Pyramids All Over the Place
DECEMBER 01, 1969 by LEONARD E. READ
My encyclopedia explains that, "The true pyramid exists only in Egypt." The reference, of course, is to the familiar pyramidic configuration. Everyone knows that the pyramids of Egypt are pyramids!
But, aside from configuration, what, really, is a pyramid? Reading on, I find that "each monarch built his own pyramid, in which the mummified body might be preserved for eternity from human view and sacrilege and into whose construction went years of time and measureless amounts of material and labor." Here we have our functional cue as to the nature of a pyramid.
A pyramid is a monument to man’s pride built by the coerced labor of others. As with the Egyptian models, the materials and labor must be assembled by extortion if a project is to qualify as a pyramid. The rich man’s mansion or mausoleum, if built at his own expense, is not a pyramid. Nor do Disneyland and Fisherman’s Wharf qualify as pyramids, financed as they are by consumer choice in a free and open market. The Taj Mahal—"It is deemed one of the most beautiful buildings in the world"—is, by functional definition, a pyramid. And it is beautiful only in the sense that beauty may be skin deep. For back of that pretentious facade of marble and jewels is ugliness: slave labor, thousands upon thousands of slaves for many years. It is a pyramid, a monument to the pride of the Mogul Emperor, Shah Jehan.
The impulse to memorialize oneself—a monument to pride—runs strong in many people; but this is of no special concern to others, insofar as it can be satisfied with one’s own resources. That’s the business of the individual and of no one else. But give these individuals power to command the resources of others, and the impulse runs wild, often swelling into boundless activities and assuming all sorts of forms, even to the monumentalizing of silly ideas in which the originators take pride. And this does, indeed, become everybody’s business!
It is easy enough to see that Brasilia, hewed out of wasteland far from where people live and labor, is not a city built in response to the demands of Brazilians in a free and unfettered market. It is no more a response to their aspirations than the Taj Mahal represented a gratification of the slaves who erected it. Brasilia is a pyramid, pure and simple, a monument to the pride of a man who had coercive power over the resources of others—Juscelino Kubitschek.
It is also easy to see that Venezuela’s steel mill is a pyramid. This is a monument to an idea quite as silly as the notion that we in the U.S.A. should grow our own coffee. Were that mill abandoned to the jungle and the steel imported instead, with each worker given severance pay at the rate of his present wage—for the rest of his life, Venezuelans would be money ahead!
Some Home-Grown Examples
Should we not be able to identify just as easily our own pyramids, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Fresno Mall, and a thousand and one other more or less conspicuous structures? Most of the towns and cities in America today can boast of similar monuments to pride!
For instance, every Federal "urban renewal" project is a pyramid. Not one of these "developments" is a response to free and willing exchange. The people who are now forced to pay for these monuments to ideological pride have tended to desert the downtown centers for suburban shopping centers. These "renewals" have been made possible by the power on the part of some to command the resources of others; American citizens have no more volunteered their own income or capital for such projects than the people of Egypt volunteered their resources for one of their pyramids.
Every high-rise apartment in the Federal "slum clearance" program is a pyramid. There are now so many other examples in every city—even in towns—that a local resident would find it difficult to name them all.
Ideas that Enslave
But not every pyramid is made of rock, brick, mortar, steel. Using our functional definition, social security, Medicare, the Federal full-employment program, and countless other ideological innovations are as much pyramids as Brasilia: monuments to man’s pride made possible by the coerced labor of others—the originator’s pride in his ideas!
I repeat, the impulse on the part of so many people to memorialize self—one’s ideas or accomplishments or whatever else—is benign so long as the gratification is achieved solely with one’s own resources. It is harmless, and it is none of anybody else’s business. The harmless memorializing impulse becomes the destructive pyramidic impulse when and only when coercive power over the income and capital—resources—of others is permitted. Grant this power to one and there is no principle by which it can be denied to everyone—as we are now witnessing.
How about granting this coercive power to no one, that is, no special privilege for anyone? That would be fair to everyone. Our pyramids? Why not simply abandon them now as grotesque, unfinished testimonials to the harsh tyranny of the authoritarian way? Let each man build and do as he chooses with his own resources, so long as it’s peaceful, and the result will be as high as any civilization can possibly rise.