March 17, 2009
Watching Chris Wallace interviewing President Obama's economics advisor, Austan Goolsbee, yesterday, I was struck by a curious phrase Goolsbee used: "the commanding heights of our economy." Gosh, that phrase sounded familiar. Goolsbee was responding to Wallace's question about the President's 2010 budget message. That document is grandly titled: "An Era of Responsibility." Actually, "an era" is too modest for this President. His budget proposals will impose crushing debts not simply on the living, but on millions yet unborn, on generations yet to come, if they come. We should be thinking at least in terms of epoch, even perhaps an Obaman Age.
Wallace quoted from the President's budget message. "While middle class families have been playing by the rules...those at the commanding heights have not..." Goolsbee defended the use of that term: "The President is saying those at the commanding heights have not played by the rules." Clear enough. Rep. Barney Frank was next up. "I would go back to your conversation with Mr. Goolsbee," the chairman of the Financial Services Committee replied as Wallace pressed him for specifics. "This is an example of people at the commanding heights of the economy misbehaving, abusing the system," Frank said.
There it was again. I knew I'd heard that phrase before. Fortunately, we have Google so I didn't have to go rummaging through my cluttered basement--talk about torture--among my old Russian history books.
"The commanding heights" is a phrase first used by Lenin. He used it in 1922. It's when he introduced his NEP--the New Economic Policy--in the newborn and struggling Soviet Union. Under that policy, the severity of Communism's seizure of the land was relaxed somewhat. Lenin had little choice. "Collectivizing" the land had brought massive famine. Millions were dying.
But Lenin reassured worried Marxists all over the world that he would not betray the world's first successful Communist revolution. His Bolshevik regime retained control over the commanding heights of the economy--the big industries.
Does this suggest some dark, secretive, Leninist plot by the new Obama administration?
No, that's not what I'm suggesting. I do say that we are now governed by a group that is not itself fully aware of the source of their ideas.
In a free economy, there really are no commanding heights. Businesses and economic sectors rise and fall with the vicissitudes of the market. Railroads, once dominant, give way to highway trucking (and perhaps back again). An information economy supersedes smokestack industries--and the cleanup of our rivers, lakes, and skies offers testimony to the changes.
Now we are entering a period in which the majority in government view themselves-consciously or not--as occupying the commanding heights of the economy. It's an experiment that is bound to fail. It has failed wherever it has been tried.
One simple way I tell friends to judge whether Russia is moving toward or away from liberty is to note whether they are seriously discussing burying the mostly paraffin mortal remains of Vladimir Illyich Lenin. For a time in the 1990s, removing Lenin's body from the mausoleum in Red Square was high on the freedom agenda in the newly liberated Russian Republic. Since our current Vladimir--Putin--took power, however, Lenin's body is firmly anchored and ritually honored in the heart of Moscow.
We can still strike a blow for liberty over here: Let's bury Lenin's language. Let's bury all of Lenin's talk of "the commanding heights." And let's resist those like Barney Frank who would ascend those heights the better to command the rest of us.