Babbling Spirit

The Social Animal
The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
David Brooks
Random House, $27, 448 pp.

David Brooks has earned his reputation as a conservative whom liberals can like by appearing both more principled and more flexible than the Republican consensus. For example, he argues in support of gay marriage that it would shore up the unfashionable virtues of traditional marriage. Like President Barack Obama—with whose administration he is said to be on exceptionally good terms—Brooks thinks in broad strokes, loves a choice bit of data, and exhibits an irrepressible urge to transcend partisan preconceptions.

Before becoming a regular columnist at the New York Times in 2003, Brooks became known at the Weekly Standard for something called “national-greatness conservatism”: a vision of an America where a limited but vigorous government (Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt are the main points of reference) embodies the nation’s collective will and reinforces its economic dynamism and sense of community. Like most conservatives, Brooks believes government efforts to provide goods and services the private sector can provide to be a source of malaise and disaffection. But unlike many conservatives, he also thinks that only strong institutions—including government—can imbue citizens with desires and allegiances beyond self-interest, and so ward off the anomie lurking in the libertarian ideal. Both the Left and the Right, he thinks, have focused too much on the unencumbered individual’s pursuit of happiness and not enough on the social milieu that determines...

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