Posts tagged ‘Twentieth Century’

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.