by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan
Dropping into National Review Online occasionally is fun, in the same guilty way that watching the Three Stooges about twice a year is. But NRO beats the stooges in that it’s likely to prompt me to write a column – like this one, about a recent article by William F. Buckley, in which he gripes that people are trying to get the government to justify its expenditures. Buckley launches his complaint with a remembrance:
“I was with James Dickey in Florida. We were guests of the United States government, invited to ogle the capsule with astronauts headed for the moon. It was very cold and still dark when the moon-bound streak of fire shot up from the launch pad. Dickey the poet was frozen in awe and admiration. At breakfast he threatened to break the neck of a television commentator whom he heard saying into the mike that the cost of this lunar extravagance was the equivalent of 126,000 units of low-cost housing. Dickey was trembling with furious indignation that such vulgar measurements were being used to discredit the beauty and awesomeness of the enterprise we had just seen coming up from its womb on a Florida beach.”
It’s so nice that 126,000 people went without houses so that Dickey could have his little poetic moment. But what kind of a counter-response is it, to the point the commentator was making, that Dickey “trembled” with “furious indignation”? Perhaps that all he could do because he had no rational comeback. How do you think Dickey might have responded if he had been asked to give up, say his own house for the privilege of being hosted by the US government for a ringside seat at that "beauty and awesomeness"?
Buckley offers the quip, “[W]e can see the Pharaoh wincing every time he is reminded of alternative uses of the manpower required to construct his new pyramid,” apparently assuming readers will agree that, obviously, the Pharaoh was right and his critics were a bunch of Philistines. He may not be aware of the fact that the Egyptian Old Kingdom collapsed after the building of the three Great Pyramids, initiating 150 years of civil conflict and economic hardship. Could that have been connected to the fact that three pharaohs had squandered their nation’s capital stock in building giant tombs and then sealing vast amounts of wealth away to sit uselessly inside of them?
How “important” the Egyptians besides the builder thought of the pyramids as being is illustrated by the fact that, if a pharaoh died before his tomb was finished, work stopped. They were huge monuments to the king’s ego, and the new ruler wanted to get going on his own! Of course they are lovely to have around now that they’ve been built. (But also remember, that’s not why the pharaohs were building them – as Mises said, "The monumental tombs of the Egyptian kings still exist, but it was not the intention of their builders to make modern Egypt attractive for tourists and to supply present-day museums with mummies.") Many other government-built monuments are "attractive for tourists." But to use that as a justification for their construction is to fall prey to the fallacy of “what is seen and what is not seen.” All of the resources devoted to building the pyramids, the Coliseum, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, and so on, could have been used for other wonders if they had been left in private hands. Since private individuals shepherd their capital along through time much better than do states, we might have even more in the way of marvels – along with those 126,000 housing units – if not for state depredation.
Buckley correctly notes, “At workaday levels, we are confronted every day with alternative uses of our resources, and there can't be any reasonable objection to the family's being asked to weigh a new car against a vacation in Europe.” However, there isn't any reasonable objection to asking that the same kind of weighing go on in considering government expenditures. Buckley certainly doesn’t offer one – he merely keeps insisting that he really, really doesn’t like the idea of anyone so weighing things:
“It is not recommended that the president of the United States should be deterred in the use of his airplane by weighing the cost of the fuel he is prospectively using. His use of his plane has nothing – nothing – to do with whether the purpose for which he used the plane was ‘justified.’ Justifications of presidential expenses aren't relevant.”
Well, why in the world aren’t they? Let’s say that it cost the entire annual GDP of the US to take a trip on the plane – would it still be irrelevant to consider them? Aidan Hartley wrote an article for The Spectator (June 25, 20005) detailing how African "WaBenzis" — the Swahili name for the leaders who drive around in fancy cars while their people starve — use Western aid money to splurge on the fancy vehicles. Samuel Doe of Liberia had a fleet of sixty Mercedes-Benzes, while Zaire's Sese Seko Mobutu kept six spare ones at his summer home. Is Hartley mistaken to protest this practice? In Buckley's eyes, apparently so, for the leaders' use of these cars should have nothing – nothing – to do with whether the purpose for which they used them was u2018justified.' I don't know — maybe if Buckley had stuck u2018nothing' in his argument just one more time I'd be convinced.
In any case, he goes on: “There has never been a monument constructed which could have survived the criticism that there were human priorities being ignored. It is neither feasible nor desirable to put off the construction of the Lincoln Memorial until it is established that there is no one in America who is hungry. Last night, a mere 2,200 people sat listening to 100 choristers, 100 instrumentalists, four soloists, and a conductor, the whole lot of them flown in from London to perform Verdi's Requiem u2014 90 minutes of music. How justify that?”
It's quite remarkable that a "conservative," a person supposedly in favor of markets, doesn't grasp any distinction between the Lincoln Memorial and the concert. You see, Mr. Buckley, the people listening paid for the concert with their own money. So long as one accepts the idea of private property, then their choice on how to spend their dollars requires no (public) justification. But, to build the Lincoln Memorial, the government spent our money — and we are certainly entitled to ask for an account of how it was spent. But, of course, that request might interfere with the opportunities Mr. Buckley and his high-brow associates have for enjoying a few minutes of "beauty and awesomeness" at the expense of a few billion of our dollars. Buckley’s old friends, Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt, must be turning over in their graves with every line of this tripe that he writes.
October 4, 2005