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Belly of the Beast

June 19, 2001

D.C. Metro SubwayIt is Sunday morning, and the socialist train on which I ride (better known as Amtrak) is slowly moving through Washington, D.C. Out the left window, I see the Capitol, and right at that instant, we descend into a tunnel that is pitch black. Surely this is a prophetic moment.

In a few minutes, the train stops at the Union Station, where I disembark. Not too long ago, this was mostly abandoned and was to be the site of a congressional project that was supposed to portray all of the great things that the federal government has done for Americans. 

We can be thankful that the project was never completed, but for more than a year the station had a huge hole in it and was the laughingstock of D.C.—which, given that this is basically a Third-World city with local politicians providing comic relief, was a major accomplishment in itself. In the end, Congress gave up on its scheme of self-aggrandizement and permitted the station to become a mini-mall where people board their trains and buy food.

Washington is a place where a relatively small number of people conspire to take money from productive people and spread it among those who are unproductive. There are no more unproductive people than the political classes, but their alliance with the news media permits them to be painted as important people who are essential to our well-being.

For example, the national government takes perhaps 30 percent or more of what we produce. Yet, it is difficult to find programs that truly make us better off. To say that current military expenditures can be classified under "defense spending," for example, is to do violence to the word "defense." No one in Serbia threatened our borders or even Americans at all, but that did not stop the U.S. Armed Forces from bombing passenger trains, bridges used mostly by civilians, a television station, and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It was our "defense" tax dollars that financed this outrage, but no one can ever claim that we received any "protection" from foreign enemies by U.S. attacks on Yugoslavia. (In fact, given the long memories of folks in the Balkans, most likely some of us will die at the hands of Serbian "terrorists" seeking revenge. Thus, our military adventures in that part of Europe most likely have made our lives more precarious.)

I was in Washington to attend the annual conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE). For the most part, attendees come from that group of people who believe that Washington spends too much, taxes too much, and regulates too much. Harold Demsetz of UCLA spoke of the government’s antitrust follies—although he stopped quite short of calling for the repeal of all antitrust laws. It seems that the Chicago School of Economics is still tied to the idea that government can improve the "general welfare" by imposing its will upon "predatory monopolies." 

Walter Williams was his usual eloquently blunt self during his luncheon speech, and Justice Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Court of Appeals warned of a "green totalitarianism" foisted upon us by environmentalists. In other words, much of what was said was compatible with what is required for the formation and continuation of a free society. Furthermore, one of the sessions was devoted to the formation of a Web journal that would criticize the pro-statist view of many articles that appear in the "best" journals of the economics profession. 

There were a few statist moments. In a session on education, one of the participants used F.A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty to justify the rat hole known as public education. Many of my friends have criticized Hayek because they believe he "gave away" too much to the government, but this was the first time I have heard someone actually invoke Hayek to justify a failed state enterprise.

Such moments were rare. Unfortunately, we were about the only people in the area who seemed to believe that Washington should go on a starvation diet. Many out-of-towners not there to lobby for more tax dollars for themselves were visiting the city to see the foliage and the buildings. While I can’t imagine spending my valuable spring break in Washington, apparently when it comes to believing in the majesty of the American state, P.T. Barnum was right.

I left the conference and took the Metro back to the Union Station. While waiting for my subway train, I quickly ate a Power Bar, unaware of the rules against eating in Metro stations. A twelve-year-old girl recently had been led away from the station in handcuffs for eating something. Washington, D.C., may have one of the nation’s highest homicide rates, but it is nice to know that the police are catching real criminals like little girls who eat french fries in the subway.

I boarded my Amtrak for the ride home. This particular route, the Crescent, is likely to be on the endangered species list if Congress actually forces Amtrak to give up its subsidies. The passengers I spoke to seemed to believe that this service train is an entitlement like so many other aspects of the welfare state. Even though Bill Clinton signed the law requiring Amtrak to soon give up its subsidies, most are convinced that the whole thing is a plot by George W. Bush to deprive them of something they like.

I must admit to enjoying my train ride. After spending a few hours in a cramped airline seat, it is nice to be able to stretch out or walk to the dining car if I so like. Granted, Amtrak is such a high-cost producer of transportation that if I were actually expected to pay my cost of travel, I would gladly jump back into the cattle-class section of Airtran. 

But for the moment, I was able to relax and enjoy the subsidies that Washington has so "generously" doled out to me. Anyway, the train was quickly taking me away from D.C., and that is always something to celebrate. 

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William Anderson, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. anderwl@prodigy.net. See Anderson's outstanding Daily Article Archive.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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