Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Backward Progressivism

In yesterday’s book review in the Wall Street Journal (the book under review was 1688: The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pincus), William Anthony Hay writes that King James II “sought to extend state power at the expense of Parliament and the privileges of local communities. James’s adversaries preferred the dynamism of commerce; they believed that wealth sprang from the limitless striving of human endeavor rather than the finite availability of land.”

King James II (reigned 1685-1688)  attempted to emulate Louis XIV’s absolutist, dirigiste France rather than the live-and-let-live, commercial-minded, and very wealthy Dutch Republic. The ever more commercial-minded British gave James II the boot in the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” replacing him with his elder daughter and son-in-law (as well as nephew) William of Orange, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands.  Britain rapidly became the richest and most powerful state in Europe, while France languished under its top-down, autocratic government until the explosion of the French Revolution a century later produced, in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase, “a pile of corpses and a tyrant.”

Tweak that passage a little and it could easily be about Barack Obama versus those who believe in free markets. For three hundred years later, despite the vast changes that have taken place, the basic political divide in the world remains between those who believe in empowering the state to do good for all and those who believe in empowering the individual to do good for himself under the rule of law while letting the invisible hand do good for all thereby.

With many fits and starts, individual power has been winning around the world and will, I am sure, continue to win. Thus, Obama’s idea of how the country should be run is really a throwback to an earlier world view. But in the greatest triumph of public relations in the history of politics, the Left succeeded some one hundred years ago in labeling its ideas as “progressive” — i.e., new and innovative. In fact they are deeply regressive. Louis XIV’s France, after all, was characterized by an autocrat who ruled with the help of a council that served at his pleasure and with the support of a small and vastly privileged elite; the great mass of the people had no rights whatever. How does that differ from Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union? Other than the autocrat being chosen by heredity, not at all (and North Korea has even eliminated that difference).

Is there much difference between Barack Obama’s vision for America and Clement Atlee’s vision for Britain sixty-four years ago. Not really.

Going back to an idea that failed more than two generations ago may be “progressive” but it’s not progress.