The New Pharaohs: Confusing Triumphalism and State Coercion With Progress

My new Forbes column is up, and it discusses an article by Michael Malone that said in part:

The recent quick fade of the Deficit Commission was the latest reminder that America no longer seems to have the stomach for big challenges.  There was a time "“ was it just a generation ago? "“ when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects:  the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security.

What happened?  Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth.

My response includes the following:

The list he offers is a telling one "” all except the Empire State Building were government programs, just as were the "mighty works" of the ancient Romans.  And just like the Romans, these and other government projects have more to do with triumphalism than they do with adding real value.

It is interesting he should mention the Romans.  There were few grand buildings during the centuries when Rome was a republic.  Only in the later Imperial period, when Rome became an autarky, did rulers begin to build the monumental structures that Malone admires.  Emperors taxed their subjects and marshaled millions of slaves to build temples and great columns and triumphal arches and colosseums to celebrate"¦ themselves.  Twentieth Century politicians have done the same, putting their names on dams and bridges and airports and highways and buildings.  They still build coleseums too, though today they cost over a billion dollars and have retractable roofs.  Are these, as Malone suggests, monuments to the audacity of the greatest generation, or just to the ego of politicians?...

This is the same concern that drives Thomas Friedman to extol the virtues of the Chinese government, where a few men there can point their fingers and make billions of dollars flow from their citizens to the projects of their choice.  This is a nostalgia for coercion and government power, for Lincoln imposing martial law, for FDR threatening to pack the Supreme Court, for the Pharaohs getting those pyramids built.  It is a call for dis-empowerment of the masses, for re-concentrating power in a few smart visionary folks, presumably including Mr.  Malone.

  • caseyboy

    Great points. Tom Friedman slays me with his pro-China rhetoric. Their leaders are not held back by pesky, quaint ideas like, well democratic process. After all you have to be willing to give up some liberty and freedom if you want to make progress.

  • Danimal

    Hey Warren,

    Just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas, and to thank you for posting so many interesting articles over the year. Have a holly jolly one, ok?

  • http://evilredscandi.blogspot.com Evil Red Scandi

    Not much to say: great article, and enjoy the holidays!

  • Pat Moffitt

    Interesting insight. Simplified -what is built with my money when I decide versus what is built with my money when someone else decides for me.

  • me

    Excellent point! Then again, we seem to be doing rather well in the triumphalism and state coercion categories lately, although the bailout money we burned hasn't mapped to mega-projects but has been funding a lot of people sitting with their thumbs up their noses... we do have new automatic traffic signs that regulate speed downwards when cars go bumper-to-bumper due to rush hour congestion. Great investment. Just imagine what damage cars going 60 through the jam could cause. I don't know how we survived before those new signs...

  • Gil

    Uh huh. The space program is primarily held back by the laws of physics. Then again is it wrong for NASA to send probes to collect data on planets of this solar system as well planets in other systems? Why complain about the Manhatten Project and the Normandy Invasion? What's wrong with stopping Nazi and Imperial Japanese powers? There's almost the sense of someone who sees someone else getting mugged but says "if I ignore it the muggers will leave me alone". In the case of the Hoover Dam - the Industrial Revolution caused much pollution and hardships for some but would the modern world be possible without that transition period. In other words the positive externalities far outweighed the negatives.

  • Davidcobb

    The wealth of the past came from bones in the spine and food from the mouths of the poor. The wealth in the US came from spare wealth and credit, and since the examples he cited had a good ROI, the credit was repayed. Now that spare wealth and credit has been squandered on the Great Society, wasteful spending on never ending intercine warfare, unproductive elitists, and overpriced medical care. And the people have just enough power left (for now) to resist the theft of food from their mouths. Merry Christmas to all and thank you for the stimulating discussions.

  • Bearster

    Ayn Rand wrote an essay, if I recall, "The Monument Builders" describing this very phenomenon. In the 1960's.

    Fatherland uber alles!

  • http://blog.jim.com James A. Donald

    The two towers are down and cannot get up. Politicians are more grandiose than ever, but can no longer send manned missions into space. Go back sixty years, and observe how American private businesses dealt with third world pirates.

    We are not only no longer building pyramids, but also no longer towers.

  • http://blog.jim.com James A. Donald

    "The space program is primarily held back by the laws of physics."

    The space program is held back because the greenies will not let us build nuclear thermal rockets.

  • Noumenon

    You caught my attention by taking on those sacred cows, so I clicked through... and you actually made your case pretty well. Nice, interesting article.

  • http://herdgadfly.blogspot.com/ gadfly

    I like the turn of words that produced "edifice complex" (which would be better if capitalized), so my mind turned to Freud's "Oedipus Complex" which involves all this psychological voodoo about this guy Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother.

    Maybe you are onto something. Could it be that all power hungry politicians are crazy? Hey, for observable proof, we only have to look to Saddam Hussein, who came home dragging his tail between his legs after the First Gulf War only construct all his palaces, the many statues in his own likeness and the Mother of All Mosques.

    I would expect that Barry will do something similar when he is about to be retired in 2012. Obviously his "Edifice Complex" will have to outshine the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library and Massage Parlor.

  • http://herdgadfly.blogspot.com/ gadfly

    “The space program is primarily held back by the laws of physics.”

    "The space program is held back because the greenies will not let us build nuclear thermal rockets."

    The answer is; "None of the above". Please read below from the Washington Examiner:

    "In a far-reaching restatement of goals for the nation’s space agency, NASA administrator Charles Bolden says President Obama has ordered him to pursue three new objectives: to 're-inspire children' to study science and math, to 'expand our international relationships,' and to 'reach out to the Muslim world.' Of those three goals, Bolden said in a recent interview with al-Jazeera, the mission to reach out to Muslims is 'perhaps foremost,' because it will help Islamic nations 'feel good' about their scientific accomplishments."

    http://washingtonexaminer.com/blogs/beltway-confidential/obama-s-new-mission-nasa-reach-out-muslim-world#ixzz19GI3H4BO

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  • DrTorch

    You do make a good case...except for the facts you left out.

    Both GPS and the internet (both of which you reference) owe their existence to gov't funded R&D. Actually the same agency, DARPA. Moreover, in the case of GPS, the satellites themselves were funded by the gov't.

    There is a lot of real progress made w/o gov't control. Many remarkable advances were made in the "Dark Ages" that is after Rome stopped sucking up resources to build monuments.

    However, gov't investment has yielded success, and often gov't is willing to take chances that a VC would not. Is this coercion? Or one of the costs of the social contract? That's the on-going debate, just be fair in listing the facts when you state your side.

  • ian

    google's good, but can they search in "less than a fraction of a second"? I doubt it.