What's a Public Purpose?

Column by Paul Hein.

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The next time you’re in Missouri, go to the penitentiary in Jefferson City. As a visitor, of course: a tourist. The penitentiary is now retired from active duty, and its conscriptees confined to a newer facility some distance away. But the original building, grim and grey, is open for tours.

I’ve toured Alcatraz, which held about 500 prisoners at its maximum. The Missouri State Penitentiary held ten times that number, and was already in operation for a century when Alcatraz first opened its doors. Andrew Jackson was President! You might even get the chance to sit in one of the two chairs in the gas chamber. Few have had that opportunity, and even fewer wanted it.

The tours of the state pen are among those being offered visitors to Jefferson City, along with tours of the governor’s mansion (you wouldn’t expect a public servant to struggle along with anything less than a mansion, would you?), the state Supreme Court, and, of course, the Capitol, which a national newspaper voted the “prettiest” Capitol in the country, at least as regards its interior, decorated with murals by Thomas Hart Benton. Externally, the capitol is impressive, being situated on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, with its bronze doors considered the largest cast since Roman times; but it is, perhaps rather unimaginative, being very similar to the Capitol in Washington D.C., as well as a host of European cathedrals, and a goodly number of other state capitols.

The present building is Missouri’s fourth, and the third in the present capital, Jefferson City. It was completed in 1917 at a cost of $3.5 million. Your guide will tell you that the “state” then spent an additional million for art to decorate its new workplace.

Wait a minute! How many corporate executives can construct a magnificent, awe-inspiring (by design, of course) edifice in which to work, and then send the bill to others? And an additional million for art? That interesting bit of information awoke something in my memory, and I went to my copy of the state constitution to refresh it. It’s in Art. X, Sec. 3: “Taxes may be levied and collected for public purposes only . . . .” Isn’t one entitled to wonder how artistic decoration, despite its genuine esthetic value, can be considered a “public purpose”? Did any Missourians in 1917 question the expenditure? Maybe, but I’d be willing to bet they were dismissed as crackpots. For reasons I have never been able to unearth, citizens living under various rulers--local, state, federal--seem genuinely proud that they are compelled to furnish their servants with living and working quarters far more sumptuous than their own. And is it a “public purpose” that these employees be so well provided for, even including the paintings on the wall? Consider the war memorials in Washington D.C. Who paid for them? Need I ask? Do these memorials serve a public purpose--as I’m sure their supporters would argue? Who decides? Why, the very people spending the money decide if it’s being spent for a public purpose, of course. That’s what rulers do: they make rules. And it’s OK, because the Constitution authorizes it--maybe. Of course, the rulers wrote the Constitution, also. And they interpret it. Hmm!

There have been, for many decades, in Jefferson City, men who lived on the wealth of others, which they obtained by trickery, force, or threat of force, against the will of the “contributors.” Those practicing this occupation privately were housed, until recently, in the awesome penitentiary. (Now they’re housed a few miles away.) Those who did it for a “public purpose,” as defined by themselves, pursuant to rules they wrote themselves, were given an awesome palace in which to work, attended by pages and secretaries, and the greatest respect and honor. And for countless generations, the victims of the latter group have found their depredations utterly appropriate and fitting, and the splendor of their offices, somehow, a matter of pride for those plundered victims.

My philosophy professor defined man as a “rational animal.” He might have added that the rationality was rarely employed, and more latent than actual. A visit to Jefferson City should prove that!

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Samarami's picture
    '...There have been, for many decades, in Jefferson City, men who lived on the wealth of others, which they obtained by trickery, force, or threat of force, against the will of the “contributors.” Those practicing this occupation privately were housed, until recently, in the awesome penitentiary. (Now they’re housed a few miles away.) Those who did it for a “public purpose,” as defined by themselves, pursuant to rules they wrote themselves, were given an awesome palace in which to work, attended by pages and secretaries, and the greatest respect and honor. And for countless generations, the victims of the latter group have found their depredations utterly appropriate and fitting, and the splendor of their offices, somehow, a matter of pride for those plundered victims...'

Only a fraction of those "convicted" in white men's "courts" ever used force or threats of force against the will of "contributors". Remember Irwin Schiff? Irwin served a life sentence and died in a place they're calling Fort Wort for merely exposing the men and women living and "working" under those other "awsome palaces" scattered around the world -- the genuine thieves, robbers and muggers.

Many of the others merely defrauded people who willingly, without coercion, played parts in their schemes in hopes of gain.

The new Ironside Hotel in Jeff City is the most expensive in town. Sam