People who travel the world are drawn to the vast, the splendid, the unique edifices that serve as mementos to the rulers (tyrants, really) of yesteryear. Splendid though they are, the pyramids, palaces and temples never fail to remind me of the backbreaking, often murderous, toil and the extortion of taxes that went into their construction, and I’m surely not the only one to experience mixed feelings when contemplating these timeless wonders. Leaving aside for a moment those marvels that were created to celebrate one deity or another, most of the rest were built with the immortal, even eternal, glory of individual kings, rulers, or princes in mind.
And while we may think that we have long left behind those dark days, the democratically elected rulers of today have their “place in history” in mind as much as any despot of old. Their place in history may rest on a breakthrough piece of legislation, never mind its cost to future generations. It may rest on a celebrated foreign treaty, never mind the long-term consequences. It may rest on an “investment” in public rail, or solar energy, that is in tune with the zeitgeist but will never pay back its cost. In Europe, it may rest on keeping an increasingly shaky union of very different countries together at all cost. And sometimes, in a faint of echo of olden days, it may rest on grandiose buildings schemes whose cost rivals that of medieval palaces, even if they can’t begin to match their historic antecedents’ beauty and craftsmanship.