There’s something that’s really profoundly odd about David Brook’s Benthan versus Hume column starting with the fact that the contrast he’s drawing seems to have nothing to do with the actual views of the philosophers in question. But anyway, here’s the contrast:
“I don’t know the best way to generate clean energy,” he’d whine, “and I don’t know how technology will advance in the next 20 years. Why don’t we just raise the price on carbon and let everybody else figure out how to innovate our way toward a solution? Or at worst, why don’t we just set up a simple cap-and-trade system — with no special-interest favorites — and let entrepreneurs figure out how to bring down emissions?”
On health care, he’d be much the same. He’d spend a few days reading reports. Then one day you’d find him in the fetal position, weeping. He’d confess that he doesn’t know enough to reorganize a fifth of the economy. He can’t figure out which health care delivery system is the most efficient. “Why don’t we just set up insurance exchanges with, say, 12 different competing policies? We’ll let everybody choose a policy, and we’ll let people keep any money they save. That way they can set off a decentralized cascade of reform, instead of putting all the responsibility on us here.” And then Mr. Hume would beg you to leave him alone.
Now whether you agree with “Hume” or you agree with “Bentham,” that’s definitely a dispute in American policy and political circles. But instead of saying “this is one source of political disagreement,” Brooks makes the following claim:
I’ve introduced you to my friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume because they represent the choices we face on issue after issue. This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.
Now surely David Brooks is familiar with the basic elements of the American political system. For example, we have one political party, the Democratic Party, that regularly contests national elections and elects people to federal office. But we actually have two parties like that. The other is called “the Republican Party.” And while it is true that the leadership of the Democratic Party is putting forward legislative proposals that are similar to what Brooks is attributing to “Bentham,” it’s not true at all that the other party is putting forward legislative proposals that are similar to what Brooks is attributing to “Hume. Instead, the other party is proposing that we do nothing at all to prevent catastrophic climate change. That debate—between people who think that uncontrolled increases in carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be devastating to the planet and those who want to do nothign whatsoever to prevent that devastation—isn’t a made-up debate concocted for the benefit of cable television hosts.
After all, if Brooks’ debate were actually the real debate it would be easy to resolve these issues. You’d draw up a kind of pure market plan, then you’d draw up a kind of command-and-control alternative, and then you’d split the difference. But on the two issues Brooks is talking about, one of America’s major political parties isn’t looking to split the difference, it’s just voting “no.” If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. But pundits shouldn’t go around attributing made-up political positions to them.