The Imperial City

Columnist Peggy Noonan recently opined that Americans feel less like citizens and more like subjects. We are dictated to, not consulted. We are told to get in line or feel the wrath of the state. One is reminded of the scene in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator when Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius and his fellow gladiator-slaves are brought to Rome from the provinces. Upon entering the imperial capital, they behold the enormity of the Coliseum itself in all its imposing majesty. Haken, the German gladiator, is overcome saying, “Who could build such a thing?”

Washington has that effect. Power seekers and power mongers are thick on the ground. Maybe it always has been. The difference now is the size of the machine. The Leviathan has grown in such size and power that—unlike in past generations—it can’t be ignored. Like imperial Rome, it dominates life.

A report from MSN Money illustrates how the political elite are getting rich by exacting tribute from ordinary Americans. America has 3,033 counties, and they identified the 15 richest jurisdictions from that list. Of those 15 super-elite counties (the top 1/2 of one percent), 10 are in the Washington, D.C.metropolitan area.One may wonder about the location of the other counties in the top 15. Four of them are suburbs of New York City: Nassau County on Long Island, as well as Morris, Somerset and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey, meaning that many are home to well-off, Wall Street people. Douglas County, Colorado is the only one of the 15 west of the Mississippi.

It’s no secret that Washington, D.C. has become—in every sense—the imperial capital. When asked about his opinion of living there, President Kennedy used to joke that Washington had the best of both worlds: Southern efficiency and Northern charm. But that was then. In Kennedy’s day, Washington was a backwater town. Most Fortune 500 companies were headquartered in New York, Chicago and greater Boston. At last count, at least 18 and as many as 24 F500 companies are centered in and around the capital, depending on how broadly one defines greater, metro D.C. And defense contractors no longer dominate their ranks. There may not be as many F500 firms near D.C. as Texas’s 64, but it tells you something: It makes sense to be near the center of power.

The march toward the all-encompassing state seems relentless, but it need not be, argues columnist Nick Sorrentino. “Thankfully, we have new technologies which can counter the snowball of statism, but we must use this technology vigorously and protect its free and open access. A renaissance of classical, liberal thought is possible, but it won’t be easy, “he argues.

In his book, The Road to Freedom, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks argued that there are two contradictory and irreconcilable strategies for achieving prosperity, and Americans must choose which one they want to pursue. According to one view, the key to prosperity is the state. The policy prescription is, therefore, higher levels of government—more stimulus, more taxes and more borrowing. In line with the second strategy, the source of economic growth is free enterprise. At the least, the policy prescription is for the government not to interfere with entrepreneurs and allow them to succeed. As economist, statistician and writer Milton Freeman, once said in a different context, “we are free to choose.”

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