David Brooks’s Plea for the Belief in Santa Claus

In one of the most bizarre displays of authoritarianism since Filmer’s Patriarcha traced the divine right of the Stuart absolutist monarchs back to Adam, David Brooks (“The Follower Problem,” New York Times, June 12, 2012) recently launched into a wholesale diatribe against the “adversarial culture” and its skepticism toward “just authority” — a phrase which he uses no fewer than six times.

Oddly enough, the alleged trigger for this outburst — I say “alleged” as we should consider the possibility Brooks is just off his meds — is the quality of public monuments in earlier days compared to today.

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. … The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. … Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?

Um, because earlier generations were better at polishing turds? No, obviously that’s not it — at least not if you’re David Brooks. The reason, as stated by Brooks in his “O tempora O mores!” outburst, is that “We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power,” further complicated by “our fervent devotion to equality” and inability “to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.”

Americans, in these days of “Question Authority” bumper stickers, no longer “attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority,” but rather just oppose authority altogether.

Brooks himself doesn’t really explain his criterion for distinguishing just from unjust authority. His examples of “just authority” generally coincide with the liberal or neoconservative list of Great Presidents — American civic gods analogous to Aeneas, Romulus and Numa Pompilius in the books of Livy. So perhaps one might reasonably suspect Brooks of the same lack of critical judgment he attributes to the anti-authoritarians. It’s a fair guess that for Brooks “just authority” simply means “authority,” minus a handful of nasty characters like Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler who are recognized as unjust because — ahem — our authorities say so.

But blanket skepticism toward authority — the assumption that all authority is unjust — is arguably more justifiable than the contrary assumption on Brooks’s part. Brooks complains that “[t]he old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something.” Well, Golly — how could anyone have arrived at an assumption like that? Perhaps by being burnt one too many times?

To egalitarian Americans, Brooks laments, the people at the top “are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.” Instead of hierarchies run by “just authority,” these Liliputians believe that “[t]he whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.”

Whatever else Brooks’s conservatism may amount to, he certainly isn’t a Hayekian. By definition, those at the top of large hierarchical institutions are stupid. It has nothing to do with the native abilities of the individuals running things, and everything to do with the nature of hierarchy itself.

Authority relations make people stupid, and institutions are horrible at aggregating the knowledge of their members. Hierarchies filter the upward flow of information, because (in the memorable words of R.A. Wilson) nobody tells the truth to a man with a gun. Power creates one-way communications — a cyberneticist’s nightmare, to quote Wilson again — so that people in authority operate without the environmental feedback on the effects of their actions necessary for sanity. As organization theorist Kenneth Boulding put it:

There is a great deal of evidence that almost all organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.

What’s more, those in power are likely to be sociopaths because, as Robert Shea pointed out in “Empire of the Rising Scum,” institutional hierarchies select for it. Regardless of the original purpose of an institution, it will tend to be run by the kinds of people whose primarily skills are bureaucratic infighting and ruthless climbing. You simply cannot become a President of the United States, or a Fortune 500 CEO, unless there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.

And the possession of power itself further pathologizes those who possess it. Power is the ability to externalize the cost and unpleasantness of decisions upon others. Economists will tell you that externalization — the decoupling of costs from benefits, so that decisionmakers reap the benefits of their decisions while others bear the costs — creates perverse incentives. That’s the environment that those in authority live in every waking moment. Exercising unaccountable power without experiencing the consequences makes one — anyone — morally insane.

Brooks complains that “Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted.”

True. But Brooks ignores the possibility that those institutions didn’t really perform so well back then. Maybe the fault lies with the gullibility of our grandparents and great-grandparents, rather than with our skepticism.

Brooks’s complaint of loss of faith in institutions is almost a direct restatement of Samuel Huntington’s forty year ago in The Crisis of Democracy. The United States had functioned after WWII as “the hegemonic power in a system of world order” only because of a domestic structure of political authority in which the country “was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the Executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private establishment.”

If you like the world we live in today, which was shaped by that establishment, may God have mercy on your soul.

Scratch the official schoolboy’s history of Rome, with Romulus and Numa and all those other demigods, and there’s a real history below the surface. Livy’s history of the early Republic is an account mainly of a class war between plebians and patricians: Grasping nobles and landlords attempting to expropriate the land and transform the ordinary people into tenants crushed by rent and usury, and peasants fighting back.

The same holds true in American history. Those Founding Fathers and Great Presidents look mighty dignified up there on their pedestals, but take a peek up their skirts and their behinds look pretty much like everybody else’s. The actual deeds of our Great Presidents don’t bear much looking into. Official ideologies, Great Leader cults and all, exist to legitimize systems of power. And systems of power exist to benefit some people at the expense of others.

Historians like Charles Beard and Merrill Jensen have done a pretty good job of showing just what interests plaster saints like George Washington really served. And Gabriel Kolko has done the same for FDR. George Washington was only greater than our politicians because, through the telescope of history, things look bigger. He served the interests of the big land barons and Continental war bond speculators in exactly the same way recent presidents have served those of Goldman-Sachs. FDR fought WWII to preserve a system of corporate power, and colluded with Churchill to establish that system of power on a global basis.

Noam Chomsky characterized the Cold War, “as a first approximation,” as a war by the Soviet Union against its satellites and by the United States against the Third World, justified on each side by the useful spectre of the other superpower as official threat. As with the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, the American corporate system of global power has been maintained by a boot stamping on a human face: endless invasions, genocides, coups and death squads, with a toll of millions of lives. Just read William Blum’s “Killing Hope.”

People believe those in authority are in it for themselves because they are. They were back in the Good Old Days, too. Although Brooks misses it, there’s an odd symmetry between “victims of power” and “those who wield power.” That’s because power is always wielded in a way that creates victims. There’s good reason for it. People generally don’t have to be coerced into  doing stuff that’s in their own interest. You exercise power over other people when you want to rob them.

Human history, from the rise of the first states and the first class sytems, has been a war between the people who own the world and those who live in it — and the object of that war has been to compel the latter to work for the benefit of the former. If you don’t think that’s as edifying as the Little Red Schoolhouse version of American history, or that there’s some loss of innocence involved in finding out that American institutions are (in George Carlin’s words) “a big club, and you and I aren’t in it” — well, tough. You don’t believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny any more, either.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory