My kind of town, D.C. is

Washington is a great city. This sentiment might shock my American and libertarian friends, who consider the place a wretched sinkhole of bloated arrogance, destructive politics, horrifying deficits and liberty-destroying anti-Constitutional policies, which they always manage to make sound so tawdry. But it has a really nice free zoo. Where's ours?

It is not a frivolous question. Washington is a city that works. Congress might be a dark star orbiting a twin at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the city has its share of poverty, misery and terrible public schools. But I am enthralled by D.C.'s clean, well-maintained graffiti-free parks, its free museums and zoos, its outstanding subway, and its superb historical monuments and important organizations within comfortable walking distance of each other via about six million Starbucks outlets. D.C. is a great place to visit and the worthy capital of a great nation.

One libertarian colleague did ask me how I could praise a free zoo. Isn't it a classic example of legalized theft, of people in one place taking money from those elsewhere to spend on themselves? Isn't doing so wrong in principle and enormously destructive in practice; once we all seek to better ourselves by beggaring our fellows don't we only accomplish the latter, they cry? I do not dispute the analysis. I think we'd be better off if we were far less willing, or able, to engage in the politics of plunder (and add that not only the American but our own founding principles and Constitution are far less friendly to the practice than we have been led to believe). But spending public money to make the capital glow is an exception.

No, no, put down the smelling salts (and the rocks). I have not turned into one of those nits who thinks politics elevates and unites us. I still occasionally watch question period, you know. It is true, and important, that politics can unite us in moments of great crisis, though I'd far rather live in quiet times when mediocrities in high places can embarrass the nation quietly. But a great capital city is a desirable thing because politics and governance can embody our virtues in a key way.

When a constitution enshrines liberty and procedural fairness, when the laws say and the state insists that citizens may not murder, assault or rob one another, nor meddle patronizingly in their affairs, band together to take away their fellows' goods or freedoms or otherwise use the power of the majority tyrannically, that the state shall not deny, delay or sell justice, and that we shall defend to the death one another's right to responsible liberty, it really does enshrine our devotion to justice and fair play. That does not mean the government must become an agent of compassion; a constitution that says charity shall be private because a generous people care for one another and dependency on public assistance is soul-destroying is also a noble thing in my view.

Government may enforce these virtuous rules inefficiently and obnoxiously, incompletely and stupidly. But nevertheless thou shalt not do murder and thou shalt not steal are highly moral principles and a constitutional order that enshrines and enforces them is a thing to celebrate.

Who are we? Why are we a nation? These questions find expression in our political institutions, our foundational documents and our national capitals. Within walking distance of the White House the Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial commemorates, in a startlingly wild setting, the peculiar 26th president whose legacy includes the creation of national parks and the beginnings of a serious and practical environmental movement. Where else should it be? Should no such thing exist? And where is ours?

It is right that a capital should show off the spirit of a free people. A glorious national capital is obnoxious only when it lies, when it fakes national excellence and good governance rather than reflecting it, as too much monumental architecture does in the Third World (think of Pyongyang's statues or Saddam Hussein's obscene monuments).

So I ask again, who are we? Are Canadians mediocrities, ineffective ditherers, prattling about excellence and compassion while exhibiting neither? Or is it true that "Canada is free and freedom is its nationality" as Sir Wilfrid Laurier boasted?

In Washington I find the existence of free museums and other facilities not a betrayal but a celebration of responsible liberty. I also believe that spirit animated the founders of Canada and appeals to far more of us than the usual suspects would have you believe. So why can't we build a proper light rail system, let alone a Canadian counterpart to the Washington Mall and the proliferation of statues, parks and monuments that make D.C. so great?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson