Ryan is a rising star on the right, and he will be in charge of the budget on the House side for the next 2 years. Brooks is a columnist who is nominally center-right–but at times center-left. In this debate, Brooks was especially charming. But, it seems Brooks misunderstand Ryan on a fundamental point–the meaning of conservatism and small government. Let me put it this way: Ryan is not a libertarian and he is not a small government guy per se.
Brooks is an intellectual journalist who knows his political philosophy. He understands the ideas under-girding the ideological poles. Brooks represents a TR progressive style of Republican politics. Brooks likes progressivism and the governmental reach of progressive politics. He makes a pretty big false accusation on Jefferson–that he was an oligarch that did not favor the market. This is a false statement. It is certainly true that Jefferson was early in favor of an agrarian society, but the notion of natural rights meant he also did not believe that the rich (oligarchs) should be in control because they were rich. Jefferson believed that the new man could and should rise on their merit. Thomas West has written:
Even Jefferson was eventually reluctantly forced to admit that America could only defend itself by means of a modern industrialized economy. During the War of 1812 he wrote, “Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan on removing our first parents from Paradise: from a peaceable and agricultural nation, he makes us a military and manufacturing one. . . . [R]apid advances in the art of war will soon enable us to beat our enemy, and probably drive him from the continent.”
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. . . . Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility.
To allow a permanent right in intellectual property, i.e., to create a monopoly, would be to deny market entry to the poor. This would be a denial of the natural right to acquire.
The idealized farmer of Jefferson and Madison was more imaginary than real. Subsistence farming was never widespread in America. Almost everyone was dependent in some degree on the “caprice of customers.” Southerners often raised tobacco to sell in foreign markets. They typically relied not on their own labor but on that of slaves. (Incidentally, slavery was never advocated by Socrates, although it was widespread in the Greek world.) Hamilton pointed out in his Report that the separation of farming from manufacturing by the division of labor “has the effect of augmenting the productive powers of labour, and with them, the total mass of the produce or revenue of a Country.” The greater the division of labor, the more and the better will be produced for all.
Brooks’s history in this sense is odd. He may overstate his case to bolster his argument. The problem is that Brooks overstates, and hence, undermines, his argument. Brooks obviously likes the Great Society.
Ryan appears to me to be Hamiltonian in his speech–he is more concerned with what government can do well, and be energetic while doing that thing, than in mere subtraction of the government’s size for the sake of limiting its scope. Ryan wants the “proper” limitation of government, not mere limitation. Ryan is likely the most intellectually astute member of the House. Ryan’s argument, even if we reject it, is one worth considering and confronting.