Thomas Sowell

Woodrow Wilson was also a precursor of later Progressives in assuming that the overthrow of an autocratic and despotic government means an advance toward democracy. In 1917, President Wilson spoke of "heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia."

What was "heartening" to Wilson was the overthrow of the czars. What it led to in fact was the rise of a totalitarian tyranny that killed more political prisoners in a year than the czars had killed in more than 90 years.

Although Wilson proclaimed that the First World War was being fought because "The world must be made safe for democracy," in reality the overthrow of autocratic rule in Germany and Italy also led to totalitarian regimes that were far worse. Those today who assume that the overthrow of authoritarian governments in Egypt and Libya is a movement toward democracy are following in Wilson's footsteps.

The ultimate hubris of Woodrow Wilson was in promoting the carving up of whole empires after the First World War, in the name of "the self-determination of peoples." But, in reality, it was not the peoples who did the carving but Wilson, French Premier Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Walter Lippmann saw what a reckless undertaking this was. He said, "We are feeding on maps, talking of populations as if they were abstract lumps." He was struck by the ignorance of those who were reshaping whole nations and the lives of millions of people.

He said of this nation-building effort: "When you consider what a mystery the East Side of New York is to the West Side, the business of arranging the world to the satisfaction of the people in it may be seen in something like its true proportions."

But Progressives, especially intellectuals, are the least likely to suspect that they are in fact ignorant of the things they are intervening in, whether back in the Progressive era or today.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate