The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is the least governmentlike building among all the tax-funded monstrosities in the nation’s capital. It was completed in 1897, at the tail end of the greatest period of economic growth in the history of humanity in what was then the world’s most prosperous country, just before civilization was taken down by World War I.
This building is the archetype of Gilded Age culture and confidence. A future of universal peace, prosperity, and learning seemed guaranteed. The captains of industry would replace the kings and dukes of old. The new world would feature a new kind of elite, not government, but business. They would serve society through enterprise. Their leadership in culture and the arts resulted from proven merit. War would be no more. Trade and business would rule the future. All of these themes are apparent in the decor and architecture.
Residents of the city hardly ever go in this building. Tourists, however, love it. I was there with my colleague Doug French to saunter around like a tourist and see it with fresh eyes. The last time I had been there, there was no available Internet. The world was entirely physical apart from localized databases. We lived and breathed paper and ink. We pretty much knew only what we could hold, and if we wanted to know more, we had to find it in the physical world. How did we manage?
We were killing time, waiting for the rest of the people in our party to return from other meetings so that we could meet with Ron Paul following his farewell address to Congress.
In so many ways, this building is a relic of a type of government that we almost can’t imagine today. No expense was spared in construction. Classical themes are everywhere. The slogans on the walls try to capture ancient wisdom and are written with affected Latin lettering and feature characters from Greco-Roman mythology.
There is a beautiful innocence about the whole place. You can discern from this building alone why so many people once believed that government could be part of society, a guardian of the peace and prosperity of the nation. Government in those days seemed to wish us all well, favoring our well-being and prosperity and otherwise leaving us alone. There was no income tax, no central bank, no regulatory agencies, no national police, no passports, and no bureaus. The president was a caretaker, not a demigod.
In a few minutes, we were to meet the last living representative of this point of view, Ron Paul of Texas. In his long career in Congress, he voted against everything, as well he should have. His ideal is pre-WWI. Government should be a night watchman, nothing more. Taxes need to go. The central bank needs to be unplugged. We should get rid of “foreign policy” as that phrase is used today and replace it with global trade managed by private enterprise. He never wavered in his conviction that this is the ideal.
Of course, the Washington, D.C., of today has nothing to do with that ideal.
I was traveling with a fascinating crew. There was French, who loves watching commerce as much as I do. So we talk about the shops, the costs of business, the job of management, the challenges faced by inventory concerns, the tastes of shoppers, the challenges of regulation, and the business cycle. We could do this all day. And we do, when we are fortunate enough to travel together.
It is even true today that Washington, D.C., would be dull and uneventful without its commercial sector. Union Station is a little shopping bazaar. Heading north, once you fight your way through the bureaucracies and come out on the other end, you find fabulous restaurants, bookstores (they still exist), tourist shops, and technology retail stores. I like to think of these capitalist enterprises as good examples of how to make the best of a bad situation.
Other people in our party: Addison Wiggin, the broadly educated and visionary founder of Agora Financial; Ralph Benko, the gold standard advocate who works with Lewis Lehrman and can tell a superengaging story of sound and unsound money starting and ending at any point in human history; John Papola and Lisa Versaci, the creative geniuses behind the Keynes-Hayek video series; and Dominic Frisby, the U.K.’s most interesting short filmmaker and comedian/writer.
They came walking up the sidewalk, and we all took over the Cannon House Office Building. We went into Dr. Paul’s office and heard his voice. But he wasn’t there. He was in the middle of his last speech before Congress, and his staff was watching on the television. There were packing boxes everywhere, because the office was in the process of being vacated. We sat and watched.
Dr. Paul had worked a long time on this speech. When he came to the key passage, he paused and said these words as distinctly as he could: “Our Constitution… has failed.” It was a great moment because, of course, he was precisely right, but who else has said this so clearly? If the Constitution was to restrain government, it didn’t work, obviously. Government won’t restrain itself. It has to be restrained by people. Freedom must seek some other guarantee.
As the speech ended and Dr. Paul was making his way back to the office, I had the opportunity to catch up with Carol Paul and the goings-on with the family.
After a while, Dr. Paul came in, we made the introductions, and the interview began. I had told John before that it would be great if he could film this. He was aghast because he had no equipment with him at that moment. But we all corrected him and said no problem, you have the iPhone 5. He laughed and said he would do his best.
Out came the phone when the interview began, and he immediately swung into his filmmaker role, moving around and shooting like the expert that he is. The results are just fantastic.
Our plan had been to talk about money and banking in light of Laissez Faire’s new edition of The Case for Gold. We stuck to the plan. So minutes after Ron Paul had given a speech with a Jeffersonian sweep, he was back to talking in great detail about the zero interest rate policy, the Bernanke regime, the prospects for complete denationalization, and more. He expressed every confidence that the regime would be replaced with sound money, with or without government’s cooperation.
Following this, we spoke about several new projects that our team is working on and then headed to dinner with friends and some staffers to talk about the future of liberty.
It is common for people who love liberty to think about the past as embodied in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. It represents a world in which government really did seem restrained, a benefactor to the people. But here is the truth: We can’t go back. And we should not go back. As innocent as the classical ideals of the Gilded Age seem, they were the basis from which the imperial-parasite state we know today emerged.
As Dr. Paul said, that system really did fail. The future of liberty has to be about the future of people and their own choices. As Papola put it in his second Keynes-Hayek video, we really do face a choice between top-down and bottom-up social order. Freedom needs to be built by individuals acting outside the scope of government’s control.
Laissez Faire Club
P.S. Laissez Faire has worked fast, as a tribute to Ron Paul, to put his final speech in e-pub and mobi format, free to download for Club members, as a commemoration for his educational role. You can download it now! Just click here.