And the Enlightened Tyrants Will Lead Us

Is freedom getting in the way of progress?


In a recent interview with a Spanish newspaper, famed director Woody Allen reportedly declared himself "pleased" with President Barack Obama's presidency.

"I think he's brilliant. The Republican Party should get out of his way and stop trying to hurt him," Allen explained. Then he waded into thorny terrain by saying, "It would be good … if he could be a dictator for a few years because he could do a lot of good things quickly."

Allen, who, one hopes, was joking, doesn't speak for anyone but himself (and perhaps Soon Yi Previn-Farrow-Allen) yet makes a good point.

Aside from the occasional genocide, oppression, evil, and torture, etc., it is inarguable that public policy could be implemented more rapidly in an autocracy. Think of how many uninsured Americans we could have helped. Think of the environmental benefits. Democratic institutions are imperfect and chaotic, and man's selfish behavior is constantly gumming up progress.

Just ask widely read liberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who pointed out (twice in recent months) that despotism can be advantageous if "enlightened" tyrants (in this case, environmentalists) would run the show.

"One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," according to Friedman. "But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

Of course, some form or another of Friedman's rationale has been used in nearly every embryonic dictatorship. Now, if only Venezuela and Sudan funded more solar farms, Friedman could embrace their progressive forms of governance, as well.

Friedman isn't alone. The lure of enlightened autocracy is why MSNBC's Chris Matthews can casually ask, as he did on his show this week, why the oil industry hasn't been nationalized yet. It is why Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan can stand in front of the Supreme Court, as she did last year, and defend book banning (for the administration, via bipartisan legislation).

The idea drives people like Donald Berwick, a professor at both Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health and Obama's pick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Berwick will be charged with managing government health care programs.

It is true that Berwick is smarter than you and I. He can prove it with a hat trick of Harvard degrees. But his advocacy for state monopolies and top-down control borders on religious zealotry.

As The American Spectator reported in 2008, in a speech celebrating the anniversary of the U.K.'s National Health Service, Berwick asserted not only that the socialized systems were excellent but also—and you might have believed he was talking about Gandhi or, at least, Angelina Jolie—that they were "generous, hopeful, confident, joyous, and just."

Britain's rationing probably doesn't seem exceptionally "joyous" for many of that nation's elderly (the evidence is not pretty) or "generous" to those who pay a disproportionate amount of the tab. Yet Berwick's most revealing assertion was that he does not "believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do."

Health care choice is too complicated for you. When you're buying your kid medicine, for instance, you're woefully oblivious to the "proper configurations of the system" as a whole. This is a problem. You're not thinking about the group, my friend.

And seeing as Americans wrestle with an array of intricate societal systems—from energy, education, technology, food, farming, communications, finance, and so forth—we're going to need strong leadership in a number of areas, apparently.

It seems that the negative externalities of our freewheeling ways have become too much for some of the enlightened to bear. Progressivism is the belief that we have too much freedom with which to make too many stupid choices.

But rarely do we see it this bluntly articulated.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com.