What the great French historian Alexis de Tocqueville would make of today’s Obama administration were he alive today is anyone’s guess. But I would wager that the author of L’Ancien Régime and Democracy in America would be less than impressed with the extravagance and arrogance on display among the White House elites that rule America as though they had been handed some divine right to govern with impunity.
It is the kind of impunity that has been highlighted on the world stage this week by Michelle Obama’s hugely costly trip to Spain, which has prompted a New York Post columnist Andrea Tantaros to dub the First Lady a contemporary Marie Antoinette. As The Telegraph reports, while the Obamas are covering their own vacation expenses such as accommodation, the trip may cost US taxpayers as much as $375,000 in terms of secret service security and flight costs on Air Force Two.
In addition to the usual “let ’em eat cake” analogies, there are two aspects of these United States these days where the similarity to Louis XVI’s France is exact.
The first is the financial crisis. The monarchy was in the throes of a long-term financial crisis which both Louis XVI and his predecessors had created. Attempts by the likes of Necker had gotten nowhere due to the opposition of both the monarchy and the nobility. Things had deteriorated to the point where Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General into session (the first time in more than a century and a half) in an attempt to enact new taxes, and that began the series of events that ended with Louis XVI losing his head and Napoleon I putting the crown on his own.
The second is the lack of uniformity and rationality in government administration. Taxes were wildly different from one part of France to another; there were all kinds of special privileges entrenched by custom and law and, of course, there were those venal offices. In this country two centuries of federalism plus the maze of overlapping bureaucracies at the top make a legal environment of daunting complexity, ambiguity and unpredictability. Obama’s major initiatives only make matters worse; both the health care and financial reforms create bureaucratic mazes and carve out exceptions for special interests that add to the difficulty.
It’s ironic that the revolt against this constantly refers to the Constitution, that “Age of Reason” document whose principles (along with the Declaration of Independence) strongly influenced France’s own revolution. But these days, how you view a revolution doesn’t depend on principle but on which side your interests lie.