that I hear a lot from the other side and I am guessing maybe you were trying to make the same argument here only not spelled out.

            If that is the case then let me answer you: No! We cannot agree even on this point for the reasons that follow:

            1. Human beings are very corruptible, fallible, and weak. If you put them in a position where they have access to a lot of power and money you should not be surprised if a lot of them would fall short. That’s the nature of this world and NOTHING can change that. Even people who are not corrupt and rotten prior to becoming powerful could quickly rot and fall after you invest them with a lot of power and nobody can foresee who will fall and who will resist the temptations. So we don’t even have the knowledge (or better say foreknowledge) to pick the “right” people.

            2. Big businesses and corporations on their own cannot maintain a monopoly or force people to buy their products. But once you invest the government to regulate everything, tax and redistribute a lot of money and have practically power of life and death over businesses you automatically create a magnet for corruption, because now those who have a lot of money and influence can compete not so much for satisfying their customers, but for bribing the government to wield its power to their advantage. Hence the “lobbyist” phenomenon. Trying to fight “especial interest” and “lobbyists” in a big government is like trying to fight “the mosquito phenomenon” in a swampy area by swatting each and every mosquito one at a time. You can see that it is a fool’s errand! The correct way to get rid of the mosquitos is to drain and dry the swamp.

            3. In the very end I submit to you that even if we somehow manage to put incorruptible humans with angelic character to run our government we would still not have an efficient government unless we keep it very very small. Why? Simply because no small group of people have enough knowledge (no matter how smart and educated) and expertise and even access to timely detailed information to make the correct decisions. The governing class is usually arrogant and foolish enough to think that they know everything there is to know about the industries they regulate, businesses they license, and entities they try to micro-manage from afar, but they don’t, and that’s why they fail so often and get loads of unintended consequences and make running a business so difficult and cause so much misallocation of resources.

            You see? I think Hobbs was very wrong. It doesn’t matter who runs the big government that he envisioned, be it George III or some super educated, democratically elected Harvard grad! He would be a human being just like you and I, with the same weaknesses in moral character, same chance of becoming corrupt after exposure to unchecked and unlimited power, and with more or less the same limitation in knowledge (yes even a Harvard grad doesn’t have a fraction of the knowledge necessary to make decisions for hundreds of different industries and businesses and education, etc…, the knowledge that only exists dispersed amongst millions of people acting freely in cooperation with each other) And simply by virtue of winning a majority vote he is not relieved of his natural human limitations and become superhuman and all noble and omniscient! Elected officials are neither more virtuous nor more knowledgable than when they were private citizens and certainly no better than the rest of us. So why they are worthy of suspicion and in need of being controlled when they are still private citizens, but suddenly the night after their election they turn into these benevolent noble philosopher-kings that will always act in our best interest and should be trusted with so much power over us? Makes no sense to me. I mean such views of the government and the ruling class has more to do with medieval thinking that somehow imagined that kings at the moment of their coronation become anointed by God and invested with some supernatural power to rule, than it has to do with the idea of a modern day democratic government which its very form of holding election implies that its members are no better than anybody else and nothing especial and not worthy of trust. The fact is you simply cannot swap Hobbs’ sovereign with a modern day president because they each come from a very very different view of the nature of the governing class. The former is almost magical and supernatural and almost assumed to be perfect, but the latter is natural, normal, and down to earth and imperfect and hence subject to change at the wish of the electorate.

            Now you might say what if we choose a really smart guy who will pick the best experts to run each industry and each area of society instead of himself doing everything. To that I will answer: First of all in order to pick the “right” experts he must himself know a lot about any given industry in order to discern between all the various “experts” and pick the right ones, a knowledge which I already argued he does not have! Second in that case the whole idea of “elected government” in practice will go out the window, and the government becomes “technocratic” NOT “democratic”. It will become RULE by the unelected experts, because our supposed democratically elected president will delegate his power to a bunch of unelected “experts” who will run the show for him, about whose expertise and character our “elected” official will have as much assurance as we have of his, and he will for ever be subject to their manipulations and conflicting opinions, and influence-peddling! It is just a fertile ground for more corruption.

            Let’s face the facts. Government is a necessary evil which we need to have precisely because we are ourselves imperfect and prone to corruption and anarchy, BUT since those who run this government are ALSO people just like us, prone to imperfection and corruption we should at the very least try our very best to keep an eye on them, keep them in check and limit their power and scope of influence with eternal vigilance and make sure we don’t surrender anymore of our liberty to them than is absolutely necessary.

          • (This is in reply to Dr. Drew’s of 8:28, I’m not sure where it will appear.)

            John, one thing I don’t hear you saying is that you don’t feel obligated to pay taxes, or that you object to the government setting the tax rates and regulations. If you want to be more specific that would be fine. I’m not talking about gratitude, just about regulation.

            Since you raise the issue of changing corporate providers, let me mention Ma Bell – the old ATT of the 70′s. There is a familiar issue in economics of monopoly capture of markets. Once there were two competing phone networks (Bell v Home) but Bell won out. Bell did brilliantly as a monopoly, not just creating thousands of patents but grabbing a few Nobels! It took the government to break up Bell and give any of us the option to pick a new provider.

            Basically I referring here to the arguement I made elsewhere about Hobbes’ theory of coalitions and cartels. In one sense, I’m trying to say that a critical function of government is to preserve competition. Trust-busting like Teddy Roosevelt.

            If your point is that government is fundamentally vulnerable to corruption by voting blocks, contributors, contractors, etc, I would certainly agree.

          • Ritmalik – (reply to 8:56)

            “Necessary evil” is exactly Hobbes’ attitude. He would agree completely that an uncorruptable leader is impossible. In fact the central argument of “Leviathan” is exactly that corruption is endemic and pervasive. The argument that a government is necessary depends on observing that while coalitions will form out of competition for self-defense as well as out of cooperation toward goals, there is an unfortunate shortcoming to the natural progress of coalitions. Coalitions can grow to the point where they are self-sustaining but remain in conflict with each other.

            So for Hobbes, the “government” is not something which is morally superior or priviledged. It’s just the most succesful among the various criminal factions in a society. He is very explicit that avoiding civil war is a very challenging problem, and the only jujstification for submitting ourselves to a government is that a civil war is worse.

            What this means in an advanced society is the well known “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Just as political coalitions form in the absence of government, they continue to form within a legislature and between the legislature and commercial interests. Just about everybody is in favor of sunshine laws, oversight committees, freedom of information, etc.

            Coming back to the title of this thread, Hobbes’ great line is that life in a civil war is “nasty, brutish, and short.” My point is that simply getting a chance to grow old, let alone having a successful career, depends on having a government.

            Where I think we might reach agreement is that the only kind of trust we can have in a government is “trust and verify”.

      • @Ken Presting YES the truth is in between. Obama’s comments and Brooks’ response strike a lot of folks as extreme: on the left well the rich stole our money let’s open a drive to take theirs by talking about whether they “deserve” their success; on the right much the same reaction only in opposition to the idea that the State should take what they earned through their efforts.

        I think success or failure is a combination in varying degrees of talent, work effort, the public environment, one’s private environment, free will, and luck, and that the results are neither deserved nor undeserved, they just are the results. It offends me to see people either trashing private initiative while extolling public action, or visa versa.

        I suspect government out to be capable and limited as the founders intended, as opposed to neither which is what we have got.

        As to the “right size”, I don’t think that is up for a vote, but a matter of fact: something sustainable over the long run without leaving either the private sector oppressed unfree and ungrowing because government is too big, or in a similar condition because the government isn’t capable of meeting its obligations which include not only paying its bills but providing a secure and lawful nation with a sound currency and a reasonable degree of public support for innovation, infrastructure, and a social safety net.

        • Thanks for answering. I’m a highly contrarian thinker myself, and I identify strongly with Dr. Drew’s experience of being a controversial figure in graduate school. I ended up with two MA degrees from two different departments, and I respect anyone who pushed through to a PhD.

          There is an interesting question you raise about which issues should be put to a vote. On the one hand, voting can be used to resolve disagreement hoping the majority will be more intelligent or better informed. On the other hand, voting can be used to just give more weight to the persons who have most to gain from certain outcomes.

          There is a large literature on these topics, “belief aggregation” and “preference aggregation”. It’s kind of a depressing literature because there are few positive conclusions about reaching constructive outcomes from voters who disagree.

          I like to cite Winston Churchill – “Democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the rest”

      • If you honestly think that the government is “us.” You are being naive about the potential for pure evil to come from government. Read some history book, get some perspective. Our founding fathers understood how dangerous government was to liberty. As a young man, I quickly figured out government – especially government run by Democrats – was hostile to my success. For the folks who did so much to harm me as a young scholar to now insist that I show gratitude for their efforts strikes me as silly, even inhumane. I’ve never forgotten what it was like to live without health care simply because affirmative action discriminated against poor white kids like me.

        • Thanks for replying. My point is more along the lines of “the only government we should ever trust is a government which is us, and nobody else.” This is the point made by both Hamilton and Franklin, and msot famously by Lincoln.

          My own thinking on this topic is influenced mostly by Thomas Hobbes, although I respect him most for stating a problem clearly rather than for solving the problem. Hobbes recognized that coalitions and cartels are a natural phenomenon in all social systems and economies. These subgroups could overwhelm any individual. Unfortunately he concluded that absolute monarchy, consolidating power in one dynasty, was the only way to avoid recurring civil war. He was thinking about medievla Europe, and didn’t realize what would become possible after the Industrial Revolution.

          So I see the great American innovation as a recognition that a Hobbesian sovereign was itself unreliable. I mean, George III? Give me a break! Any random bunch of colonists could govern better than that imbecile!

          And if we expend a reasonable effort to pick some intelligent representatives, we might do a whole lot better ….

    • Kevin McCarthy: Your analysis is brilliant! In criminal law, it is not the country that is bringing charges against a defendant, it is the government, the prosceutors in the Justice Department. Yet when they go before the jury, they call themselves “THE UNITED STATES vs. —–” The prosecutors are no more the United States than the defendant. It is an abuse of power, what you so accurately call “confusion.”

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