The world is surely a better place for having icons like the Sydney Opera House and Egypt's pyramids. It's much less clear though that it was worth it at the time they were built
While it's now thought that the workers on the pyramids weren't slaves, working conditions were harsh and miserable (Source: Stupid Comics)
Public discussions about big infrastructure projects always attract plenty of participants who're impatient with "petty" concerns like opportunity cost, distributional issues, and formal benefit-cost analysis.
They argue that such worries are small minded and lack vision. Where would be today, they insist, if the mean and unimaginative calculations of bean counters had stopped nation building projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme or the construction of international icons like the Sydney Opera House?
The same question can (and is) asked about a long list of iconic structures like the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the Taj Mahal. The benefits are huge and obvious the argument goes; they seem to tower over what it must've cost to build them. After all, don't we routinely build structures today that're much larger than the Taj Mahal?
Matt Yglesias posed a novel question on Twitter that's an interesting way of looking at these sorts of arguments.
Here's a profound question – do we regret that Ancient Egypt built pyramids?
Unfortunately he doesn't elaborate, but it seems beyond question that the world would be a poorer place today without the pyramids. They're probably the best known architectural structures in the world.
Their historical value is incalculable; the major extant ones date from 2670 BC. They also generate huge tourism revenues and associated employment for Egypt.
But the world of 2,500 BC when the pyramids at Giza were built was not improved by these projects. The cost of construction was astronomical in terms of the resources extracted from the population and diverted from other more productive uses.
There was also the cost in terms of death and injury borne by the 10,000 workers it took to build a pyramid. According to the former director of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, the pyramid workers weren't slaves but nevertheless endured harsh conditions.
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