Oh, sure, he’s a conservative.

But David Brooks is far from the most doctrinaire, and his columns in The New York Times are almost always readable.

As a writer and in his regular appearances on PBS’s News Hour, Brooks comes across as a bright fellow who respects people with differing viewpoints and refrains from mean-spirited commentary. He also appears willing to challenge some of the orthodox faithful on his own side of the political spectrum. Unlike many modern-day conservatives, he rejects free-market fundamentalism and accepts the fact that government has a legitimate, even necessary, role to play. He just wants the appropriate amount of government involvement in our lives.

Liberals might think he often reaches the wrong conclusions, but at least he makes some interesting observations along the way.

I’m still puzzling, however, over the definition he offered of conservatism in a column last week, headlined “The Wal-Mart Hippies:”

“Conservatism,” Brooks wrote, “is built on the idea of original sin — on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.”

The concept of “original sin” might disconcert some people, but, rather than launching off on less than useful tangents, let’s accept Brooks’s definition of it as “the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty.” Don’t most liberals accept the idea that human beings are fallible? And don’t most liberals also “believe in civilization?”

I don’t know about you, but if I believed people were perfect, I’d be an anarchist — not a liberal — because I would expect people to always do the right thing and to cooperate when necessary without any need of government intervention. I don’t believe people are perfect, and I know I’m neither perfect nor always right. I also think imperfect people create — and operate — imperfect institutions, both private and corporate ones as well as government ones. But while I can’t always have any influence on the private institutions, I do have at least a little say in how the government functions. And I want it to function in ways that foster the possibility of health and happiness for as many people as possible. In other words, I want it to help us all live in more civilized ways.

So I’m a liberal. But, by David Brooks’s definition, I think I’m a conservative, too. Of course, I’m also fallible, so I could be wrong.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/